Earlier this week, London’s Victoria and Albert museum hosted a fascinating lecture by Andrew Prince, jeweler to Downton Abbey. It coincided with their current exhibition of the breath-taking Al-Thani jewellery collection including some of the most astounding gems and jewels from Mughal India and art deco masterpieces by Cartier (see below). It is a must-see if you are in London.
The talk told the tales of some of Europe’s most fabulous gems, released onto the international markets when the French and Russian crown jewels were auctioned to fill the state coffers following revolution. Many of the jewels that managed to survive being broken up into anonymous stones and settings, ended up adorning the heiresses of America’s wealthy industrialists.
So Consuelo Vanderbilt, as the Duchess of Marlborough found herself bedecked in Empress Eugenie’s awe-inspiring natural pearls and a fabulous Boucheron tiara, both sold in an 1887 auction of French crown jewels and bought as a wedding present by her husband. Though before we become too envious, it seems he was far from the dream spouse….
The French crown jewels also included the, now infamous, Hope diamond. Its infamy stems from a supposed curse, which in fact may have been an invention by Cartier to burnish its appeal, though one wonders what the world is coming to when a 45 carat blue diamond can’t sell itself on sheer gob-smacking beauty.
One of the things that made this talk so fascinating was Mr Prince’s scholarship in tracing the history of these gems. In the case of the Hope diamond, he was able to show what its original royal setting would have looked like, complete with its “bleu, blanc, rouge” and “sun king” symbolism (see above). Though sadly today the original setting is no more, the diamond itself is on show in Washington’s Smithsonian museum.
The Russian crown jewels (pictured top) similarly found their way onto the international sale circuit when Bolshevik revolutionaries formed a committee to collect and categorise them. Those judged to be ‘fashion’ rather than ‘historic’ or ‘important’ were sold, including a number of Faberge eggs.
Again, many ultimately found their way to American collectors and socialites – perhaps slightly galling to their government in its opposition to the rise of communism.
These changes of ownership betoken some of the major changes and disruptions to world order that took place during the twentieth century, as well as reminding us that today’s debates about wealth distribution are nothing new. One can even imagine the whispered conversations behind fans about ‘vulgar’ displays of wealth. But what is vulgar and what is not? Mr Prince had his answer ready: “Jewellery is only ever vulgar on other people – on you, darling, its fine!” Amen to that.