The Real Treasure Amidst The Glittering Jewels

by Reema Farooqui

The Story of Mrs. Flora Sassoon

This past week has been punctuated by end-of-year jewellery auctions all over the world. These mid-December auctions are something jewellery lovers look forward to all year, because some of the most interesting and beautiful jewellery lots come up for offer. I scour these auctions for natural pearl jewellery pieces. There is nothing like a prestigious auction to find breathtaking examples of antique and vintage pieces adorned with exceptional natural pearls.

I was particularly looking forward to Sotheby’s December Fine Jewels Auction in London (December 17th, 2020) and on perusing the catalogue, I was not disappointed. There is a pair of exceptional pearl and diamond Suzanne Belperron brooches, a pair of very fine natural pearl and diamond drop-earrings and a mouth watering silver gray cultured Tahitian pearl and diamond Parure by Fred, and I’m just touching the tip of the proverbial pearl ice berg here.

However, it was the jewellery formerly from the collection of Mrs. Flora Sassoon (1859-1936) that really spoke to me. One lot after another, each piece was lovely and said so much about the woman who had chosen these pieces more than a century ago. More than the jewellery, I was intrigued by the woman herself. So, I decided to dig a little deeper and I really, really liked what I discovered.

Mrs. Flora Sassoon

Flora (or Farha) Gubbay, who later came to be known as Mrs. Sassoon, was born in Bombay (present day Mumbai), India, in 1859 to an incredibly affluent Orthodox Jewish family. She grew up in a household that valued education for women and while she attended a Catholic School in Bombay, she and her siblings received extensive private tutoring from rabbis about sacred Jewish texts and Jewish philosophy. This sparked a lifelong love of scholarship in Flora, especially for Eastern manuscripts and Jewish texts.

When she was fourteen years old, she married Solomon Sassoon, a scion of the Sassoon dynasty, and in time, the couple had three children, a boy and two girls. Mrs. Flora Sassoon soon came to be known as one of the most popular hostesses in Bombay. She enjoyed holding lavish parties and was widely fêted for her hospitality. Sadly, when Solomon passed away in 1894, Flora took over his business while also raising their three children.

In the early 1900s, Flora moved to Britain, where she made Hove her home. In Britain, her reptation as a hostess followed her and it wasn’t long before she started entertaining her new friends in the same manner as she had done in India. However, she also started looking for good works to sponsor and here her philanthropic side really started to shine. Not just in and around Hove and Brighton, but in many other countries as well, Flora’s generosity helped countless people. In fact, if any member of the Sephardi or Eastern Jewish communities facing financial difficulties applied to her, Flora did not hesitate to help them.  

So, why am I sharing this here? Because Mrs. Flora Sassoon was an extraordinary person-a smart business woman, a famous socialite, a brilliant scholar and a generous philanthropist. Yes, she held massive parties and was known for being a very successful hostess. Yes, she loved fine jewellery and was often seen wearing a seven strand natural pearl necklace. However, that was not the only thing that she was known for. Flora spoke to me not as a socialite from almost a hundred years ago but as a woman whose personality, strength of character and brilliance shone through her business acumen, her scholarship and her philanthropy. Plus, it didn’t hurt that her taste in jewellery was also totally on-point!

Featured Image: Lot 3, Natural Pearl, Diamond and Enamel Pendant Necklace, Circa 1900

For more information on Mrs. Flora Sassoon, please visit Jewish Women’s Archive at www.jwa.org

All images used in this post are the property of Sotheby’s. Any person or organization not affiliated with Sotheby’s may not use, copy, alter or modify any of the images used in this post, without the advance written permission of Sotheby’s.

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