05 February 2015

Tiara Thursday: The Russian Sapphire “Wave” Tiara

The Russian Sapphire "Wave" Tiara
Today’s featured tiara is one that has been mentioned in the comments on just about every Romanov tiara we’ve covered of late, I think, so we’re overdue to give it a proper day in the spotlight. It’s an eye-catcher to be sure, and while pretty much every Russian imperial tiara has a bit of mystery to it, thanks to the course of history, this one comes with extra intrigue. It was essentially an unknown piece of Russian treasure until evidence of its existence was unearthed in 2012. You might expect such a discovery from the files of an historic jewelry house or perhaps the depths of a wealthy private collection, but this one came from a far more surprising source: the library of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), in Reston, Virginia.
The Marie Feodorovna portrait and the sketch referenced below, with a detail of the tiara center
Mineralogist and gemologist George F. Kunz (1856-1932), who worked for the USGS as well as Tiffany & Co., left his private library to the government agency when he died. Among his treasures was a large book with a nondescript exterior and a title plate in Russian that turned out to translate to The Russian Diamond Fund, with a publication date of 1922. The Diamond Fund is, to this day, the name for the Russian state’s store of their remaining crown jewels. Kunz’s book was a photo album of pieces of Russian jewelry. The USGS compared the album to another publication, Russia’s Treasure of Diamonds and Precious Stones, published in 1925 and regarded as the most complete inventory of the Russian crown jewels which were seized by the new state after the revolution, and discovered that most of the photos were printed there as well. But they also discovered that their 1922 album included photos of four additional pieces, mysteriously not included in the 1925 inventory and thus unknown to most jewel scholars: an emerald and diamond necklace, a sapphire and diamond bracelet, a sapphire and diamond bow brooch, and a sapphire and diamond diadem.
Video: The USGS discusses the discovery
The tiara in question includes nine large sapphires, each surrounded by arcs of diamonds ending in dangling diamond drops, a design reminiscent of breaking waves in the ocean. Investigation into its provenance produced a sketch that seems to depict the piece. The sketch is reproduced in Tiaras: A History of Splendour by Geoffrey Munn, where it is identified as a study by Nicholas Chevalier of the jewels worn to the 1874 wedding of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and the Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna of Russia by Marie Feodorovna (née Dagmar of Denmark, 1847-1928), then the Tsarevna, wife of the heir. The same piece may be the diadem depicted in a portrait of her from the same year. (Note: The video above about the discovery briefly mentions the tiara belonging to Marie Alexandrovna instead, though the sketch itself points elsewhere as I’ve mentioned here.) These illustrations indicate that the tiara was originally worn attached to a traditional fabric covered kokoshnik headdress which was topped by what appears to be a diamond rivière.
The large table of Russian jewels, top; all four jewels discovered in USGS photos, bottom
Apart from that speculation, the rest of the story behind these four pieces remains a mystery. Three of them can be spotted on the table laden with bejeweled treasures above, but we don’t know why they were excluded from the 1925 inventory. The USGS research team was able to determine that the brooch was sold at an auction in 1927, but other record of what happened to these gems seems nonexistent so far. While it is possible that they still exist – it’s happened, things going missing for a century and then popping back up – they may also have been dismantled. Sad, but all too often true.

Would this nab a spot on your list of favorite sapphire tiaras?

Photos: USGS, USGS video, Wikimedia Commons