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A Dutch tiara after a French example by Oscar Massin

The tiara in its 2013 inauguration setting. Credit: Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst

There has been a lot of confusion about one of the most important tiaras in the Dutch Royal Collection. It was made in 1881, but by whom was unknown. It was long assumed that the Parisian jeweller Mellerio created it, until 2013 when the name of Maison van der Stichel appeared in new research. The design was clearly based on a tiara made by the then most important jewellery maker Oscar Massin. What was going on here? Jewellery historian Erik Schoonhoven researched the ABN AMRO Collection and the Dutch Royal House Archives and found the acquisition history of this splendid jewel, that is one of the most important tiaras in the world, including the designer and maker.


The image couldn’t have been more perfect during the inauguration of King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands in 2013: Queen Máxima in her royal blue gown by Jan Taminiau with a splendid tiara with diamonds and sapphires and a brooch with an enormous sapphire in it.

But it could have been more perfect, because the tiara was not in its original state, but adapted to fit the occasion. The original version has in the middle a plume that makes the tiara higher. It was that original version Queen Emma wore during the inauguration of her daughter Queen Wilhelmina in 1898, just like the Queens Juliana and Beatrix after her during many state visits, royal parties and other occasions. That the tiara was made smaller for the inauguration in 2013 has to do with Queen Máxima’s position on that day: she was Queen-Consort, she herself was not inaugurated, but her husband. By now the Queen has worn the full tiara regularly, for example for the state portrait photographed by Erwin Olaf in the Royal Palace in Amsterdam.

The jewel is 1 out of 4 tiaras that, in the full version, are exclusively worn by Dutch Queens. Evidence for this is provided by this never before published photo of Princess Margriet, who wore the tiara without plume during one of the private wedding dinners of the current Grand Duke and Grand Duchess of Luxembourg in 1981. She has never worn the tiara in public, which is telling.

A gift from King William III

On 14 December 1881 this tiara, accompanied by 2 bracelets, was delivered to King William III, who probably gave the jewels to his wife Queen Emma for Christmas. For their engagement he had already given her sapphire jewellery, the tiara and bracelets would complete the set.

Queen Máxima wearing the full version. Credit: Erwin Olaf/Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst
Princess Margriet wearing the version without plume in 1981. Credit: Private collection

The broker in jewels Vita Israël from Amsterdam supplied the jewels for 100.000 guilders (almost 1,2 million euro). 655 brilliants were used with a total weight of 242 15/16 carat and 31 sapphires with a combined weight of 155 7/8 carat, of which the largest weighs 44 carat (Brus, De juwelen van het huis Oranje-Nassau, Haarlem, 1996, p. 73).

The nice thing is that this order can be traced almost completely in the Duch Royal House Archives, through the correspondence between Count Dumonceau, private secretary to the King, and Emmanuel Vita Israël (Royal House Archive inv. A45 – XIV c 25, 133, 140, 151, 142, 299). It starts on Monday 4 April 1881 with a telegram from Dumonceau: ‘I await you Tuesday morning at 10.30 am’. Followed on Thursday 7 April with: ‘Assuming it possibly is the King’s intention to give to the Queen, apart from the tiara, 2 bracelets for the established amount, I have the honour to request to Your Honour One to design a set of drawings in that spirit. As above.’ If we read this text closely, we can conclude that the King wanted 2 extra bracelets for the same amount of money and not for an extra amount.

On 13 April it appears that Queen Emma took a good look at the design for her new jewels, as appears from the telegram Dumonceau sent to Vita Israël: ‘I have the honour to inform Your Honour, that Her Majesty the Queen gives Her consent to the tiara proposed in enclosed drawing; with the provision that She requests you to take notice of the following:

1o: The middle part drawn by me in (A) to be constructed as to serve as hairpin and brooch

2o: Of this part (B) to organise it in such a way that it can be used as “fermoir” (clasp, ES) for a necklace.

3o: The end parts of the tiara, for example the parts indicated by me with the accolades B and C, to be constructed in such a way that they can be united as a jewel representing a “peigne” (hair comb, ES). (not mounted as a peigne).

