Duchess of Bedford’s Tiaras

Happy Birthday to Henrietta, the Dowager Duchess of Bedford, who turns 81 today! The illustrious Russell family have been prominent Aristocrats since the Tudor era and were created the Dukes of Bedford since 1694, situated at the magnificent Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, as well as owning the extensive Bedford Estate in London. To mark the Dowager Duchess’ Birthday, we are featuring the family’s magnificent heirloom Tiaras!

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But first, lets learn about the Dowager Duchess! The daughter of Henry Frederick Tiarks III, a merchant banker, and Joan Barry, an actress, Henrietta Tiarks is related to Mark Phillips and worked as a model before marrying the Marquess of Tavistock, the Heir of the 13th Duke of Bedford, in 1961. The couple had three sons, including the current 15th Duke of Bedford. From 1975, when the 13th Duke and Duchess retired as tax-exiles to Monaco, Lord and Lady Tavistock reluctantly took over the running of Woburn Abbey, doing much to modernise the house and showcasing their daily life and estate management in the BBC series Country House. They had already handed over management of the Abbey to their eldest son when they became the 14th Duke and Duchess of Bedford in 2002, with the Duke dying just a few months later. The Dowager Duchess has lived primarily in New Zealand, where she raises horses and has homes in Matamata, Central Otago, and Auckland, and has said: “I go back to the Abbey as little as I can. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t feel I ever lived there; it was never my home.” She has also talked about Tiaras:

I still have some beautiful ball dresses, but they live in a cupboard — nobody gives balls any more. I haven’t worn a tiara in 25 years. Times have changed. The aristocracy has no point any more.”

Bedford Floral Tiara

Consisting of two large spray of wild roses with leaves and jasmine flowers set en tremblant, the magnificent Bedford Floral Tiara was made by Jean-Baptiste Fossin of the French Jewellery House Chaumet for Queen Caroline of Naples, the sister of Emperor Napoleon, who sold the Tiara, and quite a lot of jewels, to the 7th Duke of Bedford sometime around 1817 through her former lover, the Comte de Flahaut. The Floral Tiara went down in the family and was notably worn by the 11th Duchess of Bedford at the Coronation of King Edward VII in 1902 as well as a Royal Court at Buckingham Palace.

The 12th Duchess doesn’t seem to have been picturing wearing the Tiara but it was often worn by Lydia, the 2nd wife of the 13th Duke, and most prominently by this 3rd Duchess, who wrote about wearing the tiara in her autobiography, Nicole Nobody, (and also wore the tiara in a portrait on the cover):

When Ian Woburn inherited Abbey, the lawyers solemnly led him to the “treasury”, the vault where the family jewelry was kept. It resembled the hold of a Spanish galleon. All the jewels the Russells had acquired over the centuries lay in heaps here. I wore the large Bedford diadem for the first time three months before my wedding, in June 1960 at Catherine’s debutante ball in Versailles.

Ted Lapidus had made me a white lace dress trimmed in silver, and Catherine opted for lots of virgin white tulle from Balmain. “Would you like to wear a tiara?” Ian had asked me. Now there is a day in a woman’s life when she wants to look as attractive as possible and that is the day her daughter is introduced into society. In addition, Catherine would wear the traditional pearl crown for debutantes, and both Ian himself, to whom I was engaged at the time, and his son Robin Marquis von Tavistock, attended the ball. Catherine and I waited for Ian in my Paris apartment. When he came he had a brown bag with him, which he dropped into my lap like a bag of apples.

I opened it and held the beautiful Bedford diadem in my hands. The briar rose buds and jasmine blossoms and jasmine leaves motifs mounted on feathers and spirals vibrated slightly and sparkled in the evening sun. It was a shimmer and sparkle of magical beauty. This type of diadem is called a “tremblant”. They were made in the eighteenth century and that of the Bedfords originally belonged to Queen Caroline of Naples, a sister of Napoleon. For me it is still one of the most beautiful. When I wear ducal family jewelry today, I feel very comfortable. You don’t have to be pretty on an evening when you’re wearing a gorgeous tiara. All eyes are looking at the diamonds and not the face. Even if you are tired and bad-looking, the tiara forces you to stay upright. You walk proudly and feel the shine on your head, which attracts all eyes. On the big day we got excited because the London hairdresser who was supposed to fix our hair was indispensable. Catherine and I did our hairs quickly, even though I had no experience with tiara. Since I was wearing a knot, I first attached that. Then I wrapped narrow strands of hair around the edges and pinned it with dozens of bobby pins. It got harder and harder. No wonder that every time I wear a tiara I get a headache after an hour.

