A long-lost emerald ring is bringing desperately needed help to Ukraine’s women and children.
As treasure hunts go, it was fairly monumental. Fabled Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, laden with copper, silver, gold, tobacco, gems and more, was wrecked in 1622 in a hurricane off the Florida Keys.
She lay at the bottom of the ocean almost untouched until just 37 years ago when a team, led by US treasure hunter Melvin Fisher, recovered the bounty. Among the contents was a 6.25-carat octagonal step cut emerald ring, which was acquired by late poultry entrepreneur Frank Perdue. He presented it to his wife-to-be, Mitzi, on their engagement in 1988. It was a stunning item that became close to her heart.
“I wore that emerald every day for 17 years, until Frank’s passing,” she recalls. “Frank’s point of view was it was to be enjoyed and seen, so I wore it all the time, day and night.”
Now an author, campaigner and philanthropist, Perdue sold the ring at a Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels auction in December to raise a total of US$1.2 million, well beyond its estimate of US$50,000-70,000. All proceeds are going to support humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.
Mitzi says the path of the ring changed history and, now, with the donation, hopefully it will help to change it again. She says: “I loved wearing the ring because of knowing how when the Atocha sank it changed the course of empire. King Philip IV of Spain had been head of the world’s superpower. However, with the loss of the treasure, the king didn’t have the funds to pay for his lavish court or his army. It changed the course of history.”
One of the problems Ukraine is facing at the moment is that human traffickers prey on the vulnerable and, alas, female refugees at the borders of Ukraine are prime targets, says Mitzi.
“A woman crossing into, for example, Poland, may have travelled for days to get to the border; she may have seen her home bombed into rubble; she’s separated from the people she loves; she doesn’t speak Polish; and, altogether, she’s traumatised and exhausted. When she crosses into Poland, a kindly seeming man approaches her. He tells her he has a hot meal ready and a place to spend the night, but the van is leaving in five minutes and she needs to get in right now. All too often, the man is a sex trafficker, and she’s just made the worst mistake of her life.”
The sale of Mitzi’s emerald ring will pay for helping Ukrainians rehab in a building near the Polish border. This will be converted into a shelter where refugees can have a 24-hour ‘time out’ before they cross over.
During the 24 hours in the shelter, refugees can be warned about the traffickers, coached about their rights in a new country and, most of all, given time to breathe. The charity receiving the funds from the sale of the Atocha ring is called Silent Bridge.
Ideally, the first shelter will be a pilot project and then they will be able to create additional shelters at other border crossings. When the war is over, the shelters can still benefit women who need them.
“This is an unimaginably stressful and demoralising time for people in Ukraine. I hope this project also raises awareness and maybe even encourages more people to join this effort,” says Mitzi.
“We all recoil in horror about the slavery that existed in the US six generations ago, but slavery still exists today,” adds Mitzi. The UN estimates that there are roughly 40 million people enslaved.
The cause is one that is close to Mitzi’s heart after she spent some time in Ukraine as a guest of the Kyiv regional police. “Because I had written a story on human trafficking in Ukraine, I ended up in a Zoom call with a general and got invited to see for myself the things I had been writing about.” On her first night, spent in a bomb shelter, she learned that the police would be overwhelmed in their daily work without outside help.
“The Ukrainian police are going beyond their normal scope of responsibility: they were deployed as light infantry in the early days of the invasion because there were not enough troops; they were first responders because nobody else would dare to go to certain places. They are now involved in horrible crime investigations and exhumations as part of their work responsibilities.”
Perdue says she tries to live up to a philosophy that her husband used to uphold: “If you want to be happy, think what you can do for someone else. If you want to be miserable, think what’s owed to you.”
She continues: “Frank was the most philanthropic person I ever knew. He would be enthusiastic about the fact that his gift can save large numbers of people from the horrors of being sex-trafficked. And then there’s the fact that he gave to charities almost all of what he had received as a financial backer for the search for the Atocha. I’m following in his footsteps, using the ring for a charitable purpose.”
This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Healing Issue, Winter 2022-23. To subscribe contact