HM leaves it up to You to decide how large both parts should be, the one having 1 diamond more than the other to create a peak there. HM wished that the screws [unreadable] will serve to adjoin both pieces, be made from as hard as possible metal to prevent movement of said pieces. The largest opening of the tiara must be 15 centimetres: the inner circumference of the bracelets: 18 centimetres. I’m case I haven’t been clear enough, please honour me with another visit. Kindly, honourable Sir, accept the assurance of my high regard.’ To be clear: the middle part drawn in A, to serve as hairpin and brooch probably refers to the middle sapphire with the diamond plume on top. Part B then refers to the sapphire in the middle that can serve on its own as clasp in a necklace. Both outer ends of the tiara together create a comb for the hair.

Some handicrafts were involved as well, because on Friday 15 April Dumonceau sends to Vita Israël: ‘Following up on our conversation this morning, I now send you a piece of paperboard, of which the lowest edge indicates the right shape of the tiara around the head while the opening will have to serve in the same way, is indicated by the also enclosed paper. Kindly, honourable Sir, accept the assurance of my high estimation.’

Queen Emma wearing her full set of sapphire and diamond jewels. Credit: Paleis Het Loo Nationaal Museum
The design drawing by Jac. Vos. Credit: Collection ABN AMRO Art & Heritage

On 29 October the last telegram from Dumonceau follows, carrying instructions about how to deliver the jewels:

‘In response to Your letter of the 25th this month, I have the honour to request to You to follow up with your idea to place on the box of the tiara and bracelets You are supplying to HM the King the Crown and monogram of Her Majesty the Queen and to make sure that said jewels are sent to HM the King not later than December 15. Kindly, honourable Sir, accept the assurance of my highest estimation.’

The maker

The Jewish-Amsterdam family Vita Israël were in 1881 brokers in jewellery for more than a century. They executed several commissions for the Dutch Royal House. The broker accepted the commission, arranged the gemstones and subsequently hired all parties necessary to create a jewel: from supplying jeweller to designer to maker of the frame and the setter of the stones. The research that my colleague George Hamel presented in 2013, proposed Maison van der Stichel as possible maker of these jewels, based on a newspaper or magazine cutout from 1898 showing a photo of the tiara, mentioning this name. Hamel’s research in the Royal and other archives also produced the information that all sapphires in the jewels were newly acquired, contrary to what was thought previously, and that the sapphires are Sri Lankan in origin.

Through historic circumstances the ABN AMRO Collection owns part of the archives of court jeweller Jac. Vos from The Hague. It contains several design drawings that originally belonged to the Royal Collection. They have the original design drawing of this tiara in their collection, which bears an inscription in French, with below the name Vita Israël written over an erased name. The same archive also holds a large document that precisely lists each diamond and sapphire in the tiara and bracelets, accompanied by their precise weight in carat. The document includes sketches of the tiara and the hair comb. These archival pieces have been public knowledge for a long time. However, the envelope in which the large document was placed, has so far been overlooked, while it contains precisely the information about the maker of the tiara and bracelets. It reads: ‘Preserve. / Information concerning sapphire tiara HM. / created by Jac. Vos. Co / 1881 / Supplied by Hoeting / A’dam’.

Envelope containing the information about the maker and supplying jeweller. Credit: Collection ABN AMRO Art & Heritage

Jac. Vos (1853-1923) was the best-known Dutch jewellery designer and maker of his time. He executed several commissions from the Dutch Royal House. Interestingly, his jewellery company Jac. Vos & Co in Rotterdam only made the frames of their jewels, the newspaper Algemeen Handelsblad reported in 1883 (“De Diamant-Nijverheid op de Tentoonstelling”, in Nieuwe Amsterdamsche Courant. Algemeen Handelsblad, 9 May 1883): ‘Up until today, the jeweller created a drawing of the object that was desired, and how quickly drawn such a drawing looked, it now and then happened that the treasure came stiff out of the hands of the setter. The gentlemen Vos produce different objects without the gemstones. We counted about 85 of them. When the choice is made, one not only has the reassurance that the object can only win by adding diamonds or other gemstones, yet the desired changes can still be applied and disappointment is not possible anymore. The gentlemen Vos & Co do not take orders from individuals, unless they are received by mediation from the jeweller tasked with providing the stones.’ 

