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The Onassis Diamonds

The 325-foot the Christina, named after his only daughter, was for years the main residence of Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. The rich, famous and royal were often aboard as guests. Sir Winston Churchill often cruised as the man’s guest (often accompanied by his parakeet – who was lost during one fateful voyage). It was on this yacht in 1957 that he was accompanied by among others, Senor and Senora Battista Meneghini. Sra. Meneghini was known to the world as the already legendary diva, Maria Callas. That was the last time Onassis’ (first) wife Athina (always known as Tina) traveled aboard the boat with her husband. Callas and Onassis became an international romance, until … in 1963 Onassis entertained the two most famous sisters in America, Jackie Kennedy and (Princess Stanislaus) Lee Radziwill aboard the Christina.

Christina Onassis once told me that she wore diamonds at breakfast because ‘they look so pretty in the morning sun. You have no idea how erotic men find dew on the rocks,’ she smiled mischievously.

Jewels – and sex, of course – ran in the Onassis family as deeply and bitterly as scandal and feuds.

Her father, Aristotle Onassis, was an expert on all of them.

A man who approached every woman as a potential mistress, he believed that the diamond was the most reliable currency of love. ‘Even women who won’t take money to go to bed with a man will always settle for carats,’ he told me once.

The young Aristotle Onassis family – son Alexandros (Alexander), born in 1948, his mother Tina, daughter Christina, born 1950 and the man himself age 55. He survived the sacking of Smyrna by the Turks in 1922 by pretending to be 16 and befriended by an infatuated Turkish officer. After a life by his wits in Constantinople, Athens and Naples, he emigrated to Buenos Aires where his charm and business acumen brought him fortune (in tobacco) and international social connections through an Argentine shipping tycoon, Alberto Dodero. By 1940 he was a millionaire, living in New York, later briefly in Los Angeles (where he had a brief affair with Gloria Swanson). At 46, he married for the first time to Tina Livanos, daughter of Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Livanos. The marriage was a kind of revenge to the men who excluded him (including his new father-in-law) from their clubs and business deals. In the mid-50s, the young marrieds, the US Senator Jack Kennedy and his wife cruised aboard the Christina along with Winston Churchill. That time marked the beginning of the end of his marriage to his wife.

Although it was a view that not every woman appreciated, and many claimed to loathe, according to Onassis, there were few who did not succumb when presented with the opportunity.

Even the assumption of carats to come was often aphrodisiac enough for some women.

On the afternoon Jackie Kennedy became his lover while cruising aboard his yacht, the Christina, shortly before Jack Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Onassis, noticing her open jewel case on her dressing-table, was surprised at how few pieces she had, and of how little value they appeared to be. (He had an appraiser’s experienced eye in these matters.)

He immediately called Van Cleef and Arpels in Paris and told them to fly a suitably impressive gift to the yacht. They responded with an $80,000 ($541,716 in today’s money) gold and ruby bracelet.

Maria Callas, Onassis’s long-time mistress, who collected her share of Onassis diamonds, understood her lover better than most women. One evening in Paris, when I was writing his official biography, [Ari: The Life and Times of Aristotle Onassis. Summit/Simon & Shuster, 1986], she told me: ‘Ari’s total understanding of women comes out of a Van Cleef and Arpels catalogue.’

It was more than just a smart remark: it was heartfelt.

These memories came back to me when Athina Onassis, the sole heiress to the Onassis fortune – dubbed ‘the richest little girl in the world’ when, in 1988, her mother, Christina, after four divorces, constant drug problems, and a rift as big as the Ritz with her stepmother Jackie Onassis, died at the age of 37 – recently sold the Onassis family trinkets at Christie’s in London for $16 million (twice the estimate).

Daughter of Christina’s third marriage, to Frenchman Thierry Roussel, Athina was just three years old when her mother was found dead in a bathtub in Buenos Aires, where she had gone to attend a friend’s wedding, and to trace her father’s footsteps – to the Teatro Colon, for example, where he had seen his first opera, La Boheme, and seduced his first famous lady, the Italian soprano, Claudia Muzio – in the city where Onassis had made his first fortune in the 1920s.

