I’ve always had a soft spot for Princess Margaret—partly for the same reason President Johnson so enjoyed her (those limericks!), but also because she had a killer eye for jewelry. So let’s call this my own contribution to what episode two of season three of The Crown refers to as “Margaretology.”
One of Margaret’s favorite pieces was her Poltimore tiara, which, though in size and shape and splendor every inch a royal-worthy jewel, still holds some of Princess Margaret’s independent spirit. It did not come out of the monarch’s vault for Margaret’s use, but rather belonged to the Princess herself.
Legend has it Margaret bought the tiara, but there is actually some debate about that fact: “It was purchased for her at auction in January 1959. It is not absolutely clear whether Margaret, her sister the Queen, or her mother actually paid for it,” says Mahnaz Ispahani Bartos, a vintage jewelry dealer and scholar with a particular expertise on Princess Margaret. “Once bought, Margaret couldn’t wait to wear it.”
The tiara was originally made in 1870 by Garrard for Lady Poltimore, the wife of the second Baron Poltimore, treasurer to Queen Victoria’s household from 1872 to 1874. Princess Margaret was its second owner. The Princess wore the tiara in its form as a splendid fringe necklace on several occasions before her actual marriage, and also as a necklace and brooches on many State and official functions throughout the rest of her life.
It was on her wedding day, arriving at Westminster Abbey by horse-drawn carriage, that Princess Margaret first wore this impressive piece atop her head publicly. She also rather famously wore it in a bathtub at Kensington Palace, in a photograph taken by her husband Lord Snowdon. She had had her famous beehive done just before, and the tiara was perfectly in place. Why not?
The images of the Poltimore at the royal wedding (and in the bathtub) added to its new royal provenance. “What I love about this piece is that it was used for formal and informal occasions,” says Daphne Lingon, head of jewelry at Christies USA. “It represents a happy moment for Princess Margaret as it helped commemorate one of the most important milestones in her life.”
Thought it had been purchased only a short time before the 1960 wedding, it immediately became infused with the royal aura. “At her wedding, the Poltimore tiara emphasized HRH’s royalty, sitting dramatically as it did on the head of a very petite princess who also purposely chose a quite simple Norman Hartnell gown,” says Bartos.
The striking tiara may have also served another purpose: It added some height. “She didn’t have a complex about being number two,” Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Princess Margaret in season three, recently told T&C, “she had a complex about being short. That’s why she wore the Poltimore tiara, which was at least four inches tall, at her wedding.” (Margaret was five-foot-one.)
But Margaret’s taste in jewelry went far beyond the Politmore, and her reputation as the rebel princess extended to her jewelry box. Many believe she had the best eye for jewelry in the palace. Over the course of her life, she become a great patron of young designers and unconventional styles.
“Jewelry collections reflect quite intimately the persona of their collector. HRH the Princess Margaret collected jewelry which reflected eclectic, to some even contradictory, tastes, ranging from London’s avant garde contemporary jewelry, to classic four strand pearls, to grand diamond necklaces and tiaras,” says Bartos, who in addition to being an expert on Princess Margaret, is an authority on London jewelers of her time.
Margaret’s jewelry collection, says Bartos, perfectly reflected the trajectory of a modern royal. “She was an independent minded princess, very much of her time, the culturally roiled and transformative 1960s and 1970s. She was then a glamorous party girl married to a hip photographer and design aficionado. And yet, she was also, always, a Royal princess, only sister to the Queen, a Princess who never relinquished her royal sense of herself, her royal hauteur. She was always Ma’am.”
It was Bartos who first taught me about Margaret’s patronage of maverick jewelers, like Andrew Grima, whose work was sharp edged and often brutalistic. Margaret famously sent Grima some lichen with which to create a gold brooch, Bartos says, and the princess wore the jewelry often “along with her au courant hairdos, glamorous sunglasses and stylish dresses.”
She also loved the work of Stuart Devlin, and her favorite was John Donald, whom she first visited with her mother in 1961. Donald noted her interest in modern design and craftsmanship. Once introduced by Lord Snowdon, HRH visited the jewelers workshops and galleries, helped launch new collections, promoted their jewelry among the Windsors, and commissioned new works, sometimes offering her own gemstones.
It made me appreciate the Princess even more, this sense of royal jewelry taste that dared to spread beyond the boundaries of diamond tiaras and three strands of pearls.
Princess Margaret died in 2002, and four years later her children decided to sell some of her jewelry, including the Poltimore tiara she had worn to her wedding. “There were many, many reasons, mostly financial, that persuaded us that that was the correct route because, you know, when people die, taxes need to be paid,” her son told The Telegraph at the time.
“Getting rid of anything is not my natural habitat,” he added. “I have a lot of clutter. I remember at the time there was a lot of worry as to whether anyone would come.”
People came. And the Poltimore tiara, estimated to sell at Christies for $350,000, saw the hammer go down at $1.7 million.
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