An early 20th century diamond and platinum ring formerly the property of business woman, philantrophist, Jewish scholar and famed hostess, Mrs Flora Abraham Sassoon (1856-1936), of the legendary Sassoon dynasty, is to be sold by Mayfair-based auction house Noonans
on Tuesday, September 13, 2022 in a sale of Jewellery, Watches and Objects of Vertu. It is estimated to fetch £20,000-30,000 the beautiful ring was passed on to Floras eldest daughter, Rachel Sassoon Ezra (Lady Ezra) and thence by family descent to the current vendors. .
Frances Noble, Associate Director and Head of Jewellery at Noonans commented: In the 19th century, the Sassoon dynasty were known as the 'Rothschilds of the East - Mrs Flora Abraham Sassoon played a significant role at the end of the 19th century in the companys history, as the first Jewish woman to lead a global business. She was indeed a remarkable woman in so many ways, and we are delighted to be sharing her fascinating story more widely, through the sale of her exquisite diamond ring.
Born in Bombay in 1856, her father was Ezekial J. Abraham, a trader and businessman who had moved from Baghad, Iraq to Bombay. Her mother was Aziza Sassoon, the eldest daughter of Albert David Sassoon, and granddaughter of David Sassoon (1792-1864), founder of the Sassoon dynasty, who had set up a merchant-trading empire in Bombay, Shanghai and London, which was to become one of the greatest business dynasties of the 19th century. Flora (or Farha as she was known in India) was the eldest of 12 children, six sons and six daughters. Thanks to the belief amongst the Baghdadi Jews in Bombay in the importance of educating their daughters as well as their sons, Flora and her siblings received an excellent education, and by the age of 17 she was a confident assertive young woman, well versed in Hebrew, Aramaic, Hindustani as well as English, French and German. She was also extremely knowledgeable about Jewish texts and sources.
In 1876 Flora married Solomon Sassoon (1841-1894), the seventh son of David Sassoon. Solomon served as head of David Sassoon & Co., running the Bombay office, whilst holding significant roles in numerous organisations held by the Sassoon family. Living in Bombay, Flora involved herself with her husbands businesses, Solomon often seeking her advice on company matters. Their marriage seemed remarkably equitable by the standards of the time, her outgoing personality complementing her husbands modest and unassuming character. While raising their three children, Rachel, David and Mozelle, Floras role included entertaining as a grand hostess. She was, for her part, comfortable with the rich and powerful men she regularly hosted at their home, from Indian royalty to senior British officials, able to talk freely with them and put them at ease . (Joseph Sassoon).
In 1894, Solomon died, and Flora, having learned the ins and outs of the business in the two preceding years before her husbands death, proposed that she was ready to take over his duties. Initially the Sassoon family were not happy with the idea - no woman had ever run a global company before. However, Albert Sassoon, effectively still head of the Indian branch, was himself in fragile health. His three brothers Reuben, Arthur and Edward now lived in London, and were too enmeshed in English society to return to Bombay. Flora was self-evidently competent and essentially already in charge of the companys business in Asia. Therefore, despite the familys misgivings, they acquiesced. Flora, at the age of 38, wasted no time in immersing herself in the role, quickly impressing her colleagues with her attention to detail and retentive memory. By the end of 1894, Flora was admitted as a full partner to all the offices of David Sassoon & Co., - India, China and England - she was the first woman in the companys history to be named a partner. Her efficiency and re-organisation of the Sassoon business based in Bombay proved impressive, and Floras reputation started to attract international attention. When the US General Consol to Singapore visited India to study its cotton industry, he turned to Flora to afford him assistance and information (Joseph Sassoon). Despite the huge work load, and raising her three children, Flora still found the time to continue her philanthropic and charitable work for Jewish communities in India and abroad. Following a serious outbreak of cholera in Bombay she became actively involved in the development of an effective vaccine, volunteering herself to be one of the first to be inoculated.
By the final years of the 19th century, world trading conditions were changing, and the Company was facing new challenges. In 1896 with the death of Albert Sassoon (1818-96 ), the London branch started pressing for total control of the business. By 1901 Floras directorship had been rescinded and the London operation was now managed by Frederick Sassoon as Chairman and Arthur, Reuben and Frederick as Directors. Flora announced her retirement, making the decision to leave Bombay for London, taking her children with her, and also hoping to find medical help for her disabled daughter Mozelle.
Flora moved to Londons fashionable Mayfair, taking up residence at 32 Bruton Street, and quickly became one of Londons most sought-after society hostesses. Her banquets were legendary, always scrupulously maintaining her religious practices. Like other members of the family, she continued relationships with British royal and nobles, including the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, whose connections dated back to her time in India. She travelled widely throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, always taking with her a personal minyan (prayer quorum) and shohet (ritual slaughterer). She continued her scholarly studies, taking great interest in Jewish scholarship and Sephardic doctrine and practice, and becoming involved in many public religious roles, even public speaking, highly unusual for an Orthodox jewish woman at that time.
Photographs of Flora in the last three decades of her life portray her as a grande dame in every sense. Although of small stature, she was described as Silver haired, imposing, dressed with a regal elegance and always wearing the celebrated seven-rope pearl necklace( Stanley Jackson).
On 14 January 1936, after a long illness, Flora died in London. Her obituary in the Hong Kong Telegraph mourned a great Scholar, Hostess and Woman of business, commending her tremendous knowledge of commerce and the affairs of the world. To quote author Joseph Sassoon She held first the business and then the family together and neither would be the same without her. At her time of death, her personal effects in London were recorded as being worth £140,335 3s.10d. David Sassoon & Co. was to continue in business until after the Second World War, until the company was eventually sold to UBS Switzerland.