bookmark_borderThe Grand Duchess Vladimir and her Sapphires

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. 

Like the famous Vladimir Emeralds, Maria’s magnificent collection of Sapphires originated in the mass of wedding presents she received from her new in laws. These particular jewels are said to have come from her husband’s grandmother, Charlotte of Prussia. The most impressive gem in this collection was an enormous 137. 2 ct cushion cut sapphire which was placed in the centre of an imposing tiara.

However, it would appear that the new Grand Duchess Vladimir was not a fan of the tiara’s original setting. Russia in the late 19th Century was experiencing a renaissance in its national traditions. This led to the ladies of the Russian aristocracy opting to wear their tiaras in the Kokoshnik style

The Grand Duchess Vladimir and her Sapphires - Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, Duma 1905

When Maria appeared at the first Russian Parliament (Duma) in 1906, she paired her Sapphire Necklace with a Kokoshnik tiara that belonged to her brother in law, Grand Duke Alexis, which she hoped to inherit one day. However, after his death, the sapphire tiara Maria had coveted went instead to the wife of Grand Duke Paul. On the death of her husband in 1908, Maria Pavlovna found herself in receipt of an annual pension of one million francs the allowances Grand Duke Vladimir had been entitled to as Commander in Chief of the Russian army.

So, with no tiara and plenty of money, she travelled to Paris in the summer to meet with her good friend Louis Cartier, bringing her collection of sapphires with her. As luck would have it, Cartier had a Kokoshnik style tiara in stock, its five large diamonds easily reset with the Grand Duchess’ sapphires.
During the manufacturing process, the jewellers were concerned about sending such an expensive item to Russia for approval. So it was decided that, along with photographs, a copper model would be sent to Maria Pavlovna so she could make her final decision.

In 1909, Cartier himself travelled to St. Petersburg to hand deliver the finished piece. This majestic new tiara featured the 137.2 ct cushion cut sapphire from the previous tiara and four cabochon sapphires from her original set. The five large sapphires elements could be removed and worn as brooches or hair ornaments.

The Grand Duchess Vladimir and her Sapphires - Cartier Diamond and Sapphire Kokoshnik Stomacher

To compliment her new tiara, Grand Duchess Vladimir also decided to purchase an imposing stomacher to complete her grand set. She chose another Cartier stock piece but had the original Pearls removed to accommodate her Sapphires.

Cartier’s original invoice still survives and brilliantly describes the precise stone details of this new jewel:

– 955 diamonds, giving a total diamond weight of 139ct
– 162ct Central Sapphire with an additional 78 sapphires totalling 112ct.

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 collection was divided amongst her children with her sons Andrei and Boris inheriting the Rubies & Emeralds.
Her only daughter Elena received the Diamonds and Pearls, the most famous piece being the Vladimir Tiara now worn by Queen Elizabeth II.

The Grand Duchess Vladimir and her Family
The Grand Duchess Vladimir and her Family

Grand Duke Kyril inherited the Sapphires along with several other pieces. He, his wife (Princess Victoria Melita of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) and their children had managed to escape the revolution by fleeing to Finland. Like many other exiled Romanovs, they were forced to sell their jewels in order to survive. Luckily for them, Victoria Melita’s sister, Queen Marie of Romania, was happy to help.

This is an extract from John Van der Kiste’s biography of Victoria Melita (known to her family as Ducky). Taken from a letter Queen Marie wrote to their mother, Maria Alexandrovna:

“I spoke to Ducky about some of Aunt Miechen’s jewellery that Ducky wants to sell as these pieces represent the only fortune the family has left – thank God that the jewels of the old lady are fabulous! She was an extraordinarily greedy woman and she received, throughout her entire life, more than her share of anything. Nando gave me a generous sum of money to buy jewellery, since mine are lost forever. I want of course, in as much as it is possible, for our money to go to Ducky and her family. I chose a diamond and sapphire tiara , one of the most wonderful things I have seen in my entire life! It is however a horrible feeling to take these treasures from a person I love more than anything in the world. But at the same time I know that I am a gift from God to her, as I am ready to pay for the pieces in full and right away without negotiating the prices. Oh, and heaven, these jewels are wonderful, as seldom one can find!”

Although he sold his mother’s tiara to his sister in law, it is less clear what Kyril did with her necklace and the stomacher.

Queen Marie absolutely adored her new tiara, recognising it as a truly regal jewel. She wore it continuously through her reign often pairing it with her theatrical costumes.

So important was this tiara to her, she chose to wear it for her Coronation in 1922. This special event was designed to invoke the glorious past of Romania. Here you can see Queen Marie with her daughters wearing their elaborate costumes and their grandiose jewels, including Queen Maria of Yugoslavia wearing her Emeralds

The Grand Duchess Vladimir and her Sapphires - Queen Marie of Romania - Coronation 1922

The Grand Duchess Vladimir and her Sapphires - Princess Ilena and Queen Marie of Romania

When her daughter, Princess Ileana married Archduke Anton of Austria in 1931, Marie gave her the Sapphire Kokoshnik Tiara as a wedding present. In 1935, Ileana loaned the tiara back to her mother to wear for the Silver Jubilee of her cousin, King George V of the United Kingdom.

At that point, political tensions were already strong in Romania, so Marie left the tiara in her London bank for safekeeping, probably mindful of what had happened to her wedding jewels. Ileana was only able to reclaim the tiara shortly before the outbreak of World War II.

