The Curious Case of The Green Pepper

by Lauren De’Ath

“I have a piece of jade that will turn you green with envy!” boasts the English bon vivant.

In 1935 Madame Wellington Koo is sitting across dinner from Sir Victor Sassoon. He owns the Cathay Hotel that haunts Republican Shanghai as one of its most fashionable venues and is eternally surrounded by only the most beautiful Chinese and Western women. Madame Koo loathes him; despite his impeccable kaifeng-cut suit he is poor excuse for a gentleman. Rising to the bait, she replies: “Wait until you see the piece I’ve just bought. It will turn you green with envy.”

Madame Koo remains one of the seven wonders of the fashion world. Fluent in several languages she has lived in Indonesia, Paris, Beijing, London and Washington; been photographed by Horst P. Horst; worn Lucille, Schiaparelli and bejewelled oriental robes to international acclaim, putting Chinese style on the map before retiring from the public eye in the 1970s. But despite owning diamonds the size of an adult fist; a jewellery box boasting Boucheron and Cartier, her great weakness has always been jade. Her fascination is not unique. In 1997 an anonymous collector bid £6million for a piece of fei-cui, the purest of cut of the green stone. Carat-for-carat, it eclipsed sapphires, rubies and even diamonds. It continues to reach astronomical figures at auction two decades later- bowls, earrings and meagre trinkets no more than an inch high reach well over £1 million. Koo and Sassoon bet over $1000 that each of their pieces of jade would beat the other. But why such intensity- just what is the fascination?

Jade arrived to China from Burma in the late 1700s. Mined on a small plot and from ancient tombs, it became the then-Emperor’s obsession; his ‘stones from heaven’. Today the public jade industry has all but disappeared; relegated to official auction houses or private collectors. Vendors are infamous for selling disingenuous ‘old jade’ to clueless American customers eager for an impossible $100 bargain and even in Madame Koo’s day these rogue sellers were rampant. In Beijing (once Peking) there lay a district formerly known as Jade Street. Notoriously closeted, you had to be either an ethnic Manchu or introduced by another high-ranking customer to shop there.

Sellers put their most worthless antiques and junk in the windows in case of theft; the real treasures were locked in the back whilst the tricky retailers would personally hand-select the worthy client to whom he would unlock his real gems including his rarest pieces of jade. In return for a favour, a jade dealer in Peking had permitted Madame Koo to see his piece de resistance: a flawless, translucent jade sculpted into a tiny pepper. The story that came with it was just as magical: a Chinese Emperor had fallen deeply in love with a beautiful Iranian princess. Resituated to Peking as his concubine, she longed for the spices of her country’s cuisine and in particular the green peppers that were endemic to her homeland. To please his great love, the Emperor ordered his finest artisan to carve a replica of her beloved pepper from a perfect cut of jade “so flawless and so clear one could see right through it”[1]. Fast-forward two hundred years and in modern China, escaping government forces, the last Emperor and his wife had fled their palaces with few possessions; including the inherited jade pepper secreted in the belt of his Empress. A fascinating tale of love, royalty and persecution all rolled into one, the allure of this beautiful jade proved too much for Madame Wellington Koo. The fleeing Emperor had demanded over $1million for the tiny treasure; a total worth some $14.5million today. Koo calls it “pin money”.

Needless to say, Madame wins her bet over “the frog of Shanghai” Sir Sassoon. Soon after, she takes her prized jade to Cartier who made it into a pendant with a 25-carat diamond link. Louis Cartier himself was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the pepper that he closed his store until he finished the necklace. The piece was apparently so unique that no price could ever be placed on it. In years to come, Koo was criticised, rather cruelly by Chinese royalist expats and society snobs, as being “jewel-obsessed”. Some even doubted the veracity of the royal pepper, which has been exhibited at the Smithsonian.

Throughout her life it remained locked in her vault in New York City where she amassed a vast quantity of imperial jewels and furniture. She rarely removed her pendant but would visit on occasion to bask in its beauty. On her death she vowed to sell the pepper to split the money amongst her children; whether or not she did remains to be seen. And my search continues.

[1] As quoted by Princess Der Ling in Grant Hayter-Menzies’ ‘Imperial Masquerade: The Legend of Princess Der Ling’ on the “Persian Pepper” as the jade was known when in her care.

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