I also wore the triple diamond necklace that evening. Each stone in itself would make a fantastic engagement ring. The necklace and tiara are of national importance. If I take them out of the country, I need approval from the appraisal office. Since then I have worn Bedford jewels many times, but not so much considered them to be important as something uniquely beautiful – until one day on the plane on the copy of the permit for the temporary export of the jewellery I read what value it was Her Majesty’s Treasury. I was so speechless that if I wear it now, I can’t get rid of the thought that a thief could tear it off my head. The thought of a piece as uniquely beautiful as Queen Caroline’s diadem could break apart and artistic work destroyed, annoys me. So it was unforgettable how I walked across the court of Versailles at Catherine’s first ball. All the big headlights were pointed at us and the diamonds on my head shone like the glittering stars in the sky on a clear summer night. On another occasion, I greeted Diane Beatty with the words: Oh, you’re wearing your chandelier. Another incident: at a reception with Ian in Luton Hoo by Sir Harold and Lady Wernher, attended by all the members of the Royal Family, I discovered that I was wearing a larger and nicer tiara than them Queen. I was embarrassed and tried to avoid her. But she became attentive and tried to be close to me so that she could take a closer look at the diadem – not my face.

At Woburn Abbey successive Duchesses wore the Bedford heirlooms with great distinction: a heavy eight-row pearl necklace, pear pearl earrings with diamond cluster tops, pearl stomacher. And a royal gift, a bracelet with Queen Victoria’s miniature. The ninth Duke’s wife, former Lady Elizabeth Sackville-West, wears the famous Bedford pearls in a portrait hanging in Woburn. I only wear five strings, because they are heavy and unfortunately some of them are already dull and dead, because pearls need the constant caress of warm skin in order to keep their shine and life.

The 14th Duchess, as Lady Tavistock, also wore the Floral Tiara and the diamond necklace, for a Ball at Woburn Abbey in 1980, which seems to have been its last public appearance, as there are no pictures of the current Duchess or her sisters-in-law wearing the Tiara. The Bedford Floral Tiara is now exhibited around the world, most recently at the ‘Chaumet in Majesty: Jewels of Sovereigns since 1780’ Exhibition in Monaco.

Tavistock Amethyst Tiara

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Another heirloom with elements originating from Queen Caroline of Naples, the Tavistock Amethyst Parure, named after the family’s secondary title, the Marquess of Tavistock, consists of a tiara, necklace, earrings, brooch, and bracelets set with splendid facetted amethysts, which were acquired by the 7th Duke and remodelled into the current configuration in the 1870s. The Amethyst Parure was worn by Lydia, the 2nd wife of the 13th Duke in the 1950s, but was most prominently worn by his 3rd wife, at various State Openings of Parliament, Galas, Banquets and Balls. The 14th Duchess, as Lady Tavistock, wore parts of the Parure in the 1990s, but a few pieces seem to have been sold in recent years, while the Tiara has been displayed around the world.

The 13th Duchess also wrote about the amethysts in her autobiography:

Our family jewelry also includes a highly representative set of amethysts with diamonds, consisting of a diadem, necklace, bracelet, brooch and earrings. I wore this set in 1971 in Persepolis on the Bal des Petit Lits Blancs. To the ball I wore a floor-length purple chiffon robe, with a bracelet, necklace, ring and brooch made of amethysts and diamonds – and a diadem. The amethysts on the bracelet are so big that I call them my brake lights. When Ian chooses the jewelry to wear on a particular occasion, he often takes inspiration from the style of the house we’re invited to. If it is a Georgian house I wear a Georgian diadem, if it comes from the Regency, he chooses pieces that are more recent. I doubt if anyone will notice or even care, but it’s a lovely idea.”

Queen of Naples’ Intaglio Tiara

Another jewel owned by the Dukes of Bedford is Queen Caroline of Naples’ Intaglio Tiara, featuring nine oval intaglios, that was sold to the 7th Duke and pictured on the 9th Duchess as well as the 14th Duchess, before being exhibited in Japan in recent years, though some believe it may have been sold and is now in a museum in Paris.


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