Last week, the hammer fell on the sale of a remarkable collection of jewelry linked to the former royal family of Württemberg and their close relatives, the Habsburgs. Among the pieces were two lots of diamond star jewelry, part of a fad popularized at the nineteenth-century imperial court in Vienna.
The trend for jewels shaped like stars and set with diamonds was made popular by Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wife of Emperor Franz Josef I. In 1865, the royal portraitist Franz Xaver Winterhalter painted Elisabeth wearing a dramatic ballgown with a cascade of diamond and pearl stars in her hair. The ten-pointed stars had been made for Sisi by the Austrian court jeweller Köchert. She wore them often at prominent functions, including a court ball in Dresden for the wedding of her favorite brother, Duke Karl-Theodor in Bavaria.
The diamond star trend subsequently exploded in the royal and noble courts of Europe, with royal ladies like the Princess of Wales, Queen Emma of the Netherlands, and Queen Maria Pia of Portugal jumping on the diamond star fad. All three had collections of diamond stars in their jewelry boxes, as did numerous other royal and aristocratic women. And in Vienna, Köchert continued to make diamond star jewelry as well, providing similar pieces to other women at the Habsburg imperial court. That included members of royal families who married into the Habsburg clan and junior branches of the family, including the royal family of Württemberg in southern Germany and the family of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany in Italy.
In 1887, Köchert made a magnificent diamond star brooch for a German prince with his own set of imperial connections. The jewel features pear-shaped and cushion-cut diamonds set in a double seven-pointed star. In total, the piece features more than 20 carats of diamonds.
The jewel also has a circular central element that is detachable. The brooch fitting, too, can be removed from the piece, which Sotheby’s dubbed “highly important and historical” in the literature for their recent sale.
The interest behind the brooch’s provenance comes not only from its lovely star shape but also from the original source of the diamonds used to make the piece. They come from the collection of Duke Eugen of Württemberg (1788-1857), a nephew of Emperor Paul I and Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia. Duke Eugen established himself as a decorated officer in the Imperial Russian Army, including memorable service as a general during the Napoleonic Wars.
Among Eugen’s numerous accolades and honors was the Order of St. Andrew, an order of chivalry established at the end of the seventeenth century by Peter the Great. For centuries, it was the most senior order of chivalry in Imperial Russia, awarded for outstanding civilian or military merit. Above is an example of a nineteenth-century diamond star from the order. (This particular one was acquired in the twentieth century by Marjorie Merriweather Post and is now a part of the collection at Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C.) Duke Eugen received his order star and insignia as a reward for his service fighting against the French in 1812.
When he died in 1857, Duke Eugen left his Order of St. Andrew star to his third son, Duke Wilhelm of Württemberg. Like his father, Wilhelm had dedicated himself to a career as a soldier. He joined the Austrian army in Vienna in 1848 and saw notable service in the Second Italian War of Independence and the Austro-Prussian War, rising to the rank of general. This photograph of Wilhelm, taken wearing the uniform of a General in the Württemberg Infantry around 1860, is part of the Royal Collection, having been acquired by Prince Albert shortly before his death in 1861.
Wilhelm continued to fight in conflicts under different crowns and flags until 1891, when King Karl I of Württemberg passed away. Because the late king’s successor, King Wilhelm II, had no children, Duke Wilhelm suddenly found himself in the role of heir presumptive to the Wurttemberg throne. Ultimately, though, Wilhelm died in Austria in 1896—and there was never another King of Württemberg at all, as King Wilhelm II lost his throne entirely in November 1918.
In 1887, about ten years before his death, Duke Wilhelm took his father’s diamond Order of St. Andrew star to Köchert in Vienna. He asked the jewelers there to remove the diamonds from the piece of insignia and have them reset in a new brooch. The piece they produced was the beautiful double star brooch sold this month at Sotheby’s. It was an interesting commission, as Wilhelm was not married. I can only hope that he wore the brooch himself!
Duke Wilhelm had no descendants. Eventually, the brooch was passed to his younger sister. Duchess Alexandrine Mathilde of Württemberg. The Sotheby’s auction lot included a handwritten note from Alexandrine explaining the piece’s provenance. According to Alexandrine, Wilhelm “repeated several times that he wished” for her to have the brooch, but she demurred, insisting that he might still find a wife and have children of his own. She accepted the brooch “temporarily” in 1891, the year that Wilhelm became heir to the throne of Württemberg. It turned out to be a permanent gift. Sotheby’s notes, “During Wilhelm’s final illness in July 1896 he repeated his wish that she should consider the brooch as a gift to her and thus her full property, rather than as a temporary loan.”
Like her brother, Alexandrine did not marry or have children. When she died in September 1913, she bequeathed the diamond star brooch to Queen Charlotte of Württemberg, the second wife of King Wilhelm II. Five years later, the Württembergs lost their throne at the end of World War I, though Wilhelm and Charlotte were permitted to remain in their home, Schloss Bebenhausen, and to continue to receive an income from the state.
