A rare emerald and diamond tiara

Formerly in the Collection of Princess Katharina Henckel von Donnersmarck.

During our long careers at Sotheby’s we had the privilege to be able to examine – and often to sell – some of the most important jewels associated with European history. Many of them have since proved to be simply unforgettable and this tiara is a very good example.

Princess Katharina Henckel von Donnersmarck (1862-1929).
Prince Guido (1830-1916) and his wife passed their time between their palace in Berlin and castle in Neudeck, where Emperor Wilhelm II was a frequent dinner guest and also hunted in the extensive castle grounds. On departing the Schloss after staying with the couple in November 1904 the Anglo-American author, Leila von Meister, described the experience as '...like something you read about in memoirs of the eighteenth century in Court circles before the French revolution'.

We both agree that this sumptuous tiara, dating from around 1900, which was originally in the collection of Princess Katharina Henckel von Donnersmarck, is crowned with a halo of the finest Colombian emerald drops we have ever encountered. Put in context, it is very probably the grandest tiara to have existed outside a State or Royal collection, and it was to establish new world record prices – both for a tiara and for a piece of antique jewellery – when we sold it at auction in Geneva in May 2011.

Indeed, the row of sensationally beautiful emeralds, which are perfectly matched in colour and quality are believed to have been sold by Empress Eugénie of the French after the fall of the French Empire in 1870, and purchased by La Païva the famous ex-courtesan first wife of Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck.

Although of Colombian origin, they likely had been brought to India in the 17th century where they would have been polished and drilled (each bears the characteristic wide drill hole of the period which transverses the entire length of the bead) and then mounted as drops on an astounding necklace destined for the neck of a Nawab or Maharajah.

Princess Katharina in the 1900s

Sadly this tiara is unsigned and bears no marks, however, in design and manufacture, and with its line of diamond-set laurel leaves, swags and lily-of-the-valley motifs, this jewel is typical of the grand manner of Chaumet, one of the favoured jewellers of fin de siècle European nobility.