30 June 2018

The Fife Tiara

© Historic Royal Palaces

There are tiaras -- and then there are masterpieces. Today's tiara definitely falls into the latter category. One of the most stunning tiaras in the collections of the extended British royal family, the Fife Tiara was given to Princess Louise, the daughter of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, as a wedding gift in 1889.

© Historic Royal Palaces

Louise's new husband had inherited the Fife earldom when his father died; but that title wasn't quite lofty enough for a granddaughter of the monarch, so Queen Victoria made him the Duke of Fife just before the wedding. The tiara was a gift from the newly-elevated duke to his bride. (Geoffrey Munn argues that the tiara was a gift from Louise's parents, but contemporary newspaper reports clarify that this tiara was a gift from Lord Fife.) It seems extremely likely that the tiara was constructed based on a design by Oscar Massin, who had exhibited a very similar piece at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878. Massin didn't generally produce his tiara designs himself; instead, he partnered with other jewelry firms who executed the pieces he'd created. However, the maker of this tiara has never been positively identified.

© Historic Royal Palaces

A special issue of The Graphic, published in August 1889 to celebrate the Fife wedding, describes the tiara as follows: "in a very uncommon and beautiful design, composed of hundreds of stones, ranging in weight from one carat to ten, the larger being what are technically known as briolettes -- that is cut on both sides and turning on pivots so that they will flash with every movement of the head." Another contemporary news report describes the tiara given by the duke as "a mass of diamonds, and one of the most valuable pieces of work in England."

Princess Louise, Princess Royal and Duchess of Fife wears the Fife Tiara, ca. 1896

The Duke of Fife's title, like most in the United Kingdom, was originally designed to pass only to sons. However, Louise's only son was stillborn. Queen Victoria intervened once more, reissuing the Fife dukedom and making it possible for Louise's daughters to inherit their father's title. In due course, Louise's elder daughter, Lady Alexandra, inherited both the Fife dukedom and the Fife Tiara. She wore the Fife Tiara at the coronations of King George VI in 1937 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

The Fife's briolette drops are removable, as seen here

Alexandra married Prince Arthur of Connaught, who was also a direct descendant of Queen Victoria; she was generally associated with her Connaught title rather than the Fife dukedom. Their only son, Alastair, died in rather unusual circumstances -- he was serving in World War II, but he died after, um, getting drunk and falling out of a window. Alexandra's title -- and the Fife Tiara -- both subsequently were inherited by her nephew, James.

© Historic Royal Palaces

In recent decades, the tiara was mostly been seen at family weddings. Both the daughter and daughter-in-law of the current duke have worn it; the most recent Fife wedding was in 2001. It also appeared in the major exhibition of tiaras at the Victoria and Albert Museum. For many years, the tiara wasn't photographed, and many feared that it was perhaps privately sold. The death of the 3rd Duke of Fife in the summer of 2015 meant that the tiara's fate was even more uncertain.

Princess Louise, Princess Royal and Duchess of Fife wears the Fife Tiara

But in 2017, we learned exactly what happened to the tiara, which hadn't been sold at all. In November, the Arts Council England published its report on a pair of government programs designed to allow important works of art to transfer into public ownership, and the Fife Tiara was listed among the culturally-significant items that now belong to the British people. A panel of experts recommended that the tiara be accepted by the government in lieu of tax. For taxation purposes, the tiara was valued at 1.4 million pounds. The piece includes nearly 200 total carats of diamonds.

The Fife Tiara on display at Kensington Palace

The report provided some of the reasons that the panel decided to accept the tiara as a culturally-significant artifact: "The tiara is of extraordinary beauty and given the huge carat weight of diamonds and the importance of the largest pear-shaped stones, it is a miracle that such a jewel has been preserved in its original form."

© Historic Royal Palaces

Perhaps the best part of all, though, was that the offer to the government was conditional. Part of the agreement stated that the tiara "has been permanently allocated to Historic Royal Palaces for retention and display at Kensington Palace in accordance with the condition attached to the offer." In March 2018, the Fife Tiara went on display at the palace as part of the Victoria Revealed exhibition. It is currently shown alongside several other jewels from the Fife family, including Princess Louise's diamond fringe necklace/tiara and the grand diamond and emerald parure that belonged to Queen Victoria. (You can see more about the exhibition over here!)

Note: This is an updated and expanded version of earlier posts on the piece, with new text and images.