With the rise of Communism and the fall of the Romanian Monarchy in 1948, Ileana and her family fled, eventually ending up in America where she would write her memoirs ‘I Live Again’. Below is an extract where Ilena describes the last known movements of the tiara. Like many Romanov treasures, the Vladimir Sapphire Kokoshnik Tiara is now lost to history.

The Vladimir Sapphire Kokoshnik Tiara - Princess Ilena of Romania 1

I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania

THERE IS one thing I cannot show you in either of my two rooms: one very important thing which I was allowed to bring with me from my old life, and which made the foundation of my new one. You can see it in a photograph of my mother there on the table, but no picture can give you any idea of the living glow and the rainbow fires in the sapphire and diamond tiara she is wearing. “A tiara!” you say. “Now that is what one expects of a princess!”

Yes, I can agree with you. This was truly a royal diadem. Nicholas I of Russia had it made for his wife, the Princess Charlotte of Prussia, when he became emperor in 1825. Through his granddaughter, my mother’s mother, it descended eventually to me (it goes to Grand Duke Vladimir, brother of her grandmother Grand Duchess Marie, Duchess of Edinburgh and Saxe Coburg Gotha , also a son of the tsar, and later his wife the famous Grand Duchess Vladimir, sold it to her mother on the fled). My mother wore it at her coronation in 1922. She chose it also to wear on state occasions during the visit she made to this country.

And so the tiara and I both entered the United States twice, and together: once in 1926, when I was one of a royal party receiving an official and impressive welcome in New York City, and when the diadem was suitably packed and guarded; and once in 1950, when I flew from Argentina to Miami—hoping to avoid any public recognition—with the tiara wrapped in my nightgown! Perhaps this is not your idea of how a princess should care for her jewels? It was certainly a surprise to the customs officer! To the tiara, however, it was only one more in a long series of adventures.A few of these I know about: for example, that it was smuggled out of Russia in 1918 during the revolution there. My mother had given it to me when I was married in 1931. I lent it to her to wear at the Jubilee of King George V of England, and she left it in her bank in London because of unsettled conditions at home. After her death I had no small trouble in claiming it, but I got it away from England just before World War II actually began. I kept it in Austria until 1943, when I smuggled it into Romania, and there I saved it from the Communists when I left in 1948. It went to Switzerland with me, and then to Argentina, where I pawned it to put money into an unfortunate business that failed. Its adventures as a single piece of jewelry were then almost over, for it became evident that I must try to sell it in order to pay our debts.

Because by this time I was suffering severely from arthritis, I received permission in May, 1950, to come to the United States for medical treatment. As I gathered all my forces, physical and financial, to make this trip, I felt desperately that I was nearing the end of my endurance. I pawned everything I had of value in order to leave my family in Buenos Aires the money to live on, and in order to redeem the tiara. I could not afford to insure something whose “breakup” value had once been appraised at eighty thousand dollars, so I decided to wrap it in my nightgown and keep it with me in a small bag.

I lined up for customs inspection, glad to see that no word of my arrival had preceded me on this second entrance into the United States. I had not realized how public the inspection would be, and when it was my turn and I answered that I had something to declare, I asked if I could unpack my bag in private. The officer was good humored, but a little impatient with my hesitation. When I insisted on it, he made it clear that he thought I was being a nuisance. “What have you got there, anyway—a corpse?” he asked me. However, when he finally led me to an office and I opened my bag, it was my turn to feel a little superior. It was obvious that he did not know quite what to do when a tiara turned up in the luggage he inspected. He touched the central sapphire a little gingerly. Since it weighed 125 carats it was nearly the size of a man’s pocket watch. Was it real? he wanted to know.

When I assured him that it was, he looked still more harassed, but finally he decided that he would send it to Boston “in bond.” Together we wrapped it in a newspaper and put it into a box, which he duly sealed and ticketed. It was with a qualm, I confess, that I watched it put into the luggage compartment of the plane for Boston before I myself embarked. If it should somehow be lost, I was losing everything I had, and it was now out of my hands!

Everyone was very matter of fact until the parcel was opened, and the officials saw what had been lying about the office for ten days—for even I, who was so familiar with it, felt always a thrill of delight at the radiance of blue and white fire when the tiara was suddenly brought into the light. The faces of the men revealed their shocked amazement. They gasped. Then one smiled, relieved. “But of course you have this insured!” he said. “Oh, no,” I told him calmly. “Why should I? It has escaped the Nazis and the Communists safely. Naturally I did not expect to lose it here!” They were evidently uncertain whether to laugh or to scold me, but from that moment we were all friends. One of the men asked me to autograph a visitors’ register he kept—”with all your titles and things!” he explained; and I was tempted to draw him a little sketch of the tiara as a souvenir. The age of the jewel was found to make it free of customs, so eventually I walked off with it under my arm—still in its somewhat battered cardboard box. When it was rewrapped with the help of Mr. Irvine, who represented my “Custom House Brokers,” I tucked it under my arm again and walked up State Street to the post office, where I mailed the package to a jeweler in New York. That was not its last journey.

Sometimes it was guarded by police, at other times my son carried it about in the subway! Finally, after much trouble, worry, and heartbreak, it was sold for a sum much below its value. It was both beautiful and splendid, but my children were in need. As it stood, it neither fed us nor clothed us nor warmed us. I could not even wear it! So I was grateful on the day when it was gone, even though I felt a traitor to the past and all the proud heads that had worn it.

Further Reading: