Posts tagged bespoke jewellery

The highly articulated panther bracelet made by Cartier for the Duchess of Windsor.

When we think of firmly established luxury houses and their signature pieces (Hermes and the Kelly bag, Saint Laurent and Le Smoking, Louis Vuitton and luggage), they have become so ubiquitous that we tend to forget how revolutionary they were in their own right in their day.

Cartier had become the ‘jeweller of kings’ thanks to its innovative approach in creating super light, bright settings in platinum for the flood of newly mined diamonds emerging from South Africa.  But the firm may not have had the impetus to remain at the forefront of revolutionary jewellery design had it not been for the fiery Jeanne Toussaint, their directrice of fine jewellery from 1933 until her retirement in 1970.  She was fiercely stylish, full of life, colour and imagination and was responsible for making the jewelled panther motif synonymous with the Cartier firm.

The colourful Hindu Necklace made by Cartier for Daisy Fellowes marked the apogee of the Tutti Frutti style.

Jeanne was great friends with Coco Chanel and the two of them shared similarities.  She was born in 1887 in Charleroi- not much is known about her early life other than it was difficult, like Chanel’s. Like Chanel, she ran off to Paris where she had a series of rich, influential lovers.  The taste of both women was exotic and they both revelled in the new found freedom of women of the 1920s.  Jeanne was fascinated by animals, in particular the panther- she was one of the first women in Paris to wear a full length panther coat and her apartment was known to be strewn with panther skins, paintings and prints.

Sometime towards the end of the First World War Jeanne met and began a long, passionate affair with Louis Cartier, one of the golden trinity of siblings who had helped shape the firm.  Fascinated by her taste and joie de vivre, he immediately hired to oversee the company’s accessories despite her inability to draw.  But she had vision and Louis educated her, teaching her about precious stones and the importance of settings.  The panther began to make appearances in Cartier’s designs, first in the Panther wristwatch (the wristwatch was Louis’ invention), then in jewelled compacts and cigarette cases.  Louis was already overseeing Cartier’s transition from the Garland style into Art Deco and probably relied heavily on Jeanne’s taste.  She accompanied him to India, which he had been visiting since the 1910s, cultivating his relationships with the rich Maharajas.  Inspired by the colour of the gems and the gold, she urged the designers at the firm to return to yellow gold after a predominance of platinum settings which had lasted over 30 years. 

The Duchess of Windsor and the coloured flamingo brooch made for her in 1940.

In 1933 Jeanne was appointed head of fine jewellery, overseeing every aspect of jewellery design.  She was a critical and exacting taskmaster; technical problems were of no concern to her and she got the results she wanted.  The firm’s most exciting pieces and commissions of the 1930s were produced under her direction.  The jewels now known as Tutti Frutti, inspired by India and colour, heralded a new language for Cartier.  The epitome of this style was the fantastic sapphire, emerald and ruby necklace created for Daisy Fellowes, who was frequently mentioned in the best dressed lists. 

Jeanne’s very free spirit got her into severe trouble during the Second World War.  When the Germans occupied Paris, she designed a small jewelled bird in a cage, representing the French nation.  She created an elaborate display in the Cartier window in Paris around this theme and was imprisoned by the Nazis for her efforts.  She was only released due to the influence of Coco Chanel.

Barbara Hutton and the yellow diamond panther clips made for her by Cartier.

It was only after the war that her jewelled menagerie was set loose on Cartier.  She was always sending designers and artists off to the zoo to sketch birds and cats for inspiration.  In 1948 she created the first Panther jewel proper, a brooch for the Duchess of Windsor consisting of a gold and enamel panther reclining on a large cabochon emerald (She had already been the vision for the famous flamingo brooch commissioned by the Windsors in 1940).  The piece was a success and they went on to order some of the most important panther jewellery ever made by Cartier. The great exotic cat jewels now materialised in enamels, sapphires, emeralds and white and yellow diamonds.  They were acquired by some of the great collectors of the day, including the already mentioned Daisy Fellowes, the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and Princess Nina Aga Khan.  As the panther became synonymous with Cartier, it made its appearance on everything from handbag clasps to scent bottles.

