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Style maven Jayne Wrights­man’s as­cent to the top of the so­cial lad­der

In Fe­bru­ary 1961, months af­ter John Fitzger­ald Kennedy had been elected pres­i­dent of the US, the Amer­i­can pub­lic was set abuzz with ex­cite­ment by an all-new de­vel­op­ment in the po­lit­i­cal arena: The dras­tic restora­tion of the White House, which trans­formed it into a wel­com­ing, laid-back en­vi­ron­ment where cock­tails were served and mu­si­cians per­formed on a por­ta­ble stage. The undis­puted star at­trac­tion of the ren­o­vated space was its op­u­lent an­tique fur­ni­ture, which had been care­fully selected and curated by a Fine Arts Com­mit­tee formed for the oc­ca­sion. Gilded plush chairs filled the room, while lav­ish chan­de­liers hung from the ceil­ing and an­tique wallpaper pan­els de­pict­ing the coun­try’s land­scape and scenes from the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War cov­ered the walls.

The re­vamp was so well-re­ceived it prompted peo­ple to do­nate their fam­ily heir­looms and many lauded then-first Lady Jac­que­line Kennedy Onas­sis for her ef­forts in spear­head­ing the project. But lesser known was her men­tor Jayne Wrights­man, whose keen eye for art and con­nec­tions with famed de­sign­ers such as Stéphane Boudin were in­stru­men­tal to the project’s suc­cess.

A slim, at­trac­tive brunette, Wrights­man was mar­ried to oil ty­coon Charles Wrights­man (she of­ten went by his last name) and sat on the Fine Arts Com­mit­tee, where she played a key role in li­ais­ing with de­signer Dorothy Mae “Sis­ter” Par­ish on the ren­o­va­tions. She also roped in Boudin, who had once de­signed in­te­ri­ors for the royal fam­i­lies of Iran and Bel­gium, as an ad­di­tional dec­o­ra­tor. Pre­fer­ring to stay out of the lime­light, Wrights­man was mod­est about her in­volve­ment in the high-pro­file en­deav­our and let Onas­sis be the face of the project. She and her hus­band had be­friended the Kennedys in the early 1960s, when the Kennedys were fre­quent vis­i­tors to their Palm Beach home. Ac­cord­ing to a 2003 Van­ity

Fair in­ter­view with Leti­tia Baldrige, Onas­sis’ for­mer so­cial sec­re­tary, the two women weren’t ex­actly “warm, cosy friends” but got along very well.

She was a close friend of Jac­que­line Kennedy Onas­sis and was revered for her cov­eted art col­lec­tion. But be­hind the glitzy fa­cade, who ex­actly was Jayne Wrights­man? Sara Yap finds out more about the elu­sive style maven who in­spired this pho­to­shoot

AS­CENT TO THE TOP De­spite her glitzy as­so­ci­a­tion with that era’s po­lit­i­cal power cou­ple and a rolodex of in­flu­en­tial friends the likes of diplo­mat Henry Kissinger, phi­lan­thropist Brooke

As­tor and the late fash­ion de­signer Os­car de la Renta, Wrights­man’s per­sonal life re­mained a mys­tery to ev­ery­one she knew. She was fiercely pri­vate about her past and rarely gave in­ter­views to the me­dia. Born

Jane Kirk­man Larkin on Oc­to­ber 21, 1919 in Flint, Michi­gan, she grew up with three other sib­lings. Not much is known about her par­ents, but ac­cord­ing to a Van­ity Fair re­port, town records reveal that her fa­ther, Fred­er­ick Larkin, was pres­i­dent of a con­struc­tion com­pany. In the 1930s, Wrights­man, her mother and sib­lings re­lo­cated to Los An­ge­les. Her mother be­came an al­co­holic and spent most of her time at night­clubs.

Left to fend for her­self, Wrights­man be­gan work­ing right af­ter she grad­u­ated from high school and tried her hand at var­i­ous trades, rang­ing from re­tail to mod­el­ling and act­ing. In­de­pen­dent, beau­ti­ful and ef­fort­lessly stylish, it wasn’t long be­fore she caught the eye of the Hol­ly­wood “in crowd” — in­clud­ing play­boys, as­pir­ing film pro­duc­ers and rising stars such as Cary Grant and Ge­orge Ran­dolph Scott — and be­came part of their clique. In 1944, she met and mar­ried her hus­band, a wealthy oil ex­ec­u­tive and tour­na­ment polo player who had re­cently di­vorced his first wife.

