Queen Victoria’s Small Coronet Has a Big Story

LONDON — A sapphire and diamond coronet a bit longer than a small hand’s breadth — just 4.5 inches — will be the centerpiece of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s jewelry gallery when it reopens, scheduled for April 11 after a three-month refurbishment.

The small crown, which will be lit so that it appears to float within its specially designed display case, carries a story far weightier than the sum of its intricate, gem-set parts.

It was designed for Queen Victoria by Prince Albert in 1840, the year of their marriage, and was to become one of her most important jewels. Now, among a total of 80 new additions to the gallery, the coronet will go on permanent exhibition for the first time at the museum that bears their names. As well as a symbol of their love, the piece embodies the crucial role that the royal couple played in the museum’s very existence — and its unveiling is to begin a series of museum events and displays to mark the bicentenary of their births.

The gallery itself has ambitions far beyond its own jewelry box-size proportions. At around 2,700 square feet, it is a mere fraction of the 12-acre size of the museum, commonly known as the V&A. Yet the gallery has become one of its most popular destinations, attracting more than 4.2 million visitors since it opened in 2008.

It covers 3,000 years of Western history through 3,500 objects, including ancient Irish ceremonial collars, bejeweled miniature court portraits of Elizabeth I, diamonds that belonged to Catherine the Great and work by international contemporary artists.

“It is undoubtedly one of the most comprehensive and exciting permanent public exhibitions of jewelry in the world today,” David Warren, Christie’s international director of jewelry, wrote in an email.

Richard Edgcumbe and Clare Phillips, the museum’s jewelry curators, hope that the additions and updates to the space, which include a new version of its popular ring design interactive feature, will ensure the gallery’s continued success.

In an interview in their offices, whose plain walls (save for shelves crammed with reference books) contrast with the V&A’s ornately decorated Metalwork galleries below, they reflected on what makes jewelry appealing in a museum setting. “It is an aspect of history that is very personal and moving,” Ms. Phillips said.

“Crown jewel or not,” Mr. Edgcumbe said, “jewelry is there for people throughout every phase of their lives. The first section of the gallery you come to is called ‘Cradle to Grave,’ and it takes you from fertility and childbirth, through love, faith and power to death.”

The curators said that, as well as attracting students and professionals in the visual arts, the gallery had been popular with visitors of all ages and interests. “It’s for people who are moved by the history of the memorial ring for the eight children in one family who sadly died in just eight months, to the people who come to gawp at the gemstones, to those fascinated by our watch mechanisms.”

It even plays host to the occasional wedding proposal. “We’ve had people ask if they can add their ring to the display, but we have to draw the line there,” Mr. Edgcumbe said with a laugh.

Officially known as the William and Judith Bollinger Gallery, it is named for the Irish-American hedge fund millionaire and his wife, who funded its opening in 2008. In 2017, the couple, and their sons, Douglas and James, saved the coronet from leaving Britain — it had been bought by an anonymous overseas buyer, but the government halted its export. They gave it to the museum for display.

To Mr. Bollinger, the small crown represents the genuine affection between the royal couple. “The coronet radiates the passion and the dedication of the young Victoria and Albert,” he said in an email.

Made by the royal jeweler Joseph Kitching, the coronet has 23 hinged sections so it is supple enough to be worn as a closed coronet or as an open tiara. “It flows through the hand like silk,” Mr. Edgcumbe said.

It was a piece that the queen returned to again and again throughout her reign. As a young woman, she wore it wrapped around a fashionable chignon in an 1842 portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, a painting that was replicated in copies and engravings around the world.

As an expression of her grief, Victoria rarely wore colored stone jewelry after Albert died in 1861 at 42, but she did reprise the coronet, wearing it in place of her heavy crown in 1866, the first time she opened Parliament after his death. In a 1874 portrait, she wore it as an anchor to her widow’s veil.

After Victoria’s death, the coronet was inherited by her granddaughter Princess Mary, who had it converted to an up-to-the-minute bandeau in the 1920s. It remained in the family until 2007.

Prince Albert was a Renaissance man, interested in everything from architecture to engineering. He was a driving force behind London’s Great Exhibition in 1851, in a purpose-built glass palace in Hyde Park, the first international exhibition of its kind.

Profits from that event allowed his purchase of the area south of the park, which became known as Albertopolis, a site that now includes the Natural History Museum and the V&A, which opened in 1852. A statue of the prince stands over its grand Cromwell Road entrance today.

