Jewel in Its Crown

Almost four years ago, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) closed its jewelry rooms for a multimillion-pound renovation and expansion to accommodate more of its extraordinary collection of some 3,500 jewels. The museum hadn’t updated the galleries in more than 30 years, and their old display cases, cumbersome security turnstiles and poor lighting kept them somewhat obscured within the famous London institution. That will change when the new space, named for the project’s donors, Judith and William Bollinger, opens on May 24.

The redone display comprises mostly European pieces from the past 800 years, although some of the items in the museum’s collection date to as far back as ancient Rome and Egypt. The trove includes ornaments and crowns from British and Continental royals, including Catherine the Great, of Russia, and Empress Josephine, of France; opulent Fabergé creations; and archetypal designs by such great 20th-century jewelry houses as Cartier, Lalique and Tiffany & Co. Among the most jaw-dropping works are a turn-of-the-19th-century garland-style diamond-studded tiara designed by Cartier and worn by Consuelo, the duchess of Marlborough; three brilliant-cut-diamond bow ornaments from the Russian royal collection, donated to the museum by Lady Cory in 1951; and a gold Chaumet bangle, made in Paris in the 1930s, with a cluster of rubies and diamonds.

“This isn’t a temporary exhibition of just 200 or 300 objects. We’re creating a gallery of more than 3,000 objects that’s meant to last for decades,” says Richard Edgcumbe, the V&A’s senior curator of metalwork, silver and jewelry. “People don’t want to have just 100 items beautifully explained; they want to see all of it. So we are exhibiting every object with some kind of depth.” Each of the pieces is briefly described on an accompanying label, and visitors can use computer terminals to call up one of about 8,000 detailed photographs of the jewels.

A former Goldman Sachs oil analyst and the founder of the London-based hedge fund Egerton Capital, William Bollinger, and his wife, Judith, donated more than £7 million (about $14 million) to the renovation project and to establish “the first-ever endowment to maintain the gallery at the highest standard,” says a V&A spokesperson, Henrietta Sitwell. The transformation has been dramatic: Fluorescent lamps have  been replaced with more-subdued fiber-optic lighting; the turnstiles have been removed; and a glass spiral staircase leads to a new mezzanine level where the V&A’s collection of watches and gold boxes is housed. For the main floor, the architect, Eva Jiricna, and the museum’s curators have created a series of freestanding curved vitrines, known as “star cases” because of the prized jewels they contain. Additional objects and more extensive histories are in cases along the walls. “If you had a half hour and you wanted to whiz down the series of star cases, you’d see 50 or 60 pieces through the chronology,” says Edgcumbe. “But if you want to see more, you can also linger and learn more about the ones [elsewhere in the gallery] that caught your eye.”

The stargazing begins with a 700 B.C. Celtic gold gorget, or breast ornament, an example of Late Bronze Age high craftsmanship discovered sometime before 1783 in Shannongrove, Ireland. Among other blockbuster items: the Beauharnais Emeralds, a parure, or matching set, of briolette and step-cut emerald drops in diamond settings given by Napoleon to his adopted daughter, Stéphanie de Beauharnais, in 1806, on the occasion of her marriage to the heir of the grand duke of Baden; Lady Louis Mountbattens Tutti-Frutti bandeau, a multicolored Art Deco headband that can also be worn as two bracelets, made of diamonds, Indian rubies, sapphires and emeralds in the shape of a sinuous creeping plant; and, farther along, a few contemporary pieces, including the English jewelry designer Cynthia Cousenss experimental “Winter” series, patinated silver necklaces she created in 1996 based on her pencil sketches of the South Downs, in England.

But the focus of the exhibit, according to Edgcumbe, is on the human story behind each object rather than on the object itself. “We want to get across the story of people—the people who sold it, the people who wore it, the people who collected it,” he says. One item prized for its colorful history is a stopwatch from the 18th century, valued then at about £20, which was stolen at Enfield racecourse in 1790 by a famous British pickpocket, George Barrington. Barrington was sentenced for the theft to exile in Australia and later reformed, becoming a chief constable in Parramatta, New South Wales.

Another, sadder story attaches to a gold ring from 1801–02, which is inscribed with a curious set of enamel numbers and letters: “md Agd 16, sb Agd 12, wb Agd 10, eb Agd 9, tb Agd 7, rb Agd 5, cd Agd 2” on the outside and, on the inside, “Died from the 16th to the 23rd Feby 1801.”
The band, Edgcumbe explains, was made to commemorate the deaths of seven children from the same family who passed away in a single week, probably during an epidemic of a disease such as smallpox.

“That’s one level of emotion that the jewelry brings to you,” says Edgcumbe. “At the other end, there’s the sheer wonder at the diamonds.”

"Jewel in Its Crown" originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's May 2008 Table of Contents.