Queen Elizabeth's Vladimir Tiara and the fascinating story behind it

Queen Elizabeth’s Vladimir Tiara and the fascinating story of how it only survived after being smuggled out of Russia in a TOOL BAG by daring British antiques dealer

  • The tiara was commissioned for the Imperial Russian family
  • A British antiques expert defied the revolutionaries to smuggle it abroad

The regal pose and open countenance in Cecil Beaton’s photograph, released by Buckingham Palace on the anniversary of her death, make for a compelling portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

But her headpiece is worth a little attention, also: it is one of the late Queen’s favourite and most majestic of tiaras, and comes with an astounding history of its own. 

The tiara was originally created by Bolin, Imperial Crown Jeweller to the Russian court for the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna on the occasion of her 1874 wedding to the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia. 

The Grand Duchess was known for her extravagant taste in jewels which, as it happened, caused friction with her sister-in-law, Tsarina Maria Feodorovna (sister of Queen Alexandra, great grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II.)

This previously unseen photograph taken by Cecil Beaton in 1968 has been released to mark the anniversary Queen Elizabeth’s death. She is wearing the Vladimir Tiara

The tiara, pictured here, was created by court jeweller Bolin for Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia for her marriage 1874  marriage to Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich Romanov

Queen Mary wearing the Vladimir tiara in a portrait  from the Illustrated London News in 1936

As the Empress of Russia, the Tsarina was quite rightly unhappy at finding herself outsparkled.

Grand Duchess Maria was also very ambitious for he sons, the eldest of whom she believed – wrongly – would become Emperor one day.

During the Russian Revolution in early 1917 she fled St Petersburg with her five children for the Northern Caucasus.

In July 1917, a British antiques dealer (and informal intelligence officer), Bertie (Albert) Stopford, who was a friend of the Romanov family and often couriered important documents back to their cousins the British Royals, made the personal decision to retrieve her collection of jewels from the Vladimir Palace, which had now been requistioned by the army – before the Bolsheviks got their hands on them.

He knew the formal parts of palace very well having been there so many times for lavish parties.

But he didn’t know the private quarters so well, or where the jewels were hidden. 

Maria’s third son Grand Duke Boris was keen to help formulate a plan to infiltrate the palace and source the 244 jewels that made up her collection, mostly given to her by her late husband Grand Duke Vladimir. 

The main Florentine entrance to the palace was thought to be too exposed from both the exterior but also once inside. However, there was an entrance at the side of the palace, that led directly to the Grand Duchess’s rooms on the first floor via a secret passageway to a concealed door in her boudoir. 

Once he has secreted himself inside her rooms – he would find her jewels locked in a safe in her dressing room.

Albert (Bertie) Stopford , jeweller and intelligence officer mounted an extraordinary mission to rescue the tiara and other jewels

The Vladimir Palace in St Petersburg, from where Albert Stopford rescued the jewels

Queen Elizabeth arriving for a dinner at Claridges wearing her Vladimir tiara in June 1972

Grand Duchess Maria wears the Vladimir tiara in Saint Petersburg in August 1874

A close-up of the tiara with baroque pearls  in each of the diamond-set circles

In 1924 Queen Mary requested that 15 of the spectacular ‘Cambridge’ emeralds could be interchanged with the original pearls

At dusk, the antiques dealer, dressed as a workman, sneaked through the side entrance and raced through the secret passage to her rooms, where he found the safe. 

Being told by Maria of how to open it he carefully dismantled the jewels and folding them into sheets of newspaper before placing them into two old leather bags, typical of a workman’s tools.

He then retraced his footsteps back to where he had entered the palace only an hour or so earlier. It was now dark but the streets of St Petersburg were full of police and soldiers, who wouldn’t think twice about searching a mere workman’s belongings and shooting him for looting. 

He also had to plan the smuggling of the jewels out of Russia itself. He thought about using diplomatic bags, in which he had previously sent messages but he knew Russians were a law unto themselves

Since before the Russian Revolution, a British Royal Navy ship had been stationed near the Northern Caucasus, and Bertie knew its captain and learned that they were being withdrawn from Russia back to Great Britain.

So, on September 26th 1917, he took the jewels disguised in their tool bags to the ship which went via Sweden to Aberdeen; where he took the train down to London.

The jewels arrived in London and Bertie became a hero of the Vladimir family. 

Grand Duchess Maria escaped Russia but died in France three years later and some of the jewels were sold by her children to support their lives in exile.

Many were bought by the remaining European royal families – including by another great jewellery aficionada – Queen Mary (the acquisitive great grandmother of King Charles. And she bought the wonderful Vladimir tiara worn by her granddaughter Elizabeth in the Beaton portrait. 

During its daring escape from Russia in one of the two tool bags – the tiara had been slightly damaged – but nothing which Garrard, the Crown Jewellers, could not mend and indeed ‘renovate’. 

The Queen wearing the Vladimir tiara with pearls at a State Banquet in the Presidential Palace in Vilnius, Lithuania  

Queen Elizabeth II at the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Malta, November 2015

The tiara originally was set with 15 baroque pearls, which hung in each of the brilliant diamond set circles, according to Hugh Roberts’ book The Queen’s Diamonds, in 1924 Queen Mary requested that 15 of the spectacular ‘Cambridge’ emeralds could be interchanged with these pearls.

On the death of Queen Mary, like all of her jewels – Queen Elizabeth II inherited the Vladimir Tiara and was often seen wearing it set with the original pearls, or the emeralds or indeed without either.

Thanks to the Beaton portrait, its own remarkable history will live on.

  • Josie Goodbody, is a jewellery historian and author of mystery novels 

Source: Read Full Article