After the war, the brooch found itself another royal owner. Queen Charlotte gifted it to Princess Nadezhda of Bulgaria, likely on her marriage to Duke Albrecht Eugen of Württemberg, the son of the last heir presumptive to the Württemberg throne, in 1924. Princess Nadezhda was the youngest daughter of Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria and his first wife, Princess Marie Louise of Bourbon-Parma. Through her mother, who died shortly after giving birth to her, Nadezhda was a niece of Empress Zita of Austria and Prince Felix of Luxembourg, among numerous others.
The brooch presumably remained with Albrecht Eugen and Nadezhda’s descendants until this November, when it was sold as part of a collection of jewels all coming from the House of Württemberg. (Two of their children, Duke Alexander Eugen and Duchess Sophie, are still living today.) This photograph from the Sotheby’s sale demonstrates the impressive size of the brooch, which measures about two and a half inches in diameter.
When the bidding ended during the sale in Geneva on November 6, Duke Wilhelm’s diamond star brooch sold for a remarkable 266,700 Swiss francs (around $300,000 USD), absolutely demolishing the auction estimate of 16,000-22,000 francs.
Duke Wilhelm’s diamond star brooch wasn’t the only piece of diamond star jewelry in the November 6 sale at Sotheby’s in Geneva. The auction also included a lot of versatile diamond star ornaments that can be worn as brooches, hairpins, or toppers on a tiara.
Here’s a look at the trio of diamond stars and the tiara frame made to display them, both in their original cases supplied by the jeweler who made them. These pieces were made by Wilhelm Haarstrick, a jeweler who worked for Köchert in Vienna for decades, producing pieces for the company from 1864 until 1896. Then he went solo, setting up his own independent atelier in Salzburg. Though he no longer worked for the Habsburg’s court jeweler, Haarstrick’s name remained on the list of official purveyors of jewelry to the family.
Haarstrick made these three diamond stars, as well as their brooch fittings, hairpin fittings, and tiara frame, in 1900. Here’s a look at the stars attached to the simple tiara frame. As you might imagine, the tiara frame was constructed so that it could be nestled into the voluminous hairstyles worn at the turn of the twentieth century. The stars would have looked like they were floating above the wearer’s head when worn as part of this tiara.
The stars were made to be worn by a princess. In 1900, Grand Duke Ferdinand IV of Tuscany and his second wife, Princess Alice of Bourbon-Parma, ordered the jewels from Haarstrick as a wedding gift for one of their nieces. Ferdinand was the last Grand Duke of Tuscany, reigning for less than a year before losing his throne in March 1860 during Italian unification. The Tuscan grand ducal line was a cadet branch of the Habsburgs, and they used the territorial designation “Austria-Tuscany” in their titles. Ferdinand headed to Austria after losing his Italian throne, eventually settling down in Salzburg, where Haarstrick’s shop was located.
Princess Alice married Grand Duke Ferdinand in 1868, almost a decade after he’d been exiled from Italy. She too had roots in pre-unification Italy. Her father was Charles III, the reigning Duke of Parma from 1849 until his death in 1854. He was succeded by Alice’s older brother, Duke Robert I, who had an astonishing twenty-four children with two wives. Among them were Princess Marie Louise of Parma, mentioned above as the mother of Princess Nadezhda of Bulgaria, and Empress Zita, the wife of the last Austrian emperor.
These particular diamond stars were made as a gift for a niece on Ferdinand’s side of the family. Ferdinand’s brother, Archduke Karl Salvator of Austria-Tuscany, had ten children. On October 29, 1900, his youngest surviving daughter, Archduchess Maria Immaculata, married Duke Robert of Württemberg in the chapel of the Hofburg, the primary imperial palace in Vienna. The glittering ceremony was attended by Emperor Franz Josef and the other members of the imperial family. Ferdinand and Alice brought along the diamond stars as a wedding gift for Maria Immaculata during the celebrations. The stars remained with the Württemberg family from 1900 until November, when they were sold at Sotheby’s.
The literature provided by Sotheby’s to coincide with the sale showed off three different ways to wear the diamond stars. Here, they’re shown pinned as brooches on the lapel of a jacket.
Here, they’re displayed on the accompanying tiara frame. (Just doesn’t work with modern hair, does it? You need hair height to pull this one off.)
And here, they’re shown as hairpins, recalling that famous Winterhalter portrait of Sisi. The diamond stars were estimated to bring between 9,000-14,000 Swiss francs, but, like the other star brooch in the auction, they significantly exceeded that estimate, selling for 165,100 francs (or around $186,000 USD).
Also, just for fun, here’s a rundown of how the four tiaras in the sale fared. (Spoiler: they went big.) In the top row on the left, we’ve got Archduchess Maria Immaculata’s diamond and pearl tiara, which sold for 812,800 Swiss francs (or around $917,000 USD). In the top row on the right is Duchess Maria Isabella of Württemberg’s ruby and diamond tiara, which sold for 762,000 Swiss francs (or about $860,000 USD). On the bottom left is Archduchess Margarete Sophie’s ruby floral tiara, which sold for 546,000 Swiss francs (or around $616,000 USD). And on the bottom right is the diamond floral tiara from the auction, which sold for 120,650 Swiss francs (or about $136,000 USD). All of the prices represented very significant boosts from the stated auction estimates for the lots, more than doubling the high end of the estimate in each case.