Louis Cartier died in 1942, having remained close to Jean until his death.  She was to remain at the firm for another 28 years until her retirement in 1970.  It is a testament to her creativity that she remained at Cartier even after the company had passed from the hands of the family in the 1960s, and her influence on the Cartier legacy is still very much in play today.

Jeanne Toussaint photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1962

A contemporary panther bracelet by Cartier. Jeanne Toussaint's legacy lives on.

The Most Magnificent Emeralds in the World

The Grand Duchess Vladimir wearing the emeralds for the great Court ball of 1903.  Aside from the emeralds on her headdress, note the other stones of size and importance on her clothes.

One of the most important collection of emeralds ever assembled in one jewel has to be those of the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia.  Aunt by marriage to Tsar Nicholas II, she set up a rival court in St. Petersburg at the beginning of the 20th century, as the Tsar and his wife shielded themselves from public life as the haemophiliac condition of their only son Alexis began to take its toll on their private life.

Although she was born into minor royalty, she fulfilled her role as a Romanov with great taste and splendour.  The seed of her famed jewellery collection was her wedding present from her father-in-law, Tsar Alexander II: a magnificent parure of emeralds, the central stone of the necklace a hexagonal emerald weighing a magical 100 carats.  The Grand Duchess was an extremely welcome client at the great establishments of the day: Fabergé, Bolin, Chaumet et al, but it was with Cartier that she established the closest relationship.  Most of her resetting was done by them and it was through them that she made most of her important bespoke acquisitions.

Her famous emeralds were worn often, most memorably decorating her dress at the great Court Ball of 1903, in which the guests arrived dressed in 17th century dress.  The Grand Duchess was able to leave St. Petersburg during the revolution, escaping with her life, a few of her jewels and little else.  The majority of her jewels were salvaged by a brave Englishman named Bertie Stopford who managed to smuggle the jewels out of the country to their rightful owner before the Vladimir Palace was seized by the authorities.

The Vladimir emerald necklace in its original form.  Even though it is late 19th century, the design remains timeless.

The Vladimir emeralds in their last setting before they were dispersed.  This was a bespoke piece by Cartier for the heiress Barbara Hutton.

The Grand Duchess died in France in 1920 and her jewels were divided amongst her children, her son the Grand Duke Boris inheriting the emeralds.  Shortly after that, penury biting at his heels, he sold the emeralds to Cartier, thus reversing the relationship his mother had had with them.  Cartier re-set the stones into a magnificent sautoir and promptly sold it to Edith Rockefeller McCormick.  She was an eccentric heiress who divorced her husband Harold in 192 and it’s somehow pleasant to speculate that she bought them for herself as a bit of post-divorce cheer.  It was also around this time that Mrs. McCormick achieved minor notoriety with the press by claiming to be the reincarnation of the wife of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen.  She did not enjoy the emeralds for long: Mrs. McCormick died of cancer in 1930 and her executors sold the stones back to Cartier.

Brabara Hutton wearing the Vladimir emeralds in their oriental setting.  She wears the Pasha diamond on her finger.

In 1935, they sold the emeralds (again- Cartier must have done really well out of these emeralds) to their most famous owner, thrift store heiress and serial spouse seeker Barbara Hutton.  In 1947 she had them re-set again by Cartier into a ravishing, striking tiara of oriental design, finished off in diamonds and yellow gold- this was going against the trend of the time, which favoured platinum.  The tiara could be worn as a necklace and Mrs. Hutton greatly enjoyed wearing the piece, especially dressed in exotic fabrics hosting fabulous parties in her palace of Sidi Hosni in Tangier.

In order to fund one of her many divorces, the emeralds were sold in 1965 to Van Cleef and Arpels, who recut some of the stones, remounted them and sold them individually.  It was not the first emerald set to suffer historical vandalism at the hands of Van Cleef: in 1953, they had bought the emerald tiara of the Empress Marie Louise, a wedding gift from Napoleon, and sold off the stones separately. 

There are few jewels with a set of stones of such impeccable provenance and unless Queen Elizabeth II starts disposing of her own collection, which is unlikely, we will probably never see such an assembly of emeralds on the market ever again.




The first Fabergé Egg: the 1885 Hen Egg made for Tsarina Maria Feodorovna.

The late 17th century gold egg from the collection of Augustus the Strong of Saxony, which may have served as inspiration for the egg.

The 18th century gold and ivory egg in the Danish Royal Collection.

