Published: June 4, 2002
The Victoria & Albert Museum Chronicles Great Jewels and Titled Owners
By Karla Klein Albertson
LONDON – Great jewels have inspired hot passions and dark deeds through the ages, so no one should be surprised that — assembled from hundreds of important gems — embody the triumph, excess and decline of the most privileged people in the world. “,” the exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum through July 14, and its accompanying catalogs decisively chronicle the glory and pain of the heads that wore them.
The delightful and puckish Geoffrey C. Munn, a managing director of the venerable Wartski firm, is the driving force behind “,” gathering more than 200 actual diadems for the exhibition and producing not one but two books. Tiara: Past and Present, available at the V&A, pictures only pieces on display in the museum show, which includes an extensive selection of fanciful modern examples.
The chief monument to Munn’s industry is the massive : A History of Splendour (Antique Collectors’ Club, 2001), which will remain the definitive work on the subject for many years to come. The author claims not to be a scholar, yet the depth of research on this project is formidable. Munn has not only located — in some cases, rediscovered — the for the show, he has also tracked period paintings and photographs of the objects, on and off various well-coifed heads.
Sometimes of the jewelry is shown in several states as the tiara was altered over time, while certain historic pieces once recorded are now lost. He was even able to find a number of original artist design drawings for the works. Obviously no simple bracelet salesman, Munn has written other equally fascinating studies, including Castellani and Giuliano: Revivalist Jewellers of the 19th Century.
When talking with Munn, it quickly becomes apparent that his position at Wartski — famous for jewelry with interesting stories attached, such as an acrostic bracelet given by Napoleon to his sister — is the ideal starting place for these researches. The firm has been jewelers to various members of the British royal family from Queen Mary on. “When you work in a stuffy old jewelry shop in London, deeply steeped in tradition, these things turn up,” he says mildly. “The tiara that was made for the Duchess of Angouleme was in the safe the day I joined Wartski, 30 years ago almost to the day. It was made from the French crown jewels for the daughter of Louis XVI — but we didn’t know this, it was in the safe as an emerald and diamond tiara, although it had a blazing appeal. It is absolutely untouched; there are 1,021 diamonds and 44 emeralds.”
He continues, “Obviously, I was amazed by but I didn’t think of them as a subject until I thought of the Samaritans, a counseling charity with which I have connections.” So Munn opens his tiara history with an interesting story about their amazing fundraising capabilities. In 1911, Cartier on Bond Street had an exhibition of 19 worn at the Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary for the benefit of a charitable foundation in memory of her brother. Thousands of visitors paid a guinea a head to file past the display that became a jewelry trade legend. With this in mind, Wartski put on a show, “One Hundred – An Evolution of Style, 1800-1900,” at their Grafton Street premises in March 1997 to benefit the Samaritans. In spite of long queues outside, more than 5,500 eventually visited the exhibition.
Wartski followed up with another fine display of at the International Fine Art and Antiques Dealers Show in New York in October 1998, which included some impressive Cartier from the firm’s museum in Geneva. The popularity of these projects caused Munn to write: “The exhibition at Wartski and those that quickly followed it revealed the deep fascination with which continue to be regarded by the public, despite the fact that they are now seldom seen.”
After organizing this major museum exhibition in 2002, Munn continued, “…I hope I have managed to convey some idea of the hauteur and elegance that raises these dramatic objects to the position of supremacy they hold over every other type of jewelry.”
While there may be jewelers and serious collectors who view the exhibition strictly from the technical aspect of carats and cut, what makes so riveting as sociology is how precious objects relate to a gilded world of privilege and the fortunate few who inhabited that universe in past ages. In the catalog chapter devoted to “Russia and the Russian Style,” a painting shows the wedding of Tsar Nicholas II and Princess Alix in 1894; the beautiful bride — never suspecting her fate — wears a diadem of pink diamonds and a jeweled nuptial crown, now in Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C. Later in the section, a photograph from 1925 shows the Soviet government inventorying piles of jewelry taken from the nobility they had overthrown.
