THE CHAUMET WESTMINSTER TIARA
The purchase of this tiara, created in Paris in 1911 by Joseph Chaumet for the wife of the English nobleman, the 2nd Duke of Westminster (1879-1953), coincided with the Coronation of George V and Queen Mary held on June 22nd of that year. Ruled by a monarchy at the heart of an Empire, English court life, which set the standard for the whole of Europe, was marked by displays of splendour. Of all the jewels worn on these very grand royal occasions, it was the tiaras, blazing from the heads of all the women present which contributed most to their brilliance. In anticipation of the series of banquets, balls and gala opera performances planned in London to celebrate the Coronation, the Duke of Westminster decided that his wife should have another tiara to add to her collection.
Famous for his wealth and palatial way of life, the 2nd Duke was confident that Joseph Chaumet, whose speciality was the tiara, would propose something new, yet in the grand manner. A room in the shop in Place Vendme was reserved exclusively for them, and models of all those made by the firm were displayed on the walls, ready to be tried on - like hats- so that the client could decide on the design most flattering to her looks.
For the Westminster tiara, Chaumet turned to Russia for inspiration and re-interpreted the halo-shaped 'kokoshnik' (cock's comb), worn over the veil with the picturesque national costume, and which gave every woman the appearance of being crowned. The trails of diamond flowers and leaves shining out from the translucent blue enamel filling the curved surface, are set in platinum so thin as to be almost invisible, and which gives full value to the sparkle of the stones. The recent introduction of platinum had brought commissions for new tiaras, at first for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, and in the following years Chaumet had to break up many imposing Victorian "fenders" made of massive silver and gold for women who wanted lighter, more delicate effects, guaranteed not to cause them headaches.
Married to the Duke in 1901, Duchess Constance, known as Shelagh (1876-1953) a tall and dark-eyed brunette ne Cornwallis West, reigned like a Queen over her husband's country estates and his sumptuous London home, Grosvenor House. According to Queen Marie of Romania in her autobiography, Histoire de Ma Vie, the great Westminster Ball was quite the best of all the Coronation festivities, and her description of it evokes the circumstances in which this tiara was worn. For Queen Marie, the scene in the Grosvenor House Ballroom, hung with famous Old Master paintings, including 'The Blue Boy' by Thomas Gainsborough and in the Supper Room which was a symphony of the blue hydrangeas and masses of lilies reflected in the gold dinner service, epitomised the perfection of refined aristocratic hospitality. She noticed too that, although crowded with the cream of London society and the most beautiful women in the world, all eyes were turned towards Duchess Shelagh and her sister Daisy, Princess of Pless, captivated by their beauty.
At some point this splendid jewel left the Westminster family and when it resurfaced some twenty years ago it was incorrectly presumed that it had been created by the workshops of Faberg. However, through my research in the Chaumet ledgers, I was able to prove that it was in fact the creation of their atelier in Paris and had been purchased by the 2nd Duke of Westminster. It subsequently returned to the family where it has remained since.
As a survival of the period of peace, prosperity, and pleasure, known as the Belle poque and which came to an end with the declaration of World War I in 1914, this tiara, combining Russian grandeur with Parisian elegance exemplifies the fine taste of the people of that vanished world.