Easter just wouldn’t be what it is without eggs and the jewelled, decorated ones that Fabergé created for the Russian Imperial family between 1885-1916 are the most famous of all.  They are the pinnacle of the goldsmiths’ art: ingenious and beautifully made, some with techniques now lost to us.  The quality of design of some of them is questionable, to put it charitably, but that can never detract from the incredible attention, care and detail that has been lavished on each one.

The tradition of presenting painted eggs to loved ones had long been established in Russia.  Easter is the most important festival in the Russian Orthodox Church, celebrating as it does the Resurrection.  It is always celebrated in the Spring, a time in which Russia is finally seeing the end of its long, harsh Winter and therefore a time of rebirth, the egg being a symbol of that rebirth.  Before the Romanovs had started presenting each other with jewelled eggs, they had already been commissioning beautiful porcelain examples from the Imperial factory to hand out as official gifts.

The commission of the first Imperial Easter Egg was the culmination of a long PR campaign by Fabergé.  Alexander III had already bought some small pieces from the firm and they had been working on cataloguing, restoring and organising objects and jewellery in the Hermitage for free during the 1870s.  At some point during these years they had been challenged by Alexander III that they could not equal the craftsmanship of the great 18th century goldsmiths.  They duly replicated an elaborate gold and red enamel snuffbox of the period and presented it to the Tsar, who declared the great master goldsmiths surpassed.

The Tsarina Maria Feodorovna in full Court dress in the mid 1880s, around the time she received her first Fabergé egg.

The Tsarina Maria Feodorovna in full Court dress in the mid 1880s, around the time she received her first Fabergé egg.

So it was natural that by 1885 Fabergé had become the Tsar’s go-to firm when he decided he wanted something extra special to present to his beautiful, accomplished pleasure loving wife, the Tsarina Maria Feodorovna.  The result was the charming Hen Egg, beautiful and simple and lacking in the elaborate decoration of subsequent creations.  It is made of a gold shell overlaid with white enamel.  The shell ‘breaks’ open to reveal a golden yolk- this in turn unscrews to reveal a hen perfectly rendered in three colour gold.  The hen opens to yield a miniature diamond crown with a ruby pendant.  The egg could be said to be a close replica of an 18th century one in the Danish Royal Collection, made in ivory and revealing similar surprises- it would have been a sentimental touch to remind the Tsarina of her native Denmark.  However, there is another one of an earlier date and similar design in the Green Vaults in Dresden- Peter Carl Fabergé spent much of his youth there as an apprentice, absorbing techniques and styles which he was later to distil into the world famous ‘le style faberge’.  Almost certainly some of the incredible goldsmithing he studied there was the inspiration for the immaculate three colour gold rendering of the hen in the surprise.

The Hen Egg of 1885 was only supposed to be one off bespoke trinket- but the Tsarina was so delighted with it that Alexander III immediately put in a standing order for a yearly egg and gave faberge the title of ‘Goldsmith by Special Appointment to the Imperial Crown’.  The tradition was continued by his son, Nicholas II, who increased the standing order to two eggs a year- one for his mother and one for his wife.  In total, 50 Imperial Eggs were created, of which 43 survive.

Porcelain Easter presentation egg from the Imperial factory bearing the monogram of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna.

Fabergé's subsequent, more elaborate creations.


The famous paste cuffs Fulco di Verdura created for Coco Chanel.  She embraced costume jewellery and made it acceptable, fashionable and affordable.

It is hard to believe that nearly a century has passed since Coco Chanel opened her couture house in Paris.  Her fashion innovations were so far reaching that most modern women take them for granted.  She liberated them from their corsets, made short hair and suntans fashionable, put them into trousers, created the little black dress.  She was her own person and a shrewd businesswoman, raising herself from convent poverty to a life of great comfort.

Coco Chanel wearing her trademark pearls, Verdura cuffs and signature cigarette.

By designing and creating beautiful pieces of fine and high jewellery, Chanel in its present form is only carrying on a vein which Coco herself started in around 1924.  With the start of Paris Couture Week and the Chanel Centenary just round the corner it is only fitting that we look at this fashion icon’s contribution to jewellery.

