12 December 2015

Saturday Sparkler: The Hesse Turquoise and Moonstone Tiara

Some tiaras are famous because they've been worn at important events, and some are famous because they appear frequently in portraits, on television, or on currency. And then, there are tiaras like today's sparkler, which have become a part of history for slightly darker reasons.

In 1906, this tiara was made for Grand Duke Ernst of Hesse and by Rhine as a Christmas present for his newly-married second wife, Princess Eleonore of Solms-Hohensolms-Lich. (We’ve often discussed Ernst’s first wife, Victoria Melita, who had some serious tiaras of her own.) The design of the tiara, which is plays on the distinctive, traditional kokoshnik shape, was apparently a Russian creation. Even though the Hesse family is German, a Russian design makes sense; because Ernst’s sisters included Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna and Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, he had major links with the Russian imperial family. Geoffrey Munn posits that the tiara was made “by a competitor of FabergĂ©.”

Around the diamond and platinum kokoshnik frame, “ribbons” of turquoises and moonstones are wrapped, creating an unusual geometric design. The design travels around to the back of the tiara as well, where the “ribbons” are continued in blue and white enamel, adding an extra dimension to the art nouveau creation. The tiara is designed to have a silk ribbon attached to its base as a means of securing it to the wearer’s head.

Photographs of Eleonore wearing this tiara have proved hard to come by, but you can see her wearing the piece in the portrait above, painted by Hanns Pellar in 1911. In October 1937, she was widowed. That November, her younger son, Prince Louis, was due to marry the Hon. Margaret Campbell Geddes in London, and Eleonore decided that the turquoise tiara would be an appropriate wedding gift for her new daughter-in-law. Along with her elder son, Georg Donatus, his pregnant wife, Cecilie (one of the sisters of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh), and their two sons, Ludwig and Alexander, Eleonore boarded a plane bound for London on November 16, 1937. The tiara, packed in a strongbox, was among Eleonore’s luggage. (The family's strawberry leaf tiara, a legacy from Queen Victoria, was also along for the journey, also safely stored in a protective case.)


Many of you probably know what comes next — the plane tragically crashed in Ostend, Belgium. The pilot plane had tried to land in bad weather because Cecilie had unexpectedly given birth on board. All of the passengers, including the newborn baby, were killed in the accident. But the family's tiaras, protected by the boxes in which they had been packed, survived unscathed. They were among the only items found intact in the wreckage. The turquoise and moonstone tiara was given to Prince Louis and his new wife, fulfilling his mother’s wish to pass the tiara along to the next generation of the family.

Princess Margaret, often called “Peg,” wore the tiara on many occasions during her lifetime; Geoffrey Munn notes that one of Peg’s last recorded appearances in the piece was in 1986, at a ball given in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th birthday. Peg Hesse died in 1997, and as she and Louis had no children of their own, many wondered what would become of the turquoise tiara. The sparkler was featured in the major tiara exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2002, but was attributed only to a “private collection.”

But the fate of the tiara became clear when it appeared unexpectedly at the State Opening of Parliament in May 2012. Writing for Vogue, Christa D’Souza noted that she’d love to have a tiara like “the turquoise and moonstone one that I later spot on Lady Geddes during cocktails at the River Room, attached – how sweet is this – by a little ribbon at the back.” Photographs show Baroness Geddes wearing the tiara during the state opening as well. (Can you see the piece just peeking out of the bottom right-hand corner in the photo above, from the state opening in 2013?) The current Baron Geddes is the nephew of the late Princess Peg. While the family's strawberry leaf tiara remains a part of the Hesse collection today, this Hesse tiara has found a new home amid the aristocracy in Britain. I love when a tiara story — especially one that has tragic elements — has a happy ending!