15 February 2018

Tiara Thursday: The Cartier "Lusitania" Tiara

Some tiaras are set apart by their extraordinary materials or craftsmanship, some become known for their ownership, and some simply have a story you can't forget.

The Cartier "Lusitania" Tiara
This tiara was commissioned from Cartier Paris in 1909 by Sir Hugh Montagu Allan for his wife, Marguerite (1873-1957). It features a classic Greek key or meander motif created with circular-cut diamonds in a millegrain setting, with a border of seed pearls and a large detachable old-mine cut diamond at the center. Sir Montagu, as he was known, was a prominent Canadian banker and ship owner and the family were fixtures of Montreal society.

Lady Allan wearing her Cartier tiara
In 1915, the family was packing up their life in Canada and heading to England, where they intended to stay for the duration of World War I to assist in the war efforts. Lady Allan was to help open a hospital in England for Canadian serviceman. Sir Montagu was still in Canada closing up the family's mansion when his wife and two of the couple's four children, 16-year-old Anna and 15-year-old Gwendolyn, set out to sail from New York to Liverpool on the RMS Lusitania. Joining the Allans on their fateful journey were two of Marguerite's maids, Emily Davis and Annie Walker, plus a load of luggage that included Lady Allan's jewels - and her diamond and pearl Cartier tiara. The ship left New York on May 1, 1915.

The Lusitania was one of the largest and fastest ships on the sea, and it continued to ferry civilian passengers across the Atlantic even as submarine warfare intensified. Germany had declared the seas around the United Kingdom a war zone and had warned that allied ships were in those waters were risking attack. The German embassy in the United States even warned specifically of the threat to the Lusitania on its May 1915 voyage. Many, however, thought that the ship's speed would keep it safe from attack. They were wrong.

On the afternoon of May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the southern coast of Ireland. It sank in just 18 minutes. Of the nearly 2,000 passengers and crew on board, 1,198 died. Among the fatalities were both of the Allan's teenage daughters. (Heartbreakingly, Sir Montagu and Marguerite would later endure the losses of their remaining two children: son Hugh was killed on his first service flight as a member of the Royal Naval Air Service in 1917, and eldest daughter Martha died at the age of 47.) Though she was severely injured, Lady Allan survived the sinking of the Lusitania. Her two maids survived the shipwreck as well. Unbelievably, one of them also managed to save Lady Allan's Cartier tiara, concealing it in her clothes throughout the tragedy.

Marguerite Allan kept her shipwrecked tiara for the rest of her life and bequeathed it to a cousin, Elspeth Paterson Dawes. Ms. Dawes' granddaughter placed the tiara up for auction in 2015, telling The Globe and Mail that while she was sad to see it leave the family, the 100th anniversary of the war was the right time to let it go. The tiara sold for $799,265, well over its estimate of $293,994 - $443,483 (USD). It was reacquired by Cartier and is now part of the Cartier Collection.

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On display at the V&A
Cartier's reserve of historical tiaras are regularly loaned for museum exhibitions, and if you happen to be in London in the first half of 2018, you have an opportunity to see the Lusitania tiara in person at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The tiara joins furnishings, ship fittings, clothing of wealthy passengers, and other items from the age of the great ocean liners in the Ocean Liners: Speed and Style exhibition, which runs now through June 17, 2018.