The Secrets of a Spy’s Jewellery

15 November 2015

As a biographer I hope to get under the skin of my subjects, to trace their emotions, hopes and attitudes, as well as their words and deeds. Often it is the smallest things that provide the most personal insights; a postscript on a letter, the view from a window, or the choice of jewellery worn.

My research into Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of the Second World War, took me to Poland. One afternoon in Warsaw I met Maria, the niece of Krystyna’s one-legged, special agent lover, Andrzej Kowerski. As well as medals, photos and papers, Maria had brought along three pieces of jewellery. The first was a red coral necklace. I imagine it being a gift to Krystyna before the war. As a rather bored countess she would often ski, sometimes smuggling cigarettes for kicks, over the high Zakopane mountains where such coral is traditionally worn. It is easy to imagine her heart pounding beneath these beads. 

Then came a beautiful gold and ivory cube that unfolded into a bracelet – a love-token bought for her by Andrzej when they were both posted to Cairo during the war. Having never seen the bracelet in photographs, I wonder whether she kept it, rather like her lover, close to her only when required. The last piece was a simple wooden bangle. ‘Try them all on’, Maria urged. Sadly my wrist was too large for the bangle. For all her great courage and strong will, Krystyna must have been physically very slight.

As the beads and bracelet warmed on my skin, I thought about two other pieces of Krystyna’s jewellery that have not survived. Once, when captured in Nazi-occupied Poland, she broke the thread of a cut-glass necklace, a gift from another lover, to save her life with the precious ‘diamonds’. But the only piece of jewellery she really cared about was her family signet ring, made of gold with a slice of steel embedded in it. This she wore throughout the war, and chose to display in her only known portrait. Appropriately for such an independent, freedom-loving woman, it was not gifts from men, but her own name and honour that she chose to wear proudly. That ring is now lost, but perhaps that is fitting too. I am not sure who else could rightly wear it.