Glittering with 178 diamonds, strung with 12 lustrous South Sea pearls and mounted on sparkling platinum, the necklace is a thing of dazzling beauty.
And its wearer, Diana, Princess of Wales, certainly dazzled the world when she debuted the stunning piece at a production of Swan Lake on June 3, 1997.
Gliding through the foyer at the Royal Albert Hall in a sequinned turquoise Jacques Azagury dress, the Princess stunned onlookers with her confidence and grace – and no-one could take their eyes off the mesmerising jewels around her neck.
It turned out to be Diana’s last official engagement before her death, ensuring the necklace — part of a matching set known as the ‘Swan Lake Suite’ made by British jeweller Garrard — became an iconic piece of jewellery with a price tag spiralling beyond seven figures.
It’s believed to be the fifth most expensive piece of jewellery ever worn by a royal and — second only to her wedding day — one of the most-photographed appearances Diana made.
The last necklace Princess Diana ever wore to a public engagement is set to go on sale
Diana wore the pearl necklace to a production of Swan Lake at the Royal Albert Hall
What happened to it after that night, however, was the subject of much rumour and speculation — which has once again reared its head as the necklace, now owned by the Ginzburgs, a prominent Ukrainian family, is put up for auction in New York, where it’s predicted to raise between £4million and £12million at a sale next month.
So what’s the true story of the necklace that entranced the world?
Speaking exclusively to the Daily Mail, Evelyne Poumellec, head of jewellery design at Garrard between 1996 and 1998, says the piece was the product of private discussions between the Princess and David Thomas, Crown Jeweller at the time, several months earlier.
‘In early March 1997, I was given clear instructions: it was urgent, I had to drop everything else I was working on, and it was to remain confidential,’ she says.
‘I was given seven pearls [the finished necklace holds 12] to create a necklace and earrings for a princess. Of course, we did not mention names, but I was fully aware of who this might be for.’
Evelyne, now living in France as an artist, recalls working ‘feverishly’ to get the necklace completed in time for the event — a moment so significant, she believes, because the newly-divorced Princess was eager to show her independence by wearing jewellery she had chosen; not borrowed from the Crown.
The necklace is now owned by a Ukrainian family who are selling it in New York
The stunning jewellery set made for Princess Diana and reputed to have been a gift by Dodi Al-Fayed is expected to sell for between £4million and £12million
The pear necklace is made of 178 diamonds and five matching South Sea pearls
She says: ‘I remember clearly sitting at my desk with those same pearls as those on the final necklace in front of me. I did not speak to Diana but I knew who I was designing for. I researched photos of her neck and shoulders to help me complete the design.
‘I am very used to working quickly; often, I do sketches before I find the main theme but in this case it was quick.’
The necklace was made deliberately to represent the Princess’s modern take on fashion.
‘It has movement by having one row at the back, allowing the wearer flexibility,’ Evelyne says. ‘It reflects modernity against a backdrop of formal jewellery; it is classic yet fashionable.’
Unable to resist adding a personal touch, she even designed the necklace with a hidden detail.
‘The necklace is based on a reversed tiara and [the style mimics] when you write by hand lots of letter Es joined together. E is the first initial of my name, designed by me and fit for a princess.’
The entire workshop at Garrard, she adds, was ‘overjoyed’ to be working on a piece for Diana.
Once the design was approved, a huge team worked at speed to complete it in time for the opening night of Swan Lake, the day when it was presented to Diana to wear.
Evelyne says she was ‘immensely proud’ to see her design being worn by such an icon.
But it was short-lived. Contrary to some reports, Diana never actually owned the necklace — nor did she intend to purchase or keep it after the event.
Diana’s midi length tank dresses became a key part of her wardrobe. She wowed in a blue midi dress by Jacques Azagury for a performance of Swan Lake in 1997
It has been reported that Dodi Fayed, who was in a relationship with the Princess at the time of her death, may have been interested in purchasing the entire suite as a romantic gesture but this is unconfirmed
The Ukrainian couple who own the necklace of diamonds and pearls now wants to cash in on its status and have set an asking price of £9.6million
Following the ballet, as was custom, Diana returned the necklace to David Thomas at Garrard, who paired it with a set of matching earrings, which hadn’t been finished at the time of the ballet, to make the set complete.
It has been reported that Dodi Fayed, who was in a relationship with the Princess at the time of her death, may have been interested in purchasing the entire suite as a romantic gesture but this is unconfirmed.
Royal insiders suggest that it is unlikely because Dodi didn’t start dating Diana until several weeks after the Swan Lake performance.
In fact, the performance was sponsored by Mohamed Al-Fayed, who had dinner with Diana in a box at the Albert Hall afterwards.
It was during this dinner that she accepted his invitation to spend the summer aboard his yacht in St Tropez — where she would meet Dodi.
Instead, as Evelyne recalls, to the great disappointment of the craftsmen and women at Garrard, she never had the opportunity to wear the necklace again, or the matching earrings, before her death in August 1997.
According to Thomas, the Swan Lake suite was ‘held at Garrard’ until 1998, when the jeweller sought permission — as a courtesy — from Diana’s sister, Lady Sarah McCorquodale, to include the necklace in a tribute fashion exhibition in Shropshire.
Diana’s was regularly spotted in pearls, including while wearing this Catherine Walker black halter neck dress in 1994
The necklace was designed especially for Diana in the months leading up to the ballet in 1997
In a letter from the time, she adds that she would be ‘very happy’ for Garrard to auction or sell the necklace privately.
They did so soon afterwards. It was sold for an undisclosed sum to a wealthy British man, who kept the necklace for a year before selling it.
It is claimed his wife, once she learned of its provenance, refused to touch the necklace as a mark of respect to Diana and her tragic death.
He sold it — through auctioneer Guernsey’s — to American businessman Jim McIngvale for just under £800,000.
McIngvale, a retail magnate based in Houston, Texas, bought the jewels for his daughter to wear on her wedding day.
A decade later, in 2010, at the height of the financial crisis, he too decided to sell them — and the matching set was purchased for £458,569 by the Ginzburg family, real estate magnates in Ukraine.
Thirteen years on, the Swan Lake suite is changing hands once again. With little likelihood of any of the Princess’s other jewellery going on public sale, Guernsey’s, who are once again overseeing the forthcoming sale, say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own a piece of royal history — if you’ve got several million to spare.
This time, however, the cause is something that would likely have been close to Diana’s heart: a portion of the proceeds will go towards the rebuilding of war-torn Ukraine.