The Gilded Age, the new show from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, has been dinged recently for using jewels in their costuming that aren’t period appropriate. But that’s okay—we’ve got a look at the real deal here at The Court Jeweller! Our series on Gilded Age jewels continues today with a spectacular Cartier tiara that belonged to an American countess.
The story of this jewel begins, like so many others, with two things: a beautiful young woman and a bank full of money. Adele Grant, born in New York in 1866, was the daughter of David Beach Grant, president of Grant Locomotive Works. The money he made building locomotives helped to finance the brilliant social careers of his two daughters, Adele and Edythe. Adele was described by the press as a “celebrated beauty.” Multiple artists painted her portrait, including Sir Hubert von Herkomer, whose 1886 painting of Adele (pictured above) was exhibited at the Royal Academy.
Adele’s beauty and fortune (showcased in the 1892 portrait above, painted by Edward Robert Hughes) made her a major target for impoverished British aristocrats looking to shore up their finances. In February 1886, newspapers trumpeted the announcement of her engagement to the 2nd Earl of Cairns. Lord Cairns was the son of a former Lord Chancellor, and the marriage would bring Adele a title.
But from the start, there were red flags. Announcements in the papers reported, “The friends of Miss Grant in New York are not pleased with the match.” And for good reason. In 1883, Lord Cairns had been engaged to May Fortescue, an actress associated with Gilbert and Sullivan productions. When he broke off the engagement, Fortescue had sued him for breach of promise—and, backed by Gilbert and his lawyers, she won the case, and a judgment of £10,000. News of the suit was splashed across papers on both sides of the Atlantic, and even the announcement of Adele’s engagement to Cairns in 1886 included a mention of the Fortescue case.
In the end, Adele didn’t marry Lord Cairns at all. The engagement was broken off just a few months later. The World offered some gossip about the reasons why. (Spoiler: it was money.) “The settlements proved an insurmountable objection, and it was on this rock that Lord Cairns’s matrimonial hopes made shipwreck,” the paper wrote. “Mr. Grant père is an invalid, and never even saw his intended son-in-law; Mrs. Grant, who arranged everything, imagined him to be rich and powerful, after the manner of most English earls; the lawyers dispelled her illusion; a desirable Dutch millionaire had been very attentive at Cannes; HRH was called into council, and in the result Lord Cairns was sacrificed. He will now have ample leisure to meditate on the mutability of things in general, and above all, on the fickleness of American ladies and the folly of putting too much trust in the favour of Princes.” Cairns died four years later.
Adele finally did find an earl of her own. In 1893, she became engaged to George Capell, the widowed Earl of Essex, whose first wife had died in 1885. This time around, Adele’s friends told reporters that the engagement was a love match. George and Adele were married in London at St. Margaret’s, Westminster, in December 1893. In an interesting turn of fate, one of May Fortescue’s patrons, Sir Arthur Sullivan, played the organ during the ceremony. Adele and Essex soon welcomed a pair of daughters, Lady Iris and Lady Joan (pictured above with their mother), to join his son from his first marriage, Algernon.
The Countess of Essex was celebrated as one of the “Lovely Five” aristocrats in the Edwardian period, along with the Duchess of Sutherland, the Countess of Lytton, the Countess of Warwick, and the Countess of Westmorland. Adele became part of the smart London set during the reign of King Edward VII, with whom she was a favorite. It should come as no surprise, then, that when his coronation was scheduled, Adele needed a new tiara.
She and her husband purchased this rather incredible diamond scroll tiara from Cartier in 1902, presumably for her to wear during the coronation festivities. But Adele’s health almost prevented her from attending entirely. She collapsed in Paris during fittings for her coronation gowns and had to return quickly to England. She recovered sufficiently to wear her new diamond tiara at the ceremony, but press reports from the day describe her as “a fragile figure, almost bowed down by the weight of velvet robes.”
Adele would live for twenty more years. In 1906, she was painted by the noted American portrait artist John Singer Sargent. She had worked hard to maintain her beauty, giving credit to her vegetarian diet for helping her to do so. After she was widowed in 1916, there were rumors that she might wed someone with an even higher title: the Duke of Connaught, the widowed uncle of King George V. That gossip, however, proved to be false. The two were close friends, often spending time socializing together, but a representative from his royal household publicly denied that they were planning to marry.
Sadly, just as the rumors of the Connaught romance were in the papers, Adele suddenly died. After attending a dinner party in July 1922 at the home of the Hon. Rupert Beckett, a London banker, she was driven home to Mayfair by Margot Asquith, the former prime minister’s wife. She suffered a heart attack while taking a bath that evening, and died at the age of 55.
Eventually, Adele’s diamond scroll tiara was reacquired by Cartier, though it’s not clear exactly when that happened. We do know, however, that it has been worn several times for prominent occasions in the years since her death. In June 1953, Clementine Churchill wore the tiara at Westminster Abbey for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
In 1996, Crown Princess Margareta of Romania, daughter of the last Romanian monarch, wore the tiara for her wedding to Radu Duda.
And in 2016, the tiara made a splashy appearance on the cover of W Magazine, worn by pop superstar Rihanna.
The tiara is a prized part of Cartier’s archive collection, and the jewelry firm often uses the piece in promotional materials and shows it in exhibitions. In 2004, they even used a super-sized version as part of the Christmas decorations on their Fifth Avenue location—a lovely tribute to the New Yorker who originally wore the jewel.
(That Christmas, the tiara even got to meet Santa!)
Here’s one more look at the remarkable Essex Tiara, on display at the Grand Palais in Paris in December 2013. Beautiful, balanced, and classic, the tiara is a gorgeous relic of the splendor of the Gilded Age, and the beautiful American women who descended on London society during the era.