With her use of tweeds and jerseys inspired by English life, she created a comfortable, elegant, quietly sumptuous look that her rival Paul Poiret was to call ‘Pauvre Luxe’, which literally means Luxury Poor.  This was her initial approach to jewellery design.  She was already the owner of wonderful pieces, many of them gifted to her by her lover the Duke of Westminster.  Initially, she had no desire to replicate precious jewels as her main desire was to accessorise, not flaunt wealth.  Taking a cue from Paul Poiret, she designed costume pieces which were an instant hit for their daring use of colour which worked beautifully against the dark minimalism of her clothes.  She liked to reference big, bold sources, such as Byzantium and military tassels and decorations, which resulted in jewelled bracelets, large coloured brooches and her signature long gold chains strung with coloured beads.  Defying convention (as usual), Chanel enjoyed mixing fake pieces with real ones and in what was to become her signature look she draped herself in oversized paste pearls, which she wore with the magnificent ones the Duke of Westminster had given her.

Her use of costume jewellery made it fashionable, acceptable and affordable and as the craze took off she met Fulco di Verdura.  He was an impoverished Italian duke with a gift for design.  Chanel originally hired him as a textile designer and recognising his talent, she asked him to create bespoke jewels for her using stones from jewellery given to her by previous lovers.  Impressed with the results, it was the start of a successful partnership.  They pioneered the use of baked enamel jewellery creating maltese crosses and huge, studded cuffs that were (and continue to be) copied the world over.  From this date Chanel was often photographed wearing the two cuffs Verdura designed for her to wear.  Incidentally, these pieces are incredibly valuable: Chanel’s own Verdura paste cuff recently sold at Christie’s for $100,000.

This jewellery creativity climaxed in 1932 when she produced her one and only high jewellery collection.  Again she defied convention by creating jewellery at a time when couture houses viewed this practice by one of their own in trepidation.   This time she abandoned Byzantium and the military for a galaxy of stars- Chanel wanted to ‘cover women in constellations’.  It was made purely in diamonds, and stars were a favourite of hers; she used the motif extensively and her bed in her South of France villa was wrought out of stars and crescents.  It was exhibited at the Grand Palais to great acclaim and stars have continued to be honoured in jewellery creations subsequent to Chanel’s death in 1971.  A fitting metaphor for one of fashion’s greatest figures. 

Two pieces of the high jewellery collection Coco Chanel designed in 1932.  She declared that she wanted to 'drape women in constellations'. 

The Celeste brooch by Chanel Fine Jewellery.  It pays tribute to Coco's love of stars and pearls.


One of the very first jewels Anita received from her husband, a peacock comb by Mellerio.  The style is pure Art Nouveau.

The Kapurthala Tiara in emeralds and diamonds, by Cartier.  It was commissioned by the Maharaja in the early 1930s and is a triumph of the neo Indian jewels Cartier was creating for the Indian rulers at the time.

A long forgotten story was thrust into the spotlight again last year with the Victoria and Albert’s exhibition of Indian and Moghul jewellery in the Al Thani Collection.  This was the romantic, true tale of Anita Delgado, the humble Spanish dancer raised to the rank of maharani and showered with jewels, some of which later found their way into the Al Thani Collection, most of which have been lost forever.

Anita Delgado was a beautiful flamenco dancer, born in Malaga, Spain, in 1890.  Not much is known about her early childhood, other than her talent as a dancer and rudimentary upbringing.  In 1906, at the tender age of 16 she was seen dancing in a cafe in Madrid by Sir Jagatjit Singh, Maharaja of Kapurthala, one of the great princely states of India.  He was in Spain to attend the wedding of Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia of Battenberg and he fell in love with Anita on sight.  After much protracted courting during which Anita rebuffed all advances, she agreed to marry him.  Spanish society was so appalled by this social mismatch that any signs of social climbing were met with derisory cries of ‘wanting to marry a maharaja’ for decades after.

Rock crystal and emerald necklace presented by the Maharaja of Kapurthala to his wife Anita in 1925. The cracks in the marriage were irreparable at the time this jewel was gifted, as they divorced the same year.

The magnificent and beautiful emerald that Anita Delgado was given by her husband, the Maharaja of Kapurthala, as a reward for learning Urdu. 

