Today, Sotheby’s sold a fantastic diamond corsage ornament in their Magnificent Jewels auction in Geneva—but is it really a British royal wedding gift, as the lot notes claimed?
The jewel dates to the early 20th century, and it comes from a royal collection. Sotheby’s describes the piece as having an “openwork bow and swirl design, the central cluster and pendant collet-set with a cushion-shaped diamond framed with circular-cut diamonds, further embellished with similarly cut diamonds.” The piece has maker’s marks that indicate that it was produced by Köchert, former court jewelers to the Habsburgs.
Here’s a look at the back of the devant de corsage, showing both its pin fastener and its versatility. You’ll note that the upper and lower sections of the piece can be separated, and that the pendant can be removed as well.
Here’s a look at the complete corsage ornament, placed digitally on a model to show its scale.
And here’s a look at one of the alternate settings of the piece. This smaller setting features the top of the corsage ornament, but flipped over, with the pendant attached. Sotheby’s notes that the jewel can be worn as a brooch or as a pendant.
The diamond ornament comes from the collection of Princess Viktoria Luise of Prussia, the only daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. It was reportedly one of the presents given to her when she married Prince Ernst August of Hanover in May 1913. Their wedding, which united two royal houses that had traditionally been at odds, ended up being the last great gathering of European royals before World War I. (This “wedding” portrait of the couple was, I believe, touched up during the editing process to include a bridal veil to accompany the Brunswick Tiara, which I don’t believe the princess actually wore for her wedding.)
Sotheby’s writes that Viktoria Luise “received this devant-de-corsage as a wedding gift from George V and Queen Mary in 1913.” George and Mary were indeed guests at the wedding. They’re dressed for the ceremony in the photographic portrait above, which shows George in a German military uniform and Mary in diamond splendor (wearing, among other pieces, the George IV Diamond Diadem, Queen Victoria’s Bow Brooches, the Cullinan III & IV Brooch as a pendant, and the Cullinan V, VI, & VIII Brooches together as a single ornament).
But was the corsage ornament really one of the wedding presents that George and Mary brought to Germany for the newlywed couple? Others have cast doubt on this claim, including Ursula at Royal Magazin, who cites evidence from the Köchert archives. (The involvement of Köchert raised my eyebrows immediately—would the Brits really have turned to that particular firm to procure a gift?)
To explore the question further, I turned to newspaper archives for various descriptions of the gifts that George and Mary gave to the bride and groom. The Lancashire Evening Post wrote that George and Mary brought along “a diamond tiara,” as well as “a jewelled parasol handle, a clock of marble and platinum, and a pearl-studded jewel casket” for the couple. The Evesham Standard & West Midland Observer noted, “A magnificent diamond tiara is the principal gift from the King and Queen to the bride, but there are some exquisitely-wrought pieces of jewellery, pendants and brooches, also. A marvellously-jewelled sunshade handle and a pearl-studded casket are amongst Queen Mary’s personal presents to the Princess.”
Interestingly, several of these papers report that King George was giving the couple a new automobile as a gift, but the Evening Despatch wrote that George, “in view of the several motor accidents which have happened to the Cumberland family, abandoned his original plan, which was to give Prince Ernest August a motor-car as a wedding gift (says the Central News Agency). His Majesty instead made the Prince a present of jewellery.” The Observer described George and Mary’s wedding gift as a “costly diadem, with three rows of diamonds.” An item from the Pall Mall Gazette perhaps comes closest to describing the corsage ornament—”The diamond pendant which is the gift of King George and Queen Mary is much admired”—but even that doesn’t really give us any firm evidence to go on. Sotheby’s cites Viktoria Luise’s own memoir, which describes the British gift as “a brilliant brooch with a brilliant tassel as a pendant,” a description that they claim “corresponds exactly to the corsage ornament.” But I’m not sure I’d describe anything about the ornament as a “tassel”!
Regardless, by the time this article is published, the corsage ornament will already have been sold. Sotheby’s offered the jewel in this morning’s sale in Switzerland, with an auction estimate of 30,000-50,000 Swiss francs (about £26,000-44,000 GBP or $30,400-50,700 USD at today’s exchange rates). You can check the Sotheby’s website to see the final realized price for the jewel!