14 August 2017

Jewel History: Hired Jewels Are Much in Evidence (1901)

May Goelet, later the Duchess of Roxburghe, attends the Devonshire House Ball in costume as Scheherazade, 1897

"Hired Jewels Are Much in Evidence"
(originally appeared in the St. Louis Republic, 28 Jul 1901)

London, July 27 -- I have just acquired a rather curious bit of information, which may be taken for granted, coming as it does from the jewelers of the West End.

It appears there are many jewelers in the West End who carry on privately a regular trade, hiring out to approved customers [1] tiaras, necklaces, bracelets, and other articles for special occasions, and a very fine paying business it is.

Mrs. Arthur Paget, later Lady Paget, attends the Devonshire House Ball in costume as Cleopatra, 1897

On the same authority, I believe that when the Duchess of Devonshire gave her famous ball [2], the establishments of nearly every hiring-out jeweler in the West End were cleared of all their finest articles, which were duly returned in good order the next day.

It is reported of one particular tiara that it has been on twenty-three different heads at the opera this season [3].

The Hon. Mrs. Algernon Bourke attends the Devonshire House Ball in costume as Salammbo, 1897


1. For years, the British royal family made a regular practice of borrowing precious gemstones from jewelers for occasions like coronations. The frames of the family's crowns would be temporarily set with glittering gemstones, which were then removed and returned after the festivities were over. That practice largely ended by the 20th century, although some members of the family have since worn jewelry loaned from various firms.

Jewels were supposedly loaned out in vast quantities for major events like coronations, when peeresses had to appear at their most glittering, regardless of their financial status. The decision to have women wear tiaras with their coronets in 1902 may have sent more than a few aristocrats to jewelry firms looking for diadems to borrow.

2. The famous Devonshire House Ball was thrown at Devonshire House in Piccadilly in 1897 by the 8th Duke of Devonshire and his wife, the "Double Duchess" Louise, to mark Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The fancy dress ball was attended by hundreds of guests in elaborate costumes, including royal attendees like the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of York. The images in this post show guests in costume dripping in jewels, some of which could have been borrowed for the occasion.

3. A few months after this article was published, the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader published another version of the same piece: "It is possible, it seems, in England to wear beautiful jewels without fear of robbery when the ornaments are not in use. Smart West End jewelers make a practice of loaning magnificent tiaras and other articles of jewelry for special occasions. These things are loaned as a courtesy to specially good customers, while other people less well known must make a deposit of the value of the jewels before taking them. The London Express in an interview with different jewelers makes this statement and further goes on to say, on the authority of a famous Bond Street jeweler, that at a big ball of the Duchess of Devonshire, there was hardly a piece of jewelry worth considering left in any of the best West End shops, so much of their stock was on loan."