Anita was carried off to Paris where she was given, in modern terms, a makeover.  Not only was she taught how to eat, walk and talk but she was also showered in clothes and jewellery- and what jewels they were.  It was the start of a lifelong passion, one that she shared with her husband.  The jewels all reflect the changing tastes of the 20th century, starting with the naturalism of Art Nouveau, through the magnificent Belle Epoque and later, Art Deco.  The 1920s saw a period of great collaboration between the Indian princely families and the great European jewellery houses.  The maharajas had chests filled with ancestral stones, many of which were reset in bespoke creations in Europe in a style that successfully married the grand, Indian style with the clean, monochrome lines of Art Deco. 

Anita Delgado, Prem Kaur, Maharani of Kapurhtala wearing her famous moon shaped emerald.

Anita married the Maharaja of Kapurthala in a civil ceremony in Paris and became the Maharani when she married him again in India under Sikh rites, taking the name of Prem Kaur.  She was the maharaja’s fifth wife and it says a lot about her strength of character that she insisted on, and was given unheard of freedoms for a woman in India, being allowed to live in her own quarters outside the harem.  One of the many gems she set her cap at was a magnificent, unusual emerald cut in the shape of a crescent moon which decorated a sacred elephant.  Her husband granted it to her on condition that she learnt Urdu.  She was proficient enough to have her request fulfilled six months later.

Sadly the marriage did not bring either of them happiness and the princely couple parted ways, divorcing in 1925.  She was given a generous monthly stipend, allowed to keep all the jewels she had acquired during their marriage and allowed to keep her title, all on condition that she never remarried and never returned to India.  Anita spent the rest of her life between Malaga, Biarritz, Deauville and Paris, dying in relative obscurity in 1962.  A very considerable portion of her jewels and possessions were sunk in transport by shipping tank and the current maharaja’s family are still trying to recover them.


The 1913 Winter Egg by Fabergé, given by Tsar Nicholas II to his mother the Empress Marie.

The depths of winter in which we now find ourselves has served as inspiration to many artists and designers.  The snowflake, with its perfect symmetry and tantalisingly beautiful crystal structure has been rendered many times over in diamonds by artist jewellers throughout the last century.  One jeweller, however, was key in popularising the motif in the 20th century: Carl Fabergé.  He took the concept of ice and snow and made it his own, and how fitting that this should be done by a Russian jeweller, a country where the extremes of winter are harsher than most of us are used to.  Fabergé is mostly famous for his fabulous eggs, but his jewellery is still relatively unknown by the larger public. 

Most of the fabulous, important pieces are gone, sold and melted down after the 1917 Revolution and are only known to us through portraits and archive material.  His smaller, wittier pieces have survived because intrinsically they are worth very little- this is the reason why so many objects- including the famous eggs- survived in abundance. 

Alma Theresia Pihl, one of the most talented designers employed by Fabergé .

The ice concept is remarkable for several reasons.  Firstly, there was very little precedent for this kind of ultra-naturalistic kind of jewel, so it was groundbreaking in design.  Most high end designers were still referencing historical styles.  Art Nouveau was in its full flowering, but it was more preoccupied with a highly stylised rendering of nature rather than a realistic one.  Secondly, it was the brainchild of a highly talented designer in the Fabergé workshops named Alma Theresia Pihl.  She was a young woman working in what was very much a man’s world and had a unique way of looking at design- she once drew on needlepoint for her inspiration, setting small squares of coloured gems in a mosaic manner to mimic embroidery.  It is a testament to her abilities that she was responsible for the designs of at least two of the Imperial Easter Eggs. 

Fabergé once said: ‘I have little interest in an expensive object if its price is only in the abundance of diamonds and pearls’ and this was obvious in the way he raised relatively humble quartzes and enamels into objects of desire.  He must have been thrilled when Dr. Emanuel Nobel, of dynamite fortune and subsequent prize fame came to him with a commission perfectly suited to his design philosophy.  He was a generous man and wanted a present to give out to the ladies at one of his dinners.  He wanted something very beautiful but not intrinsically valuable when taken apart.  Alma Pihl was tasked with this brief and the first snowflake jewels were born, realised in white quartz and diamonds.  The jewels were an immediate success and quickly became a staple for the firm.

Snowflake brooch in platinum and diamonds by Fabergé .

Platinum and diamond snowflake pendant by Fabergé pictured next to its entry in the stock book.

