Gift aid

NOV 26, 2015
The desire to shout love from the rooftops – and to covet that which has been given to others – is as old as time. King Nebuchadnezzar’s 600 BC gift of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to his queen, Amytis, was anything but subtle. Even the tradition of giving a diamond engagement ring spread for reasons of one-upmanship. The first documented example of a diamond ring given to signify betrothal was of that made by Archduke Maximilian of Austria in 1477 for his bride to be, and Europe’s elite – seeing the ring sparkle on Mary of Burgundy’s finger – were soon scrambling to lay their hands on something similar, or something better.

People have given gifts to express affection throughout history, and the stronger the feelings, the grander the gesture. In 1870, German composer Richard Wagner’s wife Cosima woke on Christmas Day (her 33rd birthday) to “Siegfried Idyll”, a gentle piece of music composed for her following the birth of their son, and performed by musicians outside the door to her bedroom. It was the first time the piece had ever been played.

Wealth rather than creative talent, however, is frequently the spring of the most extravagant gestures of love. It was reported in 2005 that Hollywood heavy-hitter Tom Cruise had spent US$20 million on a customised Gulfstream jet as a wedding gift for his pregnant fiancée Katie Holmes, but though the cult of celebrity ensures that many crave the same shoes, bags, jewellery and cars (and aircraft) as their idols, the genuinely discerning prefer to give and receive presents that are one of a kind.

“A truly original gift is one that reflects thoughtfulness and appreciation of the recipient, something that is personal, and reflects their personality and interests,” says Emma Matthew, CEO Asia-Pacific of global luxury concierge service Quintessentially. As an example, Matthew highlights how one Quintessentially member commissioned perfumers Floris London to produce a unique, signature scent for his wife, to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary.

The desire to give personalised gifts has long required the skills of specialist artisans, and the world’s most renowned jewellery houses have played starring roles in many famous love stories. Perhaps the best known is Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s fiery romance, and their penchant for all things Bulgari.

“I introduced Liz to beer, she introduced me to Bulgari,” Burton said, and Taylor was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “I used to get so excited, I would jump on top of him and practically make love to him in Bulgari.” An emerald parure, given by Burton in 1962, was one of her favourite sets. It later sold for more than US$12 million.

Then there’s the fairy tale of the American actress and the European prince. In 1956, Prince Rainier III of Monaco turned to Van Cleef & Arpels for the perfect engagement gift for Grace Kelly. “Relations between the principality of Monaco and Van Cleef & Arpels have always been privileged, particularly with my parents,” said Prince Albert II of Monaco. “They began with the engagement jewels, the splendid pearl and diamond necklace and earrings, that my mother so cherished. This jewellery was witness to the most private moments in Princess Grace’s life.”

Prince Albert continued the family tradition in 2011, when he gifted his South African fiancée, Charlene Wittstock, with the spectacular Océan tiara by Van Cleef & Arpels. Featuring 359 sapphires and more than 850 diamonds, the tiara was designed to honour her background as an Olympic swimmer and reflect her love of the sea.

As the song says, “diamonds are a girl’s best friend”, and they featured prominently in another great love affair of the 20th century. Jeweller Cartier crafted many gifts exchanged between the United Kingdom’s Duke and Duchess of Windsor. David (as he was known to his family and close friends, and who was King Edward VIII before he abdicated the British throne in 1936) and “his Wallis”, an American divorcée and socialite, became noteworthy clients of Cartier, official jeweller to the crown since 1904.

A devotee of Valentino, Dior and Saint Laurent, Wallis Simpson was considered one of Europe’s best-dressed women, and her daring style is reflected in many of the duke’s gifts, including an emerald-and-ruby bib necklace, a tiger lorgnette and a panther brooch featuring a 152.35-carat sapphire cabochon. One of the most iconic tributes to their love was a gem-set bracelet, to which the duchess affixed nine Latin crosses given to her by the duke to commemorate events – some major (their wedding), others trivial. The “appendectomy cross” commemorates the duchess’ surgery for appendicitis in 1944.

Men are notoriously more difficult to buy gifts for than women (or so many women claim). Those who have thought outside the box include Angelina Jolie, who is said to have gifted Brad Pitt with an inscribed motorcycle, an olive tree, and a waterfall and surrounding land on which to build his dream home. Katy Perry reportedly gave fiancé Russell Brand a future trip into space.

While women tend to give female friends presents that they will cherish (Courteney Cox is reported to have given a US$12,000 Chanel bicycle to her Friends co-star Jennifer Aniston), gifts between men can be quirkier. Great pals for years, Robert Redford sent Paul Newman a totalled Porsche for his 50th birthday. Newman sent it back as a compacted block of mangled metal, so Redford had it turned into a sculpture and placed it in Newman’s garden. Did they ever discuss the gifts? “No, that would diminish it,” Redford said in 2008. “The idea was you just never acknowledged it.”

Giving presents that encourage having fun together is perhaps what really defines modern gift giving. “In recent years we have noticed an emphasis on experiential gifts to celebrate the love and union of couples,” says Matthew. “There has been a shift towards gifts that offer a sense of time or an experience to enrich the recipient’s life.”

With their memory-making potential, such experiences can cost the earth (or the moon, as Russian businessman Roman Abramovich would know having reportedly purchased a chunk of the lunar surface for his fiancée in 2008), but they needn’t. A candlelit dinner on a beach near home can be as memorable as taking a helicopter to a private island. The sheer variation, opulence and occasional vulgarity of gift giving is simply a demonstration of humankind’s boundless imagination. Ultimately, the thought still counts.

Words by Laura Miller