Their mar­riage marked a turn­ing point for Wrights­man, as her hus­band set his eyes on a new goal: Get­ting them both in­ducted into the in­ner sanc­tum of high so­ci­ety. He hired teach­ers and cu­ra­tors to ed­u­cate her on art, the French lan­guage and any other skills he found cru­cial to fit­ting in with the elite. A quick learner, Wrights­man mas­tered French and dis­cov­ered her knack for in­te­rior dec­o­rat­ing. She be­friended Boudin in the early 1950s and, un­der his guid­ance, de­vel­oped her flair for the craft.

Over the next years, the cou­ple bought homes in Florida’s Palm Beach and New

York, and be­gan amass­ing an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion that in­cluded French 18th-cen­tury fur­ni­ture and paint­ings by renowned artists Jo­hannes Ver­meer, Peter Paul Rubens and Jac­ques-louis David. That, along with their friend­ship with the Kennedys, pro­pelled them into the up­per ech­e­lon of the jet-set. In the late 1970s, the Wrights­mans do­nated sev­eral works and fur­ni­ture to the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art, ce­ment­ing their rep­u­ta­tions as se­ri­ous col­lec­tors. Today, th­ese items can be found at the mu­seum’s Wrights­man Gal­leries for French Dec­o­ra­tive Arts.

Other than her as­tute choices in art col­lect­ing, there was some­thing else that set Wrights­man apart from oth­ers in her so­cial cir­cle: Her im­pec­ca­ble sar­to­rial sense. She favoured sim­ple and chic sil­hou­ettes that pro­vided a clean back­drop to her glit­ter­ing jew­ellery. It was only in a 1966 shoot by cel­e­brated pho­tog­ra­pher Ce­cil Beaton that she wore some­thing more over-the-top: A Ba­len­ci­aga pink os­trich-plume silk dress cov­ered in lay­ers of fringe. The gown would have over­whelmed her, if not for her dainty di­a­mond ear­rings that drew at­ten­tion to her clas­sic beauty. In 1965, Van­ity Fair ac­knowl­edged her im­mac­u­late style by in­clud­ing her in its In­ter­na­tional Best Dressed List, an an­nual ranking of the world’s top style­meis­ters.

Wrights­man’s de­sire for elu­sive­ness and pri­vacy ex­tended to her spec­tac­u­lar jew­ellery col­lec­tion, which re­mained un­der the radar un­til 2012, when some 63 pieces were put up for auc­tion at Sotheby’s Mag­nif­i­cent Jew­els from the Col­lec­tion of Mrs Charles Wrights­man sale in New York. The jew­els per­formed well, achiev­ing US$15,541,188 — much higher than the ini­tial es­ti­mate of $9 mil­lion — and an im­pres­sive 95.2 per­cent of the items was sold. Her taste was eclec­tic, rang­ing from el­e­gant and clas­sic jew­ellery cov­ered with di­a­monds, to flam­boy­ant cre­ations be­decked with pre­cious stones such as emer­alds and coral. Among her go-to jew­ellers were Cartier, Bul­gari, Ver­dura and JAR.


Ever the classy fash­ion­ista, Wrights­man adored di­a­monds and pearls, es­pe­cially on brooches. Dur­ing a 1953 ball or­gan­ised by

gos­sip colum­nist Elsa Maxwell, she wowed in a white lace strap­less gown ac­cented by an op­u­lent di­a­mond-stud­ded pin. An eye-pop­ping brooch was also the pièce de ré­sis­tance of her at­tire in a 1960s por­trait of her and her hus­band in their sump­tu­ous Palm Beach home.