The museum’s jewelry collection dates from those early days. “Our jewelry collection starts off with objects bought at the Great Exhibition, including Berlin artwork, art jewelry by Frank Meurice, Indian jewelry and reproductions of ancient Irish jewelry,” Mr. Edgcumbe said. “They’re all there for their artistic value. The purpose was to inspire British designers to do good things. There was a feeling that while British industry was thriving, British design could do with a boost.”

The tradition continues today with the acquisition of pieces by contemporary art jewelers, which also happen to be more in keeping with the museum’s limited acquisition budget than expensive gem-set pieces. (Although the latter is well represented thanks to donations over the years of everything from the Rev. Chauncy Hare Townshend’s 1869 gift of 145 colored gemstone rings to Beyoncé’s gift last year of a Glenn Spiro butterfly ring.

The jeweler Charlotte de Syllas said she had been coming to the gallery for inspiration since she studied with Gerda Flöckinger in the 1960s. Now, five pieces of Ms. de Syllas’s own work are part of the collection, including Bobby’s Ring, a 1969 creation featuring a gold and gray chalcedony head encased within a partridge wood case carved in the shape of clasped hands.

Being part of the collection is a great honor, she said in a phone interview. “It gives a legitimacy to your work,” she said. “People tell me they had no idea things were made like this anymore.”

The contemporary collection is also an opportunity to reflect current industry concerns. Another new acquisition is a Fairtrade gold brooch by Ute Decker, a German-born, London-based jeweler, who was among the first to work in the material when it was introduced in 2011.

“What is more urgent in the world today than the question of sustainability and the future of the planet?” she said in a phone interview. “I want to inspire people to explore this situation more deeply. That’s my story as an artist.”

Ms. Phillips said Ms. Decker’s work was an example of the sensitivity to materials that makes contemporary jewelry so exciting, whether it is ethically mined gold or innovation with the use of non-precious materials like paper or wood. “Like contemporary art, it’s jewelry that makes you think,” she said.

Another new showcase in the gallery is to display a collection of 49 Art Deco vanity cases, on loan from Kashmira Bulsara in memory of her brother, Freddie Mercury of Queen, with the prospect of the collection’s becoming a permanent gift. The small, exquisitely decorated cases were created by the likes of Cartier, Jean Fouquet and Van Cleef & Arpels as well as less well-known makers including Paul Brandt and the American company Black, Starr & Frost.

The first piece that Ms. Bulsara bought for her collection was a frosted rock crystal calling card case by the French maker Lacloche Frères. Topped with lapis, it is decorated with a typical Japanese motif of a delicate willow tree, and its branches tipped with diamonds.

Another piece, labeled Cartier New York, is a tiny onyx vanity case decorated with jade and diamonds, which manages to squeeze in compartments for makeup and cigarettes and an ivory notepad and pencil. Suspended from a delicate chain with a loop just big enough for a finger to slip through, it had everything a newly liberated woman in the 1920s might need for a night at a jazz club or the opera.

Whether objects to gaze at or jewels to be worn, it is through these tiny, hand-wrought pieces that the V&A’s jewelry gallery is able to trace the multifaceted history of the decorative arts. “What is wonderful above all is that someone made and designed each object,” Mr. Edgcumbe said.

Whether viewing a David Bielander silver bracelet soldered in 2015 to echo the look of factory-made corrugated cardboard or an outsize 1850s bodice ornament of diamond flowers set en tremblant, the gallery collection has delighted visitors of all backgrounds and ages.

As one Trip Advisor review by a family of four, which included a 12-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl, said, “Trust me, this was a surprise.”

Nine Jewelry Experts on Their Favorite Museum Collections

The Victoria & Albert Museum’s jewelry gallery has many fans, but so do other jewelry collections in museums around the world. Here, jewelers and industry experts share their personal favorites. Their comments have been edited and condensed.

The Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon

Vivienne Becker, jewelry historian, London: “The Lalique gallery in the Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, is utterly breathtaking. René Lalique’s jewelry is my passion, and to my mind these are the greatest art jewels in existence. They are the Art Nouveau masterpieces bought by Calouste Gulbenkian, from Lalique himself, around 1900, and to see them altogether, some 145 jewels, is captivating, compelling. They stir the emotions and nourish the soul.”

