03 October 2015

Saturday Sparkler: The Vladimir Sapphire Kokoshnik

The jewel collection of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (the Elder) of Russia -- better known to many as Grand Duchess Vladimir -- was the royal gift that just seemed to keep on giving in the wake of the Russian Revolution. But although some of her tiaras, including the famous Vladimir Tiara, were sold off after the family had gone into exile, this sapphire kokoshnik was the tiara that MP the Elder used to buy her way out of Russia as many of her family members were being murdered by the Bolsheviks. The buyers weren't just jewel collectors -- they were the Romanian royal family.

Quick backstory: when the political situation in Romania became precarious during World War I, Queen Marie of Romania's jewels, along with an incredible number of treasures and valuables from the country, were sent to Moscow for safekeeping. Marie had important ties to the Romanovs: her mother was Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia before she married Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's son Alfred. She wasn't the only one who sent her jewels to Russia thinking they'd be safe there: members of the grand ducal family of Hesse did as well. (The tsarina was, after all, born a Hessian princess.)

Marie wearing the now-lost Massin tiara before the war [source]

And that’s where things went sour. We all know what happened in to the Romanovs after the Russian Revolution in 1917. The change of government in Russia meant that the Romanian royal jewels were in peril, too. During the war, the Romanians invaded territory held by Russia, the Soviets cut off all diplomatic ties, and the treasures were stranded. Some of the valuables have been returned over time, but many pieces, including Marie's jewels, were never been repatriated to Romania. Marie was understandably very upset about the loss of her jewels, many of which she had received from her Russian mother. The tiara she received as a wedding gift from her parents was gone; so was the magnificent Massin tiara that had been in the family for a generation. To help rebuild her collection, Marie’s husband, King Ferdinand, gave his wife money to purchase new jewels to replace the ones that had been lost.

Maria Pavlovna wears the tiara [source]

But unlike most of us, Marie didn’t have to go to a jewelry store to find a new tiara. Instead, she had merely to look to the collection of her aunt, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, for a new diadem. The one she purchased was this sapphire and diamond kokshnik tiara, which was made for MP the Elder in 1909 by Cartier. The largest central sapphire, a cushion-cut gem weighing more than 137 carats (!), had been previously set in a brooch. The other sapphires, which were smaller cabochons, were nineteenth-century Romanov heirlooms; they had originally belonged to Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, the wife of Tsar Nicholas I.

The tiara was one of the more extravagant pieces in a truly remarkable collection, but when the revolution happened, the need to escape from Russia was greater than the need to retain the diadem. Maria Pavlovna sold the tiara to her niece, the queen of Romania, in 1917. Maria Pavlovna used the money to buy her passage out of Russia and into exile; Marie of Romania used the tiara as the cornerstone of her replacement collection. Her husband later purchased an astonishing sapphire pendant from Cartier as a coordinating piece.

Queen Marie's tiara was an important part of her new collection; she underscored this when she chose to wear the tiara when she was painted by Philip de László in 1924. But there came a time when she decided to hand it along to the next generation. She passed the tiara on to her daughter, Princess Ileana, when she married an Austrian archduke in 1931. Four years later, Ileana actually lent the tiara back to her mother to wear for the Silver Jubilee of King George V of the United Kingdom. At that point, political tensions were already strong in Romania, so Marie left the tiara in her London bank for safekeeping, probably mindful of what had happened to her wedding jewels. Ileana was only able to reclaim the tiara shortly before the outbreak of World War II.

Marie wears the kokoshnik [source]

After the war was over, the monarchy in Romania was pretty much over, too. The young King Michael I was forced to abdicate in 1947, and the royal family went into exile. Ileana ended up in the United States, and initially, she took the sapphire tiara with her. The princess’s autobiography includes fascinating descriptions of the tiara and her journey with it from country to country. Ultimately, though, she also decided to part with the piece. In the early 1950s, she sold the tiara back to its original maker, Cartier. She used the funds she received for more practical purposes: to put a down payment on a new home and to pay the travel costs that enabled her to bring her children to America.