One of her most prom­i­nent brooches is an ex­quis­ite sil­ver-topped-gold and di­a­mond bow pin dat­ing back to 1850 and for­merly owned by HRH Princess Ma­rina, Duchess of Kent (who had re­ceived it from her mother, the Grand Duchess

Elena Vladimirovna of Rus­sia). The brooch is cen­tred by an oval-shaped di­a­mond (ap­prox­i­mately 3.50ct) and its del­i­cate folds are stud­ded with smaller pear-shaped and old mine-cut sparklers weigh­ing around 64.25ct in to­tal. It was worn to the coro­na­tions of King Ge­orge VI in 1937 and Queen El­iz­a­beth II in 1953. How Wrights­man pro­cured this jewel is un­known; but with its rich im­pe­rial his­tory, it is un­doubt­edly one of the key high­lights of her col­lec­tion.

Also note­wor­thy is a 1910 Belle Épo­questyled plat­inum cor­sage or­na­ment fes­tooned with nat­u­ral salt­wa­ter pearls and over 46ct of di­a­monds in­clud­ing cush­ion-cut, rose­cut and pear-shaped sparklers. So cov­eted was this piece dur­ing the Sotheby’s auc­tion that it sparked in­tense com­pe­ti­tion be­tween seven bid­ders be­fore sell­ing for a stag­ger­ing $2,042,500 — well above its es­ti­mated price of be­tween $800,000 and $1.2 mil­lion — to emerge as the top lot of the sale. The sec­ond high­est sum of $1,874,500 went to a dainty plat­inum brooch com­pris­ing a nat­u­ral grey pearl framed by old Euro­pean and mine-cut di­a­monds.

Other gor­geous de­signs in­clude a stunning Ver­dura brooch drip­ping with round and mar­quise di­a­monds and cul­mi­nat­ing in a de­tach­able cul­tured pearl, and a time­lessly el­e­gant JAR four-strand pearl bracelet fash­ioned in 18k gold and black­ened sil­ver with a di­a­mond-en­crusted clasp.


Wrights­man also had a pen­chant for vivid gem­stones such as emer­alds, sap­phires, ru­bies and coral. One of her stand­out jew­els is a

bold and beau­ti­ful Bul­gari neck­lace in 18k gold and adorned with five emerald beads spaced by ron­delles mounted with some 11.75ct of square-cut di­a­monds. She was spot­ted in this eye-catch­ing cre­ation when she at­tended a fash­ion show by de­sign­ers Os­car de la Renta and Carolyne Roehm on Novem­ber 1, 1989 at New York City’s Plaza Ho­tel. Clad in a smart blue dress that ac­cen­tu­ated the glo­ri­ous green of her emer­alds, she stood out from the ritzy crowd, which in­cluded cos­met­ics mag­nate Estée Lauder and model Iman Mo­hamed Ab­dul­ma­jid.

An­other strik­ing item in her col­lec­tion is a quirky Cartier brooch set in plat­inum and 18k gold, and crafted to re­sem­ble a tur­tle with a carved emerald shell. The cen­tral emerald is sur­rounded by glit­ter­ing mar­quise and pear-shaped ru­bies, as well as al­most 3ct of round di­a­monds. Equally lust-wor­thy is an in­tri­cate pea­cock feather brooch made of sil­ver-topped-gold. Dat­ing back to 1860, it is com­posed of a fancy-cut cen­tral sap­phire framed by 15 cal­i­bré-cut emer­alds and a mix­ture of old mine-, Euro­pean- and rose­cut di­a­monds.

Other high­lights in­clude a pair of Cartier plat­inum ear clips, which is be­decked with di­a­monds (in var­i­ous cuts such as emerald, baguette and square) as­sem­bled in chevron mo­tifs be­fore cul­mi­nat­ing in a vi­brant emerald, as well as a show­stop­ping rosary with 70 emerald beads and a pen­dant set with di­a­monds and five dou­ble-cabo­chon emer­alds. The rosary was once owned by Princess Maria Anna of Bavaria, who was Queen Con­sort of Sax­ony from 1836 to

1854, and is tes­ta­ment to Wrights­man’s predilec­tion for royal jew­els.

Apart from emer­alds, Wrights­man was par­tial to pre­cious stones such as sap­phires and coral. Some of her most strik­ing pieces in­clude a pair of JAR ear clips with di­a­monds and vel­vety su­gar­loaf cabo­chon sap­phires, a turquoise bead neck­lace set in 18k white gold and a flam­boy­ant Suzanne Belper­ron tiered neck­lace with dan­gling coral, onyx and di­a­monds. The lat­ter was ti­tled Wilt­ing Hi­bis­cus and com­prised tiers of coral beads carved to re­sem­ble flo­ral mo­tifs.