The Fabergé Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

Viren Bhaghat, jeweler, Mumbai, India “Even though St. Petersburg has an extraordinary collection at the Hermitage, the real highlight of my visit was the Fabergé Museum. I have always been a huge admirer of Fabergé, so to view such an extraordinary collection of his jeweled eggs under one roof was a treat beyond compare. I find everything about this museum charming: the fact it’s a private institution; its location in the superbly restored 18th-century Shuvalov Palace; and the fact they allow only small groups to visit at any one time, which makes the experience so private.”

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Wallace Chan, jeweler, Hong Kong: “Jewelry is the carrier of emotions, culture, history, philosophy, craftsmanship and more. The extensive collection at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts features over 20,000 multicultural jewelry pieces throughout the course of history. As a creator, I am always interested in exploring the stories, materials, techniques and innovations from different eras and cultures. The Nubian jewelry pieces in the museum’s collection are among those that intrigue me the most. The Nubian Hathor-headed crystal pendant from almost 3,000 years ago leads me on a journey to the long-lost civilization.”

The Rachel Lambert Mellon Collection of Jean Schlumberger at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond

Frank Everett, vice president, and sales director, Sotheby’s jewelry department in New York: “For me, the relationship between Bunny Mellon and Jean Schlumberger represents one of the great collaborations of artist and patron of the 20th century. Mrs. Mellon’s vast collection, which she left in its entirety to the V.M.F.A., is highly personal, filled with flora-inspired jewels that reflect her passion for horticulture. I also love it for the incredible one-of-a-kind bespoke objects Schlumberger created for [Paul Mellon] and Mrs. Mellon in gold, enamel and precious stones.”

The Gold Museum, Bogotá, Colombia

Joanna Hardy, independent jewelry specialist, London: “Visiting downtown Bogotá is an assault on the senses: You are exposed to all its wonderful, eclectic mix of urban life where live music is being played with backdrops of graffiti art, and it is here that you will find a hidden treasure: the Gold Museum. In its inner sanctum, you will find the world’s most important collection of pre-Hispanic gold artifacts that miraculously survived the looting from the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. The museum has over 34,000 gold items, and to see how gold was crafted by the indigenous people of South America who lived over 500 years ago is quite incredible.”

The Schatzkammer, Munich

Christian Hemmerle, jeweler, Hemmerle, Munich: “The Schatzkammer (Treasury) at the Munich Residenz (former royal palace of the Wittelsbach monarchs of Bavaria) is to me an incredible, inspiring collection, with treasures collected by the rulers of Bavaria over the centuries. It was established in 1565 by Duke Albrecht V, the Wittelsbach family’s first great patron of art. Ranging from medieval art works, religious artifacts, royal regalia, swords, crowns and medals of honor among many other exhibits, the collection contains pieces of exquisite craftsmanship and cultural importance that may be impossible to recreate at this day and age.”

Galerie d’Apollon, Louvre, Paris

Vincent Meylan, chief editor for jewelry, Point de Vue magazine, Paris: “My favorite jewelry museum is the Galerie d’Apollon, in the Louvre, in Paris. Strangely, it is a place which is not very famous. Tourists usually pass in front of the massive double doors; they take a brief look inside the gallery and they run to join the queue for Mona Lisa. The jewels which are exhibited there are mostly French crown jewels or jewels coming from the collection of our queens. One of the oldest pieces is a spinel cut as a dragon, which belonged to François I (1494-1547) and my favorite pieces are the sapphire parure of Queen Marie-Amélie and the diamond bow of Empress Eugénie.”

The Newark Museum, New Jersey

Lee Siegelson, dealer in antique jewelry, New York “The Newark Museum is an absolute gem of a museum that is well worth a trip across the Hudson River from Manhattan. In the Lore Ross Jewelry Gallery, curator Ulysses Dietz, recently retired, spent the last three decades making wonderful jewelry acquisitions that are beautiful, interesting and varied in an effort to show the power of jewelry as an object of art and desire and also as a measure of societal change. The collection displays 150 pieces that range from the 15th century to present day, in man-made and natural materials, with both fine and everyday examples.”

The Kremlin Museum, Moscow

Lucia Silvestri, Bulgari high jewelry creative director, Rome: “The Kremlin Museum is a real museum of treasures, rich in history and styles from the artifacts to archaeological finds. One of my favorite sections is that of the ceramics, which are real pieces of art, and the section of photographs through which we relive the history of Russia from the czars to the October Revolution. I particularly appreciated the room with Russian precious objects from the 12th century, with its collection of jewels and objects in silver and precious stones. What makes it unique is the quantity of objects and how these have developed in terms of goldsmith manufacturing over the centuries throughout Europe.”

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