28 February 2015

Saturday Sparkler: The Londonderry Diamond Tiara

There are tiaras, and then there are tiaras like the Londonderry Diamond Tiara. This piece dates to the middle of the nineteenth century; it was a part of a diamond parure made for the family in 1854 by Garrard, although the tiara itself was not originally an all-diamond piece. The center of each element was originally designed to hold a pearl, and the tiara could also be worn topped by tall pear-shaped pearls, increasing the height of the piece substantially.


Today, the diamonds at the center of each element are mounted en tremblant. The piece is almost a complete circlet, encircling nearly the entire head of the wearer. (The tiara is magnificent, but it’s not the only one the Londonderrys own — they’ve also got a famous set of amethysts, given to them by Alexander I of Russia, and a pearl necklace that can be worn as a tiara.)

In 1897, Theresa, the wife of the 6th Marquess of Londonderry, wore the tiara as a part of her costume at the famous Devonshire House Ball. Theresa went to the ball as Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and for the occasion, she had the diamond tiara transformed into a full-on imperial crown, using necklaces and bracelets to mimic the arches and cross from Maria Theresa’s original crown — you can see the effect here.


But although the Devonshire ball gave Theresa a chance to really give her jewel collection a workout, the most notorious anecdote involving the diamond tiara happened five years later at the coronation of King Edward VII. Theresa wore the tiara with the pear-shaped pearl toppers on the day -- you can see her coronation portrait above -- but the imposing size of the tiara may have been an issue. Apparently it was tough to balance, as it toppled off her head and into the toilet when she popped into the loo. It had to be removed with a pair of forceps, which I’m sure were kept at the coronation just in case anyone went into labor during the incredibly long ceremony. (Not really. But maybe!)

Theresa’s daughter-in-law, Edith, began wearing the diamond tiara after her husband inherited the Londonderry title in 1915. She wore it to the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937. Even better: the Londonderrys still own this tiara, though they’ve kindly shared the piece with all of the rest of us. Along with their amethysts, the tiara is on display in the jewelry room at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (AKA Mecca for magpies). I saw it there in 2013, and it is breathtaking. Hope some of the rest of you get to make a similar pilgrimage!