Earlier this summer, Sotheby’s in London mounted a truly special exhibition of tiaras, featuring royal and aristocratic pieces alongside more modern examples. Several of our lucky readers were able to visit the exhibition and see the tiaras in person, and today, I’m honored to share some photos taken by our lovely reader Phyllis!
Phyllis has generously shared a selection of her photographs, plus some of her observations about the exhibition. She notes that the presentation techniques used by Sotheby’s to present some of the diadems was truly ingenious: “The tiaras are either in cases where you can walk around 360 degrees and see them from all sides or are along the walls in niche cases. The tiaras in the niche cases actually float up and down and also spin, I spoke with a Sotheby’s employee about this and evidently the wall niches, which are actually secure vaults, use a patented technology to suspend and spin the tiaras. There are no strings! I think it must use air pressure changes to do this….it’s really cool.”
Here, two interesting tiaras are paired in a single case. The top sparkler is the Westminster Halo Tiara, made by Lacloche in 1930 for Loelia Ponsonby, the third wife of the 2nd Duke of Westminster. Sotheby’s notes that the tiara was designed “as a halo to be worn over the crown of the wearer’s head and extending outwards in the manner of a traditional Chinese headdress,” adding that it was “originally set with the Hastings and Arcot diamonds, now replaced with smaller diamonds, [and] set with approximately 1,400 diamonds in total.”
The second, smaller tiara in the display is a simpler silver bandeau-style tiara that dates to ca. 1920. Sotheby’s describes the jewel as “as an openwork bandeau of foliage and flowers, set at the centre with a cabochon emerald and with circular-cut sapphires and pink sapphire within the centres of the flowers.”
One of the most famous tiaras displayed in the exhibition was the Spencer Tiara, which we discussed at length here on the site a few days ago. It was made in 1937 for the Countess Spencer using a set of nineteenth-century ornaments, and it was most famously worn by Diana, Princess of Wales. Sotheby’s calls the tiara “one of the most famous diadems in modern history.” (It’s tough to disagree with that statement!) Phyllis shared that “it was a real thrill” to see the tiara in person, and that it was a highlight, along with another very important royal jewel, Queen Victoria’s Emerald and Diamond Tiara.
I really love the photo that Phyllis took of the Rosebery Tiara. Her image shows the intense sparkle of the diamonds so clearly! Made in France ca. 1878, this tiara was given as a wedding present to Hannah Rothschild, the richest women in Britain, by her new husband, the 5th Earl of Rosebery. Sotheby’s explains that the tiara is “comprised of ornate scrollwork and foliate detailing in a graduated sequence of crescents within which large collet stones are set and flanked by foliate scrolls issuing stylised lilies, with a band interspersed with square and lozenge stones, set throughout with diamonds.”
Phyllis explained that she “loved seeing these tiaras in 360 views because the frames and attachments are just as interesting as the front views.” She added, “Most of them have detachable brooches and/or can be worn as necklaces. The mechanics used vary quite a bit from one tiara to the next and all are utterly unique. Some brooch backs have pin back attachments like modern jewelry but the older ones have spikes and clips.”
Here are two more tiaras that shared a case in the exhibition. (It’s so fun to think through the reasons that the curators paired up certain sparklers, isn’t it?) The top tiara is a diamond waveform tiara made by Cartier in 1904. Sotheby’s describes it as “a wreath of twinned sprays of leaves, set throughout with brilliant-cut diamonds, with pendant larger diamonds to suggest flowers, detachable into four brooches, accompanied by brooch fittings.”
The lower tiara is also a Cartier creation. Made in the 1920s, it’s a bandeau-style tiara set with diamonds, amethysts, sapphires, and onyx. Sotheby’s explains that the tiara, which was made in the firm’s Paris atelier, has a “geometric openwork design, set throughout with circular-cut diamonds and three large faceted buff-top amethysts, with cabochon sapphire and onyx panel accents.” You can see this one sparkling in motion on the Sotheby’s website as well!
I love this dramatic photograph of the Derby Tiara, made around 1890, likely by Skinner & Co. This tiara has a fraternal twin: the Devonshire Diadem, made by the same firm in 1893. The Derby is slightly smaller than the Devonshire; Sotheby’s notes that the Devonshire version “features 13 palmette motifs,” while the Derby “is smaller and bears 11 palmette motifs.” Though Sotheby’s attributes the construction of the tiara to Skinner, the piece resides in a fitted Carrington & Co. case.
Placed below the Derby Tiara is an unusual, asymmetrical tiara made ca. 1820: the Fitzwilliam Tiara. Sotheby’s explains that this early example of nineteenth-century tiara design is in “naturalist taste, designed as a long spray of flowers, leaves and buds forming a half circle, the front surmounted by crossed leafy stems centred and flanked by flowers.” The tiara is “detachable to be used as earrings and a brooch, [and] set throughout with cushion-, pear-shaped and circular-cut diamonds, with a back chain for converting the tiara as a necklace.” It’s fascinating to see the “bones” of the tiara’s construction in Phyllis’s photo.
Here’s a tiara in one of the “floating” cases described by Phyllis. Sold in an auction at Sotheby’s in 2021, this golden diadem was made by Jacques-Ambroise Oliveras ca. 1805. By family tradition of the longtime owners, the Lascelles family, the tiara and its coordinating jewels belonged to Empress Joséphine of France, perhaps gifts from her sister-in-law, Caroline Bonaparte Murat. Sotheby’s has published a lengthy essay on the provenance of the tiara and its connection to Joséphine and Caroline.
And finally, we’ve got another set of jewels that particularly intrigued Phyllis: a turquoise and diamond tiara and necklace made in the 1960s by Van Cleef & Arpels. Sotheby’s notes that turquoise jewels like this suite were inspired by designs from India. And Phyllis shares even more information with us: “Another thing I learned is that the turquoise tiara has never been worn, only the necklace has been worn and just one or two times. Gem quality turquoise is a soft stone that discolors easily from body contact, hence these turquoise pieces being rarely or never worn. The uprights on that tiara also are removable and can be attached to the necklace as pendants, I think at the ‘flower base’ motifs.”
Please join me in raising a huge cheer for Phyllis to thank her for so generously allowing us to “visit” the exhibition alongside her with her pictures and her observations. I’m so grateful that she gave us this little window into the spectacular show!