Christie’s European head of jewellery, Raymond Sancroft-Baker, said that Athina, now married to the Brazilian equestrian champion, Alvaro Affonso de Miranda, had decided to sell because the pieces were not suitable for her. ‘She’s a young girl and she just doesn’t wear them. She wants to feel comfortable in what she wears,’ he said.

The pieces that made her feel so uncomfortable included a pear-shaped 38-carat diamond, of the purest D color, a 15-carat heart-shaped diamond pendant, a Harry Winston sapphire and diamond necklace, a ring by Graff with a vivid yellow pear-shaped diamond of 4.5 carats, and a Van Cleef and Arpels ruby and diamond necklace.

But could it have been the history of the pieces, rather more than their design, that troubled Athina so much?

Her grandmother, Tina, Onassis’s first wife, after whom Athina was named, was a superstitious woman who believed that jewels possess contagious destinies. ‘With a freshly-cut diamond you don’t inherit somebody else’s life and fate; a new diamond has only the value and the destiny of the life you give to it yourself,’ she told me once.A deeply defensive woman, especially where Onassis was concerned, Tina Livanos Onassis Niarchos was responding to his claim that beautiful women could not bear moderation and always needed an inexhaustible supply of excess.

Although I knew, and liked, her mother and grandmother, I never got to know Athina at all. (The last time I saw her she was lying naked in bed, sucking her thumb. She was six months old.) But it would surprise me if some of her grandmother’s superstition about the contagious destiny of jewels hadn’t rubbed off on her.

Or maybe dew on the rocks just doesn’t do it for her man.

And now, the only surviving descendant of Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, 23-year-old Athina has decided to sell more than 40 pieces owned by her mother, Christina, who died when she was three.

The sale is prompted not by a lack of money - Athina inherited a fortune estimated at anything up to £1 billion - but by her decision that she has no need of what she sees as the glittering accoutrements of a bygone era.

It will, however, be bound to attract further criticism that she has no respect for her family’s past.

Athina fell out with her French father Thierry Roussel when she was young and he failed to attend her wedding in 2005 to Alvaro de Miranda Neto, a Brazilian Olympic showjumper 12 years her senior.

Athina, who as a 10-year-old revealed in a handwritten will that she intended to give her fortune away, was due to take over control of the philanthropic Onassis Foundation founded by her grandfather Aristotle when she turned 21.

However she was blocked by the trustees, who said her connections with Greece were too tenuous.

The jewellery collection has an estimated value of £8 million and is being auctioned on Wednesday. It is on public show at Christie’s in London today.

Highlights include a pear-shaped 38-carat diamond estimated at up to £2.2 million and a ruby and diamond necklace by Van Cleef and Arpels, expected to make up to £40,000.

They were worn by Christina, Onassis’s daughter, to many grand balls and dinners.

The collection also includes a rare Buddha by Carl Fabergé which took pride of place on Onassis’s yacht. That has an estimate of £250,000 to £350,000.

Raymond Sancroft-Baker, Christie’s jewellery expert, said the heiress had decided to sell because the jewellery was not suitable for her.

'She’s a young girl and she just doesn’t wear them. She wants to feel comfortable in what she wears. That era has gone.'

Yet there were still people who would buy and wear such items, particularly at private parties, he added.

'The Americans are very keen and the Chinese more so than they were. If you’ve made millions in China, how are you going to show your wealth?'

He said the last jewellery sale attracted bidders from 28 countries from Norway to Uruguay with no sign of a slump in interest despite world economic problems.

'It’s rather perverse. The last time there was a blip, in the early Nineties, sales held up because [jewellery] has intrinsic value,' he said.

The value of the best flawless diamonds has doubled in the last two years.

'Auctions are a very good place to buy jewellery. It’s difficult to find it cheaper elsewhere.'

Mr Sancroft-Baker welcomed the public to come to view the lots.

'There aren’t many opportunities in London to come and see things in a nice atmosphere without a gorilla looking over your shoulder,' he said.

Other exceptional pieces include a 15.02-carat heart-shaped diamond pendant, estimated at up to £800,000, a ring by Graff with a vivid yellow pear-shaped diamond of 4.15 carats, expected to make up to £120,000, and a Harry Winston sapphire and diamond necklace estimated at up to £150,000.

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The Onassis Diamonds


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