Winged tiara to go on display in Scottish Design Galleries

12 December 2017

A spectacular diamond-winged tiara commissioned by the late Mary Crewe-Milnes, Duchess of Roxburghe, will go on display when V&A Museum of Design Dundee opens next year.

Inspired by the winged helmets worn by the heroines of Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, the tiara is the last of its type ever made by Cartier.

The piece, known as a Valkyrie tiara after the eponymous figures from Norse mythology, comprises more than 2,500 cushion-shaped, single-cut, circular-cut and rose-cut diamonds, set in a gold and silver frame.

The pair of ‘en tremblant’ wings was constructed using wire-coiled springs so that they move slightly when worn. The wings can also be detached and worn separately.

The exquisite headpiece was commissioned in 1935, the year of the Duchess’s marriage to the 9th Duke of Roxburghe, when the couple resided in Floors Castle, near Kelso. It comes in a unique cream leather bespoke Cartier case with her initials tooled in gilt lettering in a Celtic font.

The tiara, which is from a Scottish collection, will be shown in V&A Dundee’s Scottish Design Galleries when the new museum opens in the second half of 2018. It will be the first time it has gone on public display.

Joanna Norman, Lead Curator of the Scottish Design Galleries and Acting Head of Research at the V&A, said: “This tiara is a stunning example of design being directly influenced by the person who commissioned it.

“In 1935 the Duchess of Roxburghe had just married into a Scottish dynasty. When she asked Cartier to make one last Valkyrie tiara she was commissioning a piece of exquisite craftsmanship and unexpected design, inspired by the fashions of her childhood.

“The tiara is an amazing piece which trembles when worn to give a sense of moving feathers. Designed to allow the Duchess to remove the wings and wear them as brooches if she so desired, the attention to detail is spectacular.”

The fashion for Valkyrie tiaras originated on the stage before being rapidly adopted by fashionable aristocrats at the start of the 20th century.

A notable early example — a winged tiara centring on a 33-carat diamond made by Cartier in 1909 for the wife of American banker JP Morgan — was credited with helping to fuel the craze across the Atlantic.

By the 1930s the influence of Art Deco had taken hold in the decorative arts and ornate winged headwear was no longer in demand. By 1935 requesting such a dramatic item of jewellery would have been considered very unusual.

The Duchess’s fondness for the style was sparked by seeing winged tiaras worn at balls and parties as a child, prompting her to approach Cartier more than a decade later to produce one last grand homage to the bygone fashion.

The tiara belongs to a private collector, and will be loaned to V&A Dundee, following arrangements negotiated through Sotheby’s.

V&A Dundee, currently under construction on the banks of the River Tay, will be the first design museum in the UK outside London. As well as hosting world-class touring exhibitions, the new museum will be home to the Scottish Design Galleries which will explore what is unique about Scotland’s design landscape, historically and today.

Within these galleries will be around 300 beautiful and innovative objects representing a wide range of design disciplines. The majority of these objects will come from the V&A’s world-renowned collections of art, design and performance, and around one third will be loans from other collections or new acquisitions.

The Duchess’s tiara will be displayed in a section of the Scottish Design Galleries focused on design as a form of storytelling, highlighting how it can be used to spark the imagination and make the world more beautiful.