23 June 2016

The Leuchtenberg Fabergé Tiara

The Leuchtenberg Fabergé Tiara (Photo: MEHDI FEDOUACH/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this week, I briefly mentioned a rare diamond tiara made by Fabergé, a jewelry house that made relatively few tiaras. Today, let's delve further into its story. Although the tiara ended up in Italy, it began its story with two imperial powers: Russia and France.

Some of the diamonds in this small but mighty tiara were given by Tsar Alexander I of Russia to Empress Joséphine of France. The Alexander and Joséphine (who had by this time been divorced by Napoléon Bonaparte) were good friends, and he often visited her at her country estate, the Château de Malmaison. When he visited, Alexander brought presents, and these diamonds were among those gifts.


The tiara itself was made much later, around 1890. Joséphine’s diamonds had been inherited by her son Eugène, the Duke of Leuchtenberg, and the tiara was made by Fabergé for his descendants. The piece was created by August Holmström, the Finnish-born craftsman who was head jeweler for the firm. (He also made the lovely star sapphire brooch we discussed earlier this week. P.S.: the brooch sold for $75,000. If you bought it: congratulations!)

The Leuchtenbergs must have been thrilled with their new sparkler -- there's a lot of glitter packed into a small, easy-to-wear frame. After World War I, however, the Leuchtenbergs sold the tiara in Switzerland to the Belgian royal family. It was eventually inherited by Prince Charles Théodore, Count of Flanders. When he died unmarried and without children in 1983, he bequeathed the tiara to his sister, Marie José, the former queen of Italy.


Marie José died in 2001, and her daughter, Princess Maria Gabriella of Savoy, inherited this tiara and many of her mother’s other jewels. In 2007, Maria Gabriella put a collection of her mother’s jewelry, including the Fabergé tiara, up for auction at Christie’s in London. The auction notes for the piece described it as "designed as a series of graduated old-cut diamond arches with knife edge collet spacers, the central pear-shaped diamond flanked by three briolette and one old-cut diamond, each with diamond collet and leaf surmount to the foliate band, on gold wire frame, mounted in silver and gold, circa 1890, 13.2 cm. wide, with Russian assay marks for gold. Maker's mark for August Holmström on frame."

Photo: MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images

When the hammer fell at the auction in June 2007, the tiara sold for more than two million dollars, nearly double its auction estimate. The sparkler was purchased by Artie and Dorothy McFerrin, a husband-and-wife collecting team from Houston who have acquired an immense private collections of Fabergé items. (Another aside: I wonder if the McFerrins were the purchasers of the star sapphire brooch auctioned this week...)

Luckily for us, the McFerrins have decided to share their bounty with all of us. The Leuchtenberg tiara is on display with much of the rest of their collection at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The pieces appear in the "Fabergé: From a Snowflake to an Iceberg" exhibition. And this November, the museum will be hosting a special symposium, "The Wonder of Fabergé," with lectures and presentations focusing on the nearly 600 items in the collection. This tiara, a centerpiece of the museum's advertising for their Fabergé exhibit, will surely be a major focus.