According to the described working method, Jac. Vos would have made the design drawings and the frames of the tiara and bracelets. Amsterdam jeweller Hoeting would then be the jeweller that provided the gemstones and who supplied the ensemble and it is very well possible that Maison van der Stichel set the stones (on newspaper database Maison van der Stichel can only be found in early 20th century publications. From the 30s on they are known as jewellers, but in the first decades the house only gets mentioned as diamond setters). It remains an open question which diamond cutter was responsible for the perfectly round diamonds, the still existing Royal Coster Diamonds is a very likely candidate.

Drawing of the sapphire tiara and hair comb by Jac. Vos. The drawings accompany the specification of the diamonds and sapphires used and their corresponding carat weight. Credit: Collection ABN AMRO Art & Heritage
Oscar Massin's ‘diadème arceaux' (1867), the original design on which Jac. Vos based his version.

The original design

That Jac. Vos also made the design drawing of the tiara also appears from another fact. The Jac. Vos archive in the ABN AMRO Collection also contains a design drawing of another tiara (Collection ABN AMRO Art & Heritage, KC80038). It is a literal copy of the tiara Oscar Massin (1829-1913) presented at the Universal Exhibition of 1878 in Paris. The sapphire tiara is an adapted copy of the tiara Massin presented at the Universal Exhibition of 1867 in Paris. That Vos was inspired by Massin is not strange, since – it’s being said – Vos received his education in Paris and Massin in that era was the most important jewellery maker there. The engraving of this tiara was known worldwide through publications about the Universal Exhibition.

The all-diamond tiara of Massin is very special. The artistic language of the design is completely new, it feels abstract and even futuristic in a time when naturalism was the norm. Technically the design is avant-garde: the round and oval brilliants are very early examples of modern cuts developed in Amsterdam. The central diamond is a briolette (a ‘disco ball’): an expensive, advanced cut which causes the light to be absorbed and dispersed from and to all directions. It is even possible that the unconventional extra row at the bottom is intended to catch the light and project it into the tiara, which creates an enormous spectacle of light. All vertical elements are, just like in the sapphire tiara, set ‘en tremblant’, they softly tremble along with the movements of the wearer. The key to understanding the design is in the name that Massin gave to the tiara: ‘diadème arceaux’, the small arches at the bottom of the tiara. Arches make possible the essence of gothic architecture: through the thin walls with high windows, light is the central experience in a gothic cathedral. Just like in gothic architecture the design of this tiara works it’s way up. Massin started at the top part of the windows (the arches) and worked his way further upwards, starting where the light in the cathedral stops. Artistically the design is a masterpiece: neogothic was an important current in the design of bijouterie – jewels made of metal with stones only as accent – but not in joaillerie, jewels that are completely set with stones where the metal only serves as accent. Massin chose to work with the essence of gothic architecture – light – in a way that was never seen before.

Whether Massin was familiar with the literary works of the founder of gothic architecture and philosophy, abbot Suger of Saint-Denis (ca. 1080-1151), is not known, but his ideas are visible in the design of the tiara. Suger identified 4 types of light: ‘lux’ (natural light), which gets transformed through the windows into ‘lumen’, which – reflected on precious metals and stones – becomes ‘splendour’, which leads to ‘illuminatio’, the elevation of the mind. From the Middle Ages toassin’s time, Christ was compared with diamond, because both were above the laws of nature (diamond as hardest material on earth, Christ through his resurrection). A Christian interpretation of the tiara would interpret the central briolette as Christ. Such a Christian interpretation is quite warranted, because the vertical elements in between the arches are stylised lilies, the symbol of Mary, mother of Christ. 3 is a holy number in Christianity (the Holy Trinity of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit): next to the briolette are 2 diamonds, which makes a total of 3, while below the briolette are placed 3 diamonds and the plume that rises from the lily above the briolette consists of 3 brilliants as well. This is according the Catholic idea that Mary is the mediator between God and humans.

Massin’s tiara doesn’t exist anymore, but his ‘diadème arceaux’ is in essence a catholic tiara. Which is interesting because Queen Máxima, wearer of the only remnant of this design, is a catholic herself. Thanks to the Dutch sapphire tiara we can get a glimpse of Massin’s original design. Even though the central briolette and its visual effect have disappeared, the sapphire tiara remains one of the most important tiara designs in the world. It is not only an ode to 19th century Parisian jewellery making, but also to Dutch makers, who were not less than their French colleagues.