While she wasn’t one to shy away from ex­trav­a­gant state­ment pieces, Wrights­man also ap­pre­ci­ated cleaner, sim­pler de­signs set in yel­low gold. Th­ese range from a Tif­fany & Co. 18k openwork gold neck­lace with a Rus­sian or­tho­dox cross pen­dant to a Bul­gari gold chain con­sist­ing of al­ter­nat­ing open cir­cle and coiled links. She also has a del­i­cate Cartier neck­lace in­spired by Is­lamic and Moor­ish ar­chi­tec­ture which is com­posed of gold beads, open scroll­work charms and an in­tri­cate openwork pen­dant.

Also no­table is a 1975 Van Cleef & Ar­pels 14k gold mir­ror ac­com­pa­nied by a re­splen­dent gold and di­a­mond evening clutch. Wrights­man car­ried a sim­i­lar gold bag when at­tend­ing econ­o­mist Alan Greenspan’s star-stud­ded en­gage­ment party in 1997 and at the 1989 open­ing of a Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled Canaletto, where she was the pic­ture of ef­fort­less so­phis­ti­ca­tion in a black dress and glit­ter­ing gold neck­lace.

Now 95, Wrights­man still keeps a low pro­file and prefers to let her con­tri­bu­tions to the world of art speak for her. But one thing is cer­tain: Her as­cent to be­com­ing one of New York so­ci­ety’s grande dames and lead­ing art col­lec­tors is a re­mark­able tale. With this rich legacy, she will cer­tainly be re­mem­bered for gen­er­a­tions to come.

Snowf la ke neck lace in plat­inum with 361 di­a­monds (32.13ct); a nd Snowf la ke bracelet in plat inum wit h 195 dia monds (22.17c t), f rom Van Cleef & Ar­pels Rayon-blend jacket, t r iac­etate­blend pe­plum top, and ray­on­blend sk i r t, f rom Ba­len­ci­aga

Se­cret Won­der di­a­mond Y-neck lace in plat inum (80.5ct); Se­cret Clus­ter la rge di­a­mond ban­gle in plat­inum (37.62ct); a nd Se­cret Clus­ter r uby and di­a­mond drop ea r r ings, from Harr y Win­ston Si l k blend dress, f rom Ba­len­ci­aga

Sca rlet Cal l ia ndra brooch wit h ta­per-c ut r ubies (4.471ct) and di­a­monds (1.747ct), from Cara­tel l; Par­rot brooch with g reen ga r nets (0.03ct), r ubies (0.48ct) a nd yel low sap­phires (0. 36ct); a nd Tor toise r ing wit h g reen ga r nets...

Evening bag in 18k gold and di­a­monds wit h a mir­ror in 14k gold, from Van Cleef & Ar­pels, circa 1975

From lef t: A pic t ure of Jay ne Wrights­man at her home in Pa l m Beach, Flor ida, where she is sta nd­ing in f ront of Ver­meer’s Port rait of a Young Woman; Ver­dura brooch with round and mar­quise di­a­monds and ba roque pea rl; Mag­nif icent plat inum,...

Pan­golin pen­dant in 18k yel low a nd black gold wit h jade, dia monds (2.4 05ct) and pur ple sap­phire (0. 398ct), from Cara­tel l; Emerald r ing in 18k white gold wit h white di­a­monds (2.53ct) and emera ld ea r r ings in 18k white gold wit h dia monds...

This page: High Jewel ler y col le c t ion neck l ace i n white gold set wit h dia monds (4 6.59ct); a nd High Je wel ler y col lec t ion ea r r ings in white gold set wit h dia monds (16ct), both from Chopard Vis­cose-blend toga dress, from Lanv...

From left: Jayne Wrights­man and Gil­bert Miller at Elsa Maxwell’s Paris Ball; An emerald rosary once owned by Princess Maria Anna of Bavaria; A spe­cialorder Cartier brooch with di­a­monds, ru­bies and a carved emerald

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