12 September 2017

Sneak Peek: "Debo and the Whopper: The Devonshire Diadem"

Attention, lovers of diamonds and duchesses: my new article on the Devonshire Diadem has just been published in this year's Mitford Annual! The annual is edited by Lyndsy Spence, a historian whose work focuses on fascinating aristocratic women. As always, this year's annual features a wide range of pieces on all things Mitford. I contributed "Debo and the Whopper: The Devonshire Diadem" to this year's edition. You can read the entire piece by purchasing the Mitford Annual here, but especially for all of you, I'm sharing a short excerpt from the article today! Enjoy!

The Devonshire Diadem, ca. 1920

The new Devonshire Diadem almost immediately garnered public attention. If a famed American royal gossip column penned by the “Marquise de Fontenoy” (actually the English-born writer Frederick Cunliffe-Owen) is to be believed, Louise nearly lost her newly-commissioned jewels shortly after their creation. In March of 1893, Cunliffe-Owen wrote, “The Duchess of Devonshire is believed to have had a narrow escape the other day from losing some of those magnificent jewels which she wore at the grand reception given at Devonshire House a few weeks since. Leaving for the continent at the same time as the Princess of Wales, the train was just about to start when suddenly her maid, who was seated in a first-class compartment, shrieked out of the window, ‘The jewel case is gone,’ causing a tremendous commotion.” While officials from the railroad began a frantic search for the jewels, Louise coolly informed them that nothing was missing, because she had put her jewelry in another box altogether. Cunliffe-Owen, though, wasn’t totally convinced by her explanation: “I may add that some persons believe that the case really contained her jewels, and that, with her usual presence of mind, she merely turned off the matter so lightly with the object of facilitating the efforts of the police to recover them.” Whatever the truth of the matter, Louise’s jewels were safely in her care again shortly after the reported “theft.”

Duchess Louise wears the Devonshire Diadem, ca. 1895

Louise’s extravagant new diamond tiara quickly became an object of fascination in British society. One of her most important early appearances in the tiara came in 1896, when Princess Maud of Wales, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, married Prince Carl of Denmark. (None of the wedding guests knew that they were actually witnessing the marriage of a future king and queen; after Carl’s election to the Norwegian throne in 1905, the couple became King Haakon VII and Queen Maud of Norway.) A reporter from the Times skillfully allowed the reader to imagine the scene in the chapel as it unfolded: “Almost as soon as the Queen is seated she turns to one of her attendant ladies, from whom she receives an opera glass, and with this she scrutinizes the scene. A remarkable scene it is. The women are almost exclusively in white, but the many-hued uniforms and orders of the men in conjunction with the decorations of the chapel, floral and artificial, produce a perfect harmony of colour. Diamonds are not worn in such profusion as they have been on previous occasions. Perhaps the most conspicuous tiaras are those of the Duchesses of Devonshire and the Duchess of Portland, who adhere to a larger form of head ornament than is now commonly worn.” The sheer size of Louise’s tiara apparently overwhelmed nearly everyone who saw it. Newspaper reports of the era describe the tiara as “magnificent” and a “marvel of the jeweller's art.”

Read more about this enormous noble jewel in "Debo and the Whopper: The Devonshire Diadem," available for purchase at Amazon.com as part of The Mitford Annual, Vol. 5