While the principal focus rests on British gems and owners, Munn’s research also covers commissioned and worn in Europe and even America, keeping in mind that the rich tend to intermarry and carry their possessions along with them. Consuelo, the daughter of William Vanderbilt who became Duchess of Marlborough in England, is shown dressed and crowned for the Coronation of 1902. She looks very wealthy but unhappy, and Munn notes, “The Duchess took no pleasure in these remarkable ornaments which she came to regard as a metaphor for the coldness of her marriage.”
Examining the construction of the and the period illustrations of various wearers, it becomes clear why the author must devote a chapter to “Dressing the Hair 1750-1950.” As hairstyles changed over the years, slipped up and down from top of the crown to brow level. The Empress Josephine’s court liked them forehead height while Queen Victoria wore hers in what is considered “normal position” across the front of the hair – except on one famous occasion when she was painted by Winterhalter in 1842 with a sapphire and diamond tiara (designed by husband Albert) wrapped around the bun at the back of her head.
At the time Consuelo Vanderbilt was photographed in the early Twentieth Century, elaborate Gilded Age coiffures had forced the tiara to a coronet perch high on the assembled hairmass. By the 1920s, shingled bobs gave jewelry nothing to cling to, so gem-encrusted bandeaus were strapped on right across the forehead. After a return to normality in the 1940s and 1950s, bouffant hair was back with a vengeance in the 1960s, forcing stylists to sneak the tiara in wherever it would fit.
Munn is at his best telling some of the stories he turned up during his research. One lucky find was an unusual photograph in his book of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. Why does she have her eyes shut? “She was a very naughty girl,” he explains. “What a photograph — she’s the naughtiest girl in England! When I was preparing this book, someone wanted me to look at a ring in a photograph and tell them what it was. And there was this picture of the Duchess of Argyll in an enormous turquoise tiara at the Jewels of Empire Ball, held at the Park Lane Hotel in 1930. Cole Porter put her in the lyrics of ‘You’re the Top,’ where she was compared to some of his favorite things including the Louvre Museum and Camembert cheese. She had luminous nail varnish. That was just sheer luck.”
Then he adds, “She was perfectly all right until she went to catch the elevator and it wasn’t there and she went down four floors. She turned into a complete nymphomaniac — I’m not making it up. She was photographed with a Polaroid camera in an attitude all too familiar. She was married to one of our premier dukes, but she was accused of adultery in a lurid divorce case in 1963, and she died penniless in a nursing home in Pimlico in 1993. Someone’s making a film about her because she’s very famous.” All that information about just one tiara.
Having proven that money cannot buy happiness, Munn is very clear that only extraordinary conditions of wealth and patronage can buy the type of artistry shown in the . All the diadems from the elegant circlets worn in David’s painting of Napoleon’s court to the Twentieth Century designs of Lalique and Cartier can stand alone as works of art. In spite of the changes in society, one can still buy a tiara in a shop like Wartski. The curator states frankly, “We have seven or eight in the shop at any one time — and we always think we’re mad when we buy them!
“I tried to point out in the book that there has been a leveling of society,” Munn says in conclusion. “I for one would be in the servants’ hall. So a level society is brilliant, but it’s not brilliant for works of art because the best works of art come from the most unequal societies. So the greatest snuffboxes come from Eighteenth Century France, and Faberge flourished in Russia before the Revolution.
“Such things are incorruptible — unlike the palaces and dress, they never change. The owners think they have some relationship with the jewelry, but it’s the people who are like a little puff of air. Through precious objects like these , we can still look through a tiny keyhole into a world of unimaginable luxury.”
Visitors to London this summer can view “” through July 14 at the Victoria & Albert Museum on Cromwell Road in South Kensington. For information, www.vam.ac.uk or 44 (0)20 7942 2000. Order : A History of Splendour, $75 hardcover, directly from Antique Collectors’ Club, www.antiquecc.com or 800-252-5231.
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