October 4, 1965, marks an important occasion in the intersection of religion and politics. On this day, Pope Paul VI became the first Pope to address the United Nations, just 20 years after the organization was formed. This landmark event symbolized the importance of the relationship between one of the world’s leading religious figures and the heads of government as Paul VI took the podium to spread his message of peace and acceptance. The importance of this occasion was further highlighted by what is certainly the most important gift from the papacy to the United Nations - a magnificent diamond cross and papal ring.
Upon opening the box in which the cross and ring are held, the receiving members of the U.N. were undoubtedly impressed. In the cross alone, over 60 carats worth of diamonds are set - the largest diamond weighing over eight and a half carats. Accented with Colombian emeralds and intricate gold work, this cross was, and is still, an incredible testament to the wealth of the Catholic Church. The back of the cross is engraved with the Christian Chi Rho symbol and “Cassio” signature, a tell-tale mark of Vatican craftsmen. Not to be forgotten, the ring is just as impressive. It features an Old Mine-cut diamond weighing 13.50 carats, which is surrounded by a halo of white diamonds accents. Rubies are embedded on both sides of the shank — the crimson gemstones take the form of a cross.
The jewels date to the early 20th century and were given as a gift to Pope Pius XII while he was still a cardinal of the Catholic Church. During his tenure as Cardinal, his right hand man was Giovanni Battista Montini, who would become Pope Paul VI. The two maintained a close relationship throughout their careers. After Pius XII died in 1958, Pope John XXIII reigned as Pope, and at some point during his tenure, Pius XII’s ring and cross were gifted to Montini. Montini remained in the Vatican until he was elected Pope Paul VI in 1963.
Pope Paul VI was celebrated for his progressive values and extensive traveling; in fact, he was the first pope to travel to six continents. At the 1965 U.N. General Assembly in New York, Paul VI took the podium and spread his message of peace and acceptance to the participants, stating:
“Our very brief visit has given us a great honour; that of proclaiming to the whole world, from the Headquarters of the United Nations, Peace! We shall never forget this extraordinary hour. Nor can We bring it to a more fitting conclusion than by expressing the wish that this central seat of human relationships for the civil peace of the world may ever be conscious and worthy of this high privilege.”
During his trip to the U.N., he brought the Papal cross and ring as a gift, his wish being that they sell the set and use the proceeds to “alleviate human suffering.” On November 1, 1967, the cross and ring were auctioned by Parke-Bernet Galleries (which was acquired by Sotheby’s in 1964) and purchased by jeweler Harry Levinson. In the auction booklet, which has remained with the set, it was stated that “the proceeds are to be contributed in equal parts to the United Nations Children’s Fund, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and the Freedom from Hunger Campaign.” The sale of the set brought in $64,000, and the money was split accordingly among the four charities. The cross and ring set remained in the hands of private collectors — including daredevil Evel Knievel — until M.S. Rau acquired it. From the Vatican to the United Nations and beyond, this cross has passed through the hands of many important historical figures. Not often are pieces from the Vatican available for the public to handle much less purchase, and the significance of a piece that has been owned by three popes can not be understated.