The Grand Duchess Vladimir’s Tiara is arguably one of the most important and recognisable jewels in the world today. Currently in the possesion of Queen Elizabeth II, this magnificent piece began life at the glittering court of Imperial Russia.
Her imperial Highness Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, The Grand Duchess Vladimir was one of the most important jewellery collectors in history. Born Duchess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin she married the second son of the Russian Emperor Alexander II, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich in 1874.
According to the Royal Collection Trust, Grand Duchess Vladimir would have probably received this jewel at the time of her marriage. It was almost certainly made by the Imperial Court Jeweller, Bolin.
Made in gold and silver, it originally consisted of intersecting circles set with old mine cut brilliant diamonds with an undulating diamond ribbon on top which accommodated hanging claw-set pearls.
Grand Duchess Maria became renowned as ‘the grandest of the grand duchesses’ and her home, the Vladimir Palace, became the centre of Russian aristocratic society. In 1902, Consuela Vanderbilt (who had married the 9th Duke of Marlborough) visited Maria Pavlovna in St. Petersburg :
‘She [Maria] had a majestic personality, but could be both gracious and charming. After dinner she showed me her jewels set out in glass cases in her dressing room. There were endless parures of diamonds, emeralds, rubies and pearls to say nothing of semi-precious stones such as turquoises, tourmalines, cat’s eyes and aquamarines.’ What a night that would be! It seems Russian etiquette called for the hostess show off her jewels to honoured female guests. Not what would be called tasteful by others but I would be OK with seeing jewellery at a dinner party!
After her husbands death in 1909, Maria Pavlovna made frequent trips to Paris to visit her good friend, the jeweller Louis Cartier.
In his book Cartier: Jewellers Extraordinary, the author Hans Nadelhoffer states that on one such visit in 1911, she left the Vladimir tiara with Cartier to be cleaned.
Astonished by the level of craftsmanship and artistry, Louis made several detailed studies of the piece. From this, he went on to produce two further tiaras in the same style. The first was destined for Princess Anastasia of Greece (formerly Mrs Nancy Leeds) and the other for Princess Olga Valerianovna, the second wife of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich of Russia..
In 1918, Russia finally exploded in to Revolution. Grand Duchess Vladimir fled to the Crimea leaving her jewels hidden in the Vladimir Palace, thinking she would return when the situation had improved.
Below, Prince Michael of Kent (Grand Duchess Vladimir’s Great Grandson) explains how when reality finally set in, she instructed her son Grand Duke Boris and her close friend Albert Stopford to retrieve her jewels.
(This is a Danish documentary but Prince Michael speaks in English)
Grand Duchess Vladimir passed away on the 6th September 1920 in Switzerland. Her vast jewel collection was divided amongst her children with her sons Andrei and Kyril inheriting the Rubies & Sapphires. Grand Duke Boris acquired her famous emeralds and her only daughter Elena received the Diamonds and Pearls.
Elena had married Prince Nicolas of Greece in 1902 and by 1921, she was living in exile in Paris. In order, to fund her charity house for Russian refugees, she decided to sell several of her mother’s jewels to none other than Queen Mary of Great Britain.
To say Queen Mary loved jewellery would be an understatement. It has been speculated that due to her financially difficult childhood, she developed an obsession with collecting and cataloguing her royal possessions. So when her Romanov cousins were forced to flee with nothing but their magnificent jewels, Mary happily came to the rescue. In 1921, she purchased two pieces from Elena which included the Vladimir tiara for a total sum of £28,000.
Just as Queen Marie of Romania had recognised the majestic importance of the Vladimir Sapphires, Queen Mary added the Vladimir tiara to the upper ranks of jewels owned by the British Royal Family.
Unsurprisingly, the tiara had been damaged in transit so the British Crown Jeweller, Garrard, was tasked with restoring it. While it was with them, Queen Mary asked the jewellers to adapt the original frame so that she could swap out the original pearls for her own family’s emeralds.
Almost sixty years after it was originally crafted by Bolin, the design was copied once again by another famous jeweller.
In 1935, the daughter of Queen Victoria Eugenia (Ena) of Spain, Infanta Beatriz, married the Italian aristocrat, Alessandro Torlonia.
As a wedding present, she received her mother’s Ansorena Aquamarine parure but the original tiara frame had become too fragile to hold the weighty Aquamarines. Infanta Beatriz commissioned the Italian jeweller Bulgari to design her a new piece. Whether because they admired the design or it was a question of practicality given the size of the stones, Bulgari made a new tiara that heavily resembled the Vladimir.
When Queen Mary died in 1952, the Vladimir tiara passed to her grand daughter, Queen Elizabeth II. By 1988, Queen Elizabeth II had it repaired again, completely remaking the frame in Platinum. Queen Elizabeth will usually co ordinate the Pearl version with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee Necklace, while pairing the Emerald version with the Delhi Durbhar Parure.
In her book ‘Dressing the Queen’, Angela Kelly gave her readers an amazing behind the scenes look at the Vladimir tiara. From her images, we learnt that each of the Vladimir pearls and the Cambridge emeralds have their own separate pouch and each are numbered so that the stones can graduated accordingly.
We also have a fantastic view of the back of the tiara where we can see the hanging mechanism.
The tiara once again made headlines when it was rumoured that prior to her wedding, Meghan Markle had requested the Vladimir Tiara in its Emerald form only to be told no by Queen Elizabeth.
Regardless of your opinion of the Duchess of Sussex, this story was a complete fabrication and easily spotted by those of us who are familiar with Royal tiaras.
The British press had alluded that Meghan wanted to wear an Emerald tiara but was told that she could not have the one she wanted as it had ‘unknown Russian provenance’.
As the blog Tiara Mania correctly points out, there are no pieces of jewellery belonging to the British Royal Family that have unknown origins. As we have seen, Queen Mary began cataloguing her jewellery with precise detail in the 1920s. Secondly, we know exactly how this tiara entered the British Royal family, there is a receipt. Lastly, this story only came about after Princess Eugenie wore the Greville Emerald Kokoshnik tiara at her wedding (again, we know where that came from).
In 2019, the popular television programme, Downton Abbey was made into a feature film, depicting a fictional Royal visit to Downton by Queen Mary and King George
During one of the grand evening scenes, Geraldine James (Queen Mary) is seen wearing a fantastically accurate replica of the Vladimir Tiara and the Delhi Durbhar suite.
These royal jewels were painstakingly reproduced by the Downton Abbey costume designer Anna Robbins. In an interview, Anna claimed that: ‘we wanted pieces that the audience might recognise from our current royals that also worked in terms of style and proportion for the costumes’. The replicas were made by the model maker Martin Adams using lead-free pewter, mounted, and electroplated in silver. Swarovski foil-backed stones were used to imitate the diamonds and the fifteen “emerald” pendants were actually pigmented epoxy resin.
In 2019, I myself was privileged enough to see the Vladimir tiara in person at the RUSSIA, ROYALTY & THE ROMANOVS exhibition that took place in the The Royal Mews, Buckingham Palace.