The pinnacle of this theme was the 1913 Winter Egg, given by Tsar Nicholas II to his mother, Empress Maria Feodorvna.  The shell is realistically engraved with a frost pattern and decorated with a criss crossing ice pattern in platinum and diamonds.  Concealed inside was a basket of white flowers, a metaphor for the spring to come after the winter.  Even though it was the most expensive egg ever made, the value was entirely in the craftsmanship- if you were to dismantle it and sell the component parts it is doubtful one would realise even a few thousand pounds.

Rock crystal and diamond ice pendant, one of many  created by Fabergé for Dr. Emanuel Snowman to gift at dinner parties.


The Grand Duchess Vladimir tiara owned by Queen Elizabeth II, which she inherited from her grandmother Queen Mary.  It is shown hung with the Cambridge emeralds, which she also inherited from her grandmother.

The Queen wearing the Grand Duchess Vladimir tiara with the rest of the Cambridge emeralds.  The necklace is also hung with a cleaving from the Cullinan diamond.

This beautiful piece of jewellery has graced the heads of three magnificent matriarchs of royal dynasties: the Grand Duchess Vladimir (who commissioned it), Queen Mary (who bought it) and Queen Elizabeth II (who inherited it), and is associated with a romantic story of escape during the Russian Revolution. 

It was ordered in the 1870s from Bolin, Russia’s most famous jeweller after Fabergé, around the time of Marie’s marriage into the Romanov family.  It must have been one of the first of many important pieces of jewellery to come her way.  Its style was a revolution in simplicity by the standards of the time when the leading trend was the Garland style, with jewellery tending to be modelled on elaborate festoons of flowers. 

The Grand Duchess Vladimir began life as Princess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, a scion of a relatively modest principality in Germany.  In spite of considerable opposition she married the Grand Duke Vladimir, uncle of Tsar Nicholas II and into a life of unimaginable splendour.  A weaker character would have been overawed by this newfound status, but Marie revelled and excelled in her position.  Stories abound of her hosting fancy dress parties where she wore jewel encrusted peasant style dresses.  The Tsarina Alexandra was steadily withdrawing from public life due to her son’s haemophilia (which was then a State secret), so Marie developed a glittering rival court in St. Petersburg.  She cultivated her jewellery collection to enhance this position, from whence she patronised the foremost artists and revolutionary styles of her day.  The Grand Duchess included in her collection wonderful stones then considered slightly inferior such as cat’s eyes and tourmalines.         

The circle tiara was hugely successful and its groundbreaking style was recognised by Cartier, who took the opportunity to make three copies of it when it was sent there for cleaning.  It was clearly a favourite, as there are several existing official photographs of the Grand Duchess wearing the piece throughout her life.   

The Grand Duchess Vladimir wearing the tiara she commissioned from Bolin.  She is photographed with her only daughter, Elena, who married Prince Nicholas of Greece.  She sold the tiara to Queen Mary in 1921.  Her daughter Marina married the Queen's uncle, the Duke of Kent.  Note the grandeur and sumptuousness of their Court dress.

Queen Mary wearing the Vladimir tiara.  Note her diamond studded Garter star.

The Grand Duchess finally escaped Russia in 1919, taking with her only a small bag of her once vast treasure.  The bulk of her possessions were left walled up in her St. Petersburg palace, when a relatively junior figure at the British Embassy called Bertie Stopford took it upon himself to break into the yet undiscovered safe and smuggle the treasures out of Russia on behalf of the Romanov family.  There is a romantic, though unsubstantiated story that Stopford stuffed the tiara into a black bonnet whilst disguised as an old woman, and the pearls were concealed into false cherries sewn onto this.  The majority of the jewels were re-united with their owner, who died in exile in 1920 at Contrexéville in France.  The jewels were divided by her children according to stones, the diamonds going to the Grand Duchess Elena (who married Prince Nicholas of Greece), the pearls to Grand Duke Cyril, the emeralds to Grand Duke Boris and the rubies to Grand Duke Andrei.  The tiara was bought from Princess Nicholas of Greece in 1921 by Queen Mary, whose daughter Marina married the future Duke of Kent. 

Queen Mary also altered the tiara to make the pearl drops interchangeable with emerald cabochon drops, and the Queen has been photographed many times wearing it with either stone.  At a State Banquet in Latvia in 2006 the piece was worn with no drops.

