25 May 2014

Sunday Sparkler: The Oriental Circlet Tiara

Yesterday, Queen Victoria celebrated her -- ahem -- 195th birthday. To mark the occasion, today we're looking at one of the most important Victorian tiaras in the Windsor collection: Victoria's Oriental Circlet.

In terms of royal provenance, it doesn't get much better than this tiara. It was not only worn by Queen Victoria but also designed by her beloved Albert, and it’s the only one of the four tiaras designed by Albert that is still owned by the main branch of the British royal family [1]. The piece, which includes arches and lotus flowers inspired by eastern designs, was dreamed up by the Prince Consort after he saw jewels featuring similar motifs at the Great Exhibition, the landmark event that proved to be perhaps his greatest royal legacy. The Royal Collection's website notes that Albert "had been greatly impressed by the Indian jewels presented to the Queen by the East India Company at the conclusion of the Great Exhibition" [2]. The Moghul arches and lotus flower designs in the circlet were inspired by those jewels.

Garrard executed Albert’s design in 1853. This original incarnation of the tiara had opals set in the center of the lotus elements — opals were a particular favorite of Albert’s. The diamonds used to make the tiara were taken from the family’s collection, which caused a problem shortly after the piece’s construction. The Hanoverian branch of the family won the legal right to the late Queen Charlotte’s jewels in 1858, and a significant number of the diamonds in the tiara had to be sent to Germany. They were removed and replaced with other diamonds, some newly acquired and some taken from other royal jewels.

Victoria had little use for elaborate tiaras, including this piece, after Albert’s death in 1861. When she died forty years later, the tiara was left to the crown and specifically earmarked for the use of future queens and queens consort. The next in line to wear the tiara, then, was Victoria’s daughter-in-law, Queen Alexandra. She didn't share Albert’s fondness for opals — in fact, she thought they were bad luck — and so she had the center stones replaced with rubies. The rubies had been in the family’s vaults nearly as long as the tiara, and they had a real connection to the eastern reaches of the empire: they were Burmese rubies that had been given to Victoria in the 1870s. Alexandra also had the size of the circlet reduced slightly.

Oddly enough, however, neither Alexandra nor her tiara-loving successor, Queen Mary, were apparently ever photographed wearing the tiara, even after Alexandra took such pains to remodel it. I've often wondered whether Mary just never found the tiara in the vaults — it seems totally impossible that she would ignore a major tiara while constantly making and remaking the rest of the pieces in the family collection. We may never know precisely why it escaped her magpie gaze.

The next British queen to don the tiara was Mary’s daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth (better known to us as the Queen Mum). The tiara was made available to her in 1937, the year that her husband, George VI, was crowned king. It became one of her most-worn pieces; she was still using the circlet in her old age, even though her daughter had been queen for nearly half a century. Even though it was a part of the collection of jewels that should have been transferred from the Queen Mum to the new Elizabeth II in 1952, the Queen allowed her mother to continue to use the favorite piece. Along with the Boucheron tiara from the Greville inheritance, it was the only tiara that the Queen Mum wore in her later years.

The tiara was given a place of honor at the major tiara exhibition put on by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London shortly before the Queen Mum’s death [3]. Since then, the tiara has been worn in public precisely once. Elizabeth II chose it for a state visit to Malta in 2005 (pictured above), three years after her mother’s death. She has not been photographed in the tiara since that occasion. Perhaps its sentimental associations with her late mother are simply too much? Maybe she just doesn't like wearing it?

No matter the reason, it’s become increasingly possible that the tiara may once more wait in the vaults for a new queen to wear it. I have a sneaking feeling that (unless Angela Kelly has one of her many jewelry surprises up her sleeve for us) we'll next see this tiara on the head of King Charles's consort, whether she be called Queen or Princess Camilla [4].

1. The other tiaras designed by Albert for Victoria are: the strawberry leaf tiara given to Princess Alice as a wedding gift in 1862 (it survived the Hesse plane crash of 1937); the small sapphire coronet (owned today by the Harewoods, descendants of Princess Mary); and the emerald and diamond tiara (which, if it is still intact, may be owned today by the Carnegies, descendants of Princess Louise).
2. See the Royal Collection website here.
3. It was also exhibited at Buckingham Palace in 2010 as a part of "Victoria & Albert: Art and Love."
4. A version of this post originally appeared at A Tiara a Day in July 2013.