Mellerio Shell Tiara

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the death of Infanta Isabel of Spain, Princess of Asturias and Countess of Girgenti, popularly known as La Chata! The eldest daughter of Queen Isabel II, sister of King Alfonso XII and aunt of King Alfonso XIII, who was briefly married to a Prince of the Bourbon Two Sicilies, the Infanta was a beloved member of the Spanish royal family, considered one of the best assets of the monarchy and died at age 79, in exile, in Paris, right after the fall of the monarchy. To mark this anniversary, we are taking a look at one of her most iconic jewels, the Mellerio Shell Tiara, in an article written by our new assistant editor, David Rato, who runs the Spanish Royal Jewels account on Instagram!

This is the oldest tiara that the Spanish royal family possesses to this day. It is one of the few that they have managed to keep for several generations. Made by Maison Mellerio to be presented at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867, it was later acquired by Queen Isabel II for the price of 180,000 reales for the trousseau of her eldest daughter, Infanta Isabel. The (rocaille) design of the piece simulates a wave or a seashell, modeled in diamonds from which a shower of pearls and diamonds falls: seven pear-shaped pearls and eighteen briolette-cut diamonds, which shake at the smallest movement. There is also a large briolette diamond that hangs from the base of the piece (that can be removed when required).

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This Shell Tiara is one of two that Queen Isabel acquired from Mellerio to give to her eldest daughter, Infanta Isabel, on the occasion of her marriage to Prince Gaetan of the Bourbon Two Sicilies, Count of Girgenti in 1868. The Infanta was portrayed several times with this piece throughout her life, as a senior member of the Spanish Court, pairing it with many other pieces of her splendid collection, and also loaned the Tiara on at least one occasion to her sister, Infanta Paz. It is reportedly said that, following the fall of the monarchy in 1931, the piece was smuggled out of the Spain stitched inside a hat, but the Infanta passed away just days into their exile.

After the Infanta’s death (without issue) in 1931, Mellerio Shell Tiara was inherited by her beloved nephew, King Alfonso XIII, along with the greater part of the Infanta’s jewelry collection. Despite being estranged from his wife in their exile, the Shell Tiara was given to Queen Victoria Eugenie, who wore it for a series of portraits taken in the 1930s, for some gala occasions and on a visit to the Vatican in 1950.

Queen Victoria Eugenie also loaned the Mellerio Shell Tiara to her daughter-in-law, the Countess of Barcelona, who was photographed wearing this tiara while leaving Claridge’s Hotel in London for one of the Wedding Balls of Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth and Prince Phillip of Greece in 1947, held by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

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By 1962, Queen Ena who gave the Mellerio Shell Tiara to her son, Don Juan, the Count of Barcelona to give as a gift to to Princess Sofia of Greece, on the occasion of her wedding to Prince Juan Carlos. Princess Sofia wore the Tiara for the first time at her Pre-Wedding Ball held at the Royal Palace of Athens. The Shell Tiara was a regular in Doña Sofia’s jewelry choices (both with and without the diamond briolette drop) in the early years after her marriage, notably worn for the Greek Monarchy Centenary Gala in 1963, Wedding Ball of King Constantine of Greece and Princess Anne Marie of Denmark in 1964, and the Wedding Ball of Princess Beatrix of The Netherlands in 1966.

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Along with her Prussian Diamond Tiara, the Mellerio Shell Tiara was one of Queen Sofia’s two tiaras up into the first decade of King Juan Carlos’ reign, when she hadn’t gained access to the Joyas de Pasar, nor converted her Floral Tiara. The Tiara worn worn for for many early State Visits, including the Spanish State Visit to Denmark and State Visit to Japan in 1980, the State Visit to Norway in 1982, and Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko’s visit to Spain in 1985.

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Queen Sofia also loaned the the Mellerio Shell Tiara to both of her daughters, Infanta Elena and Infanta Cristina, for a family portrait in the 1980s and for a State Banquet in honour of the King of Morocco, respectively. Infanta Margarita, the Queen’s sister-in-law, was also loaned this piece, for a banquet held during a state visit from the President of Portugal. Queen Letizia wore the Shell Tiara only once, for a Banquet held in honour of the President of the Philippines in 2007.

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I would say that this is Queen Sofia’s most worn tiara and probably her favorite. It has been worn for many state banquets and galas, both in Spain and abroad, throughout her husband’s reign and figures in various official portraits. Notable appearences in more recent years, after gaining many more Tiaras in her jewellery box, include the Spanish State Visit to Britain in 1986, the State Visit to Thailand in 1987, King Harland and Queen Sonja’s Silver Anniversary in 1993, the Belgian State Visit to Spain in 1994, King Carl Gustaf’s 50th Birthday in 1996, and the Jordanian State Banquet at the Royal Palace of Madrid in 1999, alongside a variety of State Banquets through the 2000s. The Shell Tiara was most recently worn for the Wedding of Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden in 2010, when it was paired with Queen Sofia’s Shell Pendant.

The Mellerio Tiara was exhibited publicly twice, one time in Munich in 1989 for an exhibition of french-made jewels and in 2004, in the Museo Arquelogico Nacional. It is stated that it will probably be seen again in a temporary exhibition in the future Museo de las Colecciones Reales. While Queen Letizia has worn all of Queen Sofia’s other Tiaras since the King’s accession, the Shell Tiara remains with Queen Sofia for the time being. The Tiara is one of the oldest and most worn in the Spanish collection, being seen on the top of the heads of 5 different generations of the Bourbon Family, and will no doubt be worn for many more!

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