The Vladimir tiara hung with its original pearls.  It was completely reset in the late 1990s by Garrards onto a more resistant platinum frame.


 A magnificent turban ornament by Cartier made in the 1920s.  The central emerald was an Indian heirloom emerald reset into a neo Indian design that successfully married the best elements of modern Art Deco and traditional Moghul design.

The Grand Duchess Maria Fedorovna in the 1780s. She wears an aigrette at the top of her hairstyle, which was inappropriate for a tiara.

The aigrette: not quite a tiara yet and more formal than a jewelled head comb, is an underrated piece of jewellery that does not quite get the attention of it deserves.  However much some may yearn the days where wearing tiaras was de rigueur for some formal occasion, the reality is that even in rarefied circles a woman will only wear one a few times in her life.  An aigrette, however, can be versatile, fun and add a touch of crowning glory to the wearer. 

The first ones almost certainly originated around the 12th century in India as the turban ornaments of Indian rulers, but they did not fully take off in Europe until around the 17th century.  During this time, like their oriental counterparts, they were extravagantly decorated with rare birds’ feathers, and that is how this jewel derived its name- aigrette is the French name for egret, a lesser white heron.  The aigrette’s popularity first peaked towards the end of the 18th century, when they were a more apt hair jewel for the towering hairstyles of the day than a tiara.  As hairstyles became lower after the French Revolution, they fell out of favour and the tiara reigned supreme.  They came back into fashion towards the 1870s, and society ladies considered them indispensable by the 1880s.  They could be more fantastical than tiaras and with all the rage for feathers at this time infinitely more wearable.  They were the perfect accessory for the great costume and masked balls of the age.  The great couturier Worth considered them essential and his former protégé and rival, Paul Poiret, made them his own.  Feathers for aigrettes were supplied by respected specialists and included exotic specimens such as bird of paradise from New Guinea, the Cape ostrich and the Egyptian ibis.  

Another inventive aigrette by Chaumet, circa 1885.  Gem set in the shape of a hummingbird, it can also be worn as a brooch.

Another inventive aigrette by Chaumet, circa 1885.  Gem set in the shape of a hummingbird, it can also be worn as a brooch.

Design by Chaumet for a ruby and diamond winged aigrette.

The heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean in 1912 wearing a feathered aigrette set with a diamond of a stupendous side.  Round her neck is the infamous Hope diamond.

The most inventive, noteworthy aigrettes were made by Chaumet, followed a close second by Cartier.  All manner of precious stones and feathers were showcased.  Chaumet embraced the spirit of Art Nouveau by designing one as a pair of soaring wings that could be worn as a pair of brooches.  Not surprisingly, the scope for movement was taken advantage of, and delicate sprays of flowers, insects and wheat ears were teamed with briolettes for trembling naturalism.  As large, gaudy feathers began to fall out of fashion, the feathers themselves began to be represented in precious stones. 

The First World War inevitably heralded the demise of very grand jewellery.  The clean lines of the flapper, bobbed hair and Art Deco just didn’t lend itself to it.  However, it was perfect for the aigrette.  As was mentioned earlier, not being as formal as a tiara, aigrettes were the finishing touch to a soignée look.  They had a second flowering in the 1920s and 30s, when they were heavily influenced by Cartier’s neo-Indian look.  Very rich, very bored Indian maharajas were ordering masses of jewels from all the great Parisian jewellers: Cartier, Boucheron, Van Cleef and Chaumet, amongst many, were busy refashioning great heirloom Indian jewels.  This was successfully married to the best elements of Art Deco and this new style became dominant.  These jewels designed as headdresses for maharajas’ turbans could not but directly influence women’s hair ornaments. 

The Second World War put an effective end to the more frivolous elements of fashion- tiaras were retained to be worn with increasing scarcity to very grand occasions, and the informality of the ensuing decades saw no need for gem studded head ornaments.  However, this is changing with fine and high jewellery heading towards more theatrical territory.  Collectors should be paying more attention to them- the really good ones are still relatively affordable at auction, the best ones being from the Belle Epoque era and which usually have the added bonus of being able to be transformed into a brooch.  Modern jewellers, sadly, have yet to match the technical inventiveness of early 20th century masters.