Dutch sapphire tiara: not Mellerio, nor Massin

Dutch sapphire tiara: not Mellerio, nor Massin

The release of Vincent Meylan's book Mellerio dits Meller. Joaillier des Reines led to some surprise with regard to the news that the grand sapphire tiara in the Dutch royal collection is not made by Mellerio. The fact of the matter is: already in 1996 René Brus in his book De Juwelen van het Huis Oranje-Nassau (The jewels of the House Orange-Nassau) - which is so far the only reference work regarding the Dutch royal jewels - convincingly documented that the attribution to Mellerio was actually unfounded. In Royalty Magazine number 5 of this year I wrote in my column on royal jewels about this case. Since both sources are only available in Dutch, I'll publish it here in English so anyone can access the information.

On the day of the inauguration of King Willem-Alexander, the press service of the Dutch government released the following information about the tiara Queen Máxima was wearing: the tiara is made of gold and was a gift from King Willem III to Queen Emma, his wife. The design dates from 1867 and is by Oscar Massin. The tiara consists of old cut diamonds with blue sapphires. The detachable central sapphire is an heirloom of Queen Anna Paulowna, the Russian born wife of King Willem II.

The press release contains several factual errors: the design does not date from 1867 and is not by Oscar Massin. Naturally, the presenter of the tv broadcast translated this information to 'the tiara dates from 1867 and was made by Oscar Massin'. What the press release should have said was simply: 'the tiara was made in 1881'. Also, recent research revealed that the central sapphire is not an heirloom but was included in the order.

The Mellerio myth

On the internet - but also by experts - this tiara has for years been attributed to Mellerio. However, since the publication of René Brus' book in 1996 the case for this tiara not being made by Mellerio, was already very clear and documented well with archival evidence. What Vincent Meylan's book adds is the confirmation that the Mellerio archives contain absolutely no evidence that Willem III ordered this tiara and the two accompanying bracelets from Mellerio. However, what we do know about this commission from Brus' book, already sufficiently disproves this myth. Let's delve into the 1867 original design by Oscar Massin first:









What you don't see on this image of the 1867 Massin design, is the text under the design. It is included in Brus' book on page 71. It says: 'Diadème en brilliants et roses, par O. Massin'. This text is very clearly printed, and apparently this design is published in 1908 in Henri Vever's La Bijouterie Francaise au XIX Siecle. 

Oscar Massin's work certainly deserves its own monography, we know remarkably little about this grand master of jewellery design and innovation, but in those days he was famous as such and his designs were popular. So by 1881, when the Dutch tiara was delivered - with 2 bracelets - at the Dutch court for 100.000 guilders (around 1 million euro in today's value), the 1867 design existed for already 14 years. Now let's look at the design of the current tiara:











First an analysis of the difference in design between the 1867 and 1881 version. Only the elongated fleur de lys elements are exactly the same, all the other details differ. Also, the look and feel of the 2 designs are different: the 1867 design is rather futuristic, while the 1881 design has a clear gothic feel.

Let's read what the hand written text says (transcription by Brus): 'Le tout signe s'enjaje a livrer a Sa Majesté le Roi de Paijs Bas un Diademe avec deux Bracelets selon ces dessin pour la somme de centinelle florins sauf que le Saphijr du millieux aura, deux millimetres de suvinds au fourtour'. And then the name of Vita Israëls written over an erased other name. What we now have, is a different design from the Massin design - clearly inspired on this design though -, but 14 years later and with a different name on it.

But more important: no Massin and certainly not Mellerio. This is reinforced by the knowledge that Massin was not an employee of Mellerio, but an independent goldsmith and jewellery designer working for different houses. In fact, during the 1877 exhibition of applied arts in Amsterdam, Massin had his own display, just like at the world expos of the time. This doesn't necessarily exclude Massin as the maker of the tiara, but the name of Vita Israëls written on the original document is the clear indicator when you want to apply scientific method to the matter.

Who made it?

What this information does not reveal, is by whose hand the 1881 design is. It would help tremendously if it was possible to read the erased name over which Vita Israëls is written. But it is very well possible the tiara and bracelets were made there: the company made more jewels for the Dutch royal court. But it doesn't automatically mean the design is also by them. The interesting thing is: the 1881 designs are in the archives of Van Kempen & Vos, who were court jewellers, and not in the Royal House Archives in The Hague. The reason for this might be that in 1928 they received the commission to alter the tiara. The archives don't indicate what exactly was the commission, but it is probable the gold frame was replaced for the less heavy and more versatile platinum. In order to execute such an alteration, the original design drawings are needed. And that might be the reason why the design drawings are now in the Van Kempen & Vos archives.

2013 alteration

In 2013 the tiara was altered again. An extra frame was added to the base of the tiara, so that the row of sapphires is better visible but probably also to lessen or better distribute the weight of the tiara on the head. Furthermore, the central top element was replaced by a single brilliant, decreasing the height of the tiara. This alteration also changed the feeling of the tiara: from working to a central high point, to a more kokoshnik style. Although this alteration is succesful, I sincerely hope it is not permanent. The original design of the tiara is exquisite and unique, and the Gothic feeling of the jewel is exactly what it makes so unique. And Gothic always works towards the sky - which is, incidentally, also the symbolism of sapphire. 

Massin and the Dutch court

Although for now the name of Vita Israëls is the most concrete lead in this case, the name of Massin cannot be completely excluded as designer of the 1881 tiara. Several of the jewels King Willem III bought at Mellerio (in 1882 and 1888) are designed by Oscar Massin, for example the grand ruby parure. What the direct commissions by Willem III to Massin were, are yet undocumented, except for 1 piece. As mentioned above, Massin had a display at the applied arts exhibition in Amsterdam in 1877. The 2 sons of Willem III, Willem and Alexander, were closely involved in the organization of the exhibition and - I will check later and update this - the King visited the exhibition as well.

2 years later, the King - and this is a documented case - commissioned a pendant to Oscar Massin, to incorporate a faint yellow diamond with the portrait of the King engraved in it. This pendant was the King's gift to his 41 years younger bride Emma of Waldeck Pyrmont on the morning of their wedding in January 1879. Less than 2 years after the 1877 exhibition this commission is documented.

This also leaves open the possibility other sapphire jewels - which are also not Mellerio - could have been direct commissions to Massin. What is certain though, is that a book of Oscar Massin is very much needed, first and foremost as a monument to his exceptional work. The same goes for an authorized book on the Dutch royal jewels.