It has been recently announced that the spectacular Diamond Rivière of the Duchesses of Sutherland, which may have originated from Queen Marie Antoinette, has been given to UK Government in lieu of death duties from the estate of the late Countess of Sutherland and will be on display at the V&A Museum from next year.
Comprising a Diamond Rivière of 20 massive cushion-shaped diamonds in cut-down collet settings, with two sections of a smaller rivière necklace, set with a total of 29 cushion-shaped diamonds, and a pair of diamond stud earrings, each set with a cushion-shaped diamond. The 20 open-backed collet-set diamonds are designed in such a way as to allow natural light to pass through them to enhance their luminosity. According to the Family, the Diamonds were among a series of jewels given to the first Duchess of Sutherland, the wife of the then British Ambassador to France, by Queen Marie Antoinette when the Duchess was leaving Paris in the midst of the Revolution. However, another claim is that the Diamonds were originally part of the famous necklace behind ‘The Affair of the Diamond Necklace’, which were taken to London by Monsieur de la Motte and bought by the first Duke of Sutherland for his wife, the 19th Countess of Sutherland in her own right, in the 1780s. While neither link to Queen Marie Antoinette is verified, it has been mentioned in the press for decades.
The first fully documented owner of the necklace was Harriet Leveson-Gower, the 2nd Duchess of Sutherland, who, as the Mistress of the Robes, wore the Diamond Rivière on her head for Coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838, being painted by CR Leslie.
While the next Duchess of Sutherland was also a Mistress of the Robes to Queen Victoria, she was never depicted in the Diamond Rivière, though it was worn by the 3rd Duke’s controversial second wife, Duchess ‘Blair’, for a portrait in 1890. Later, the Diamond Rivière was also likely worn by the 4th Duchess of Sutherland when she was a Canopy Bearer at the Coronation of King George V in 1911.
The 5th Duchess was the Mistress of the Robes to Queen Mary between 1916 and 1920, when the Duchess of Devonshire was the Viceregal Consort in Canada, and likely wore the Diamond Rivière with her Belle Époque Tiara to a few Court Occasions, though not as many as usual since there was austerity during the First World War. By the 1930s, the Duchess had used the extra diamonds to extend the Diamond Rivière, worn for a series of portraits by Cecil Beaton,
In 1937, the Duchess wore the Belle Epoque Diamond Tiara and the Diamond Rivière for the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The Duke was the first Chairman of the British Film Institute, and both the Duke and Duchess were filmed in technicolour during the Coronation festivities. The Duchess also wore the Tiara and Rivière for a Coronation Ball hosted by the couple at Hampden House, the first Ball at a private House attended by the reigning King and Queen since 1914.
The Duchess continued to wear the Tiara and Diamond Rivière for a series of events and festivities over the next few years, including a Gala Concert at Austrian Legation in London in 1937. After the outbreak of WWII, the Duchess presumably put the Tiara away and the couple retired to Dunrobin Castle in Scotland, where she passed away in 1943.
The following year, the Duke remarried to Clare Josephine O’Brian, wore the Diamond Rivière with the Belle Epoque Diamond Tiara as a stomacher with another Tiara (that had also been worn by the previous Duchess) at an event in 1950, likely the State Opening of Parliament. Just a few weeks later, there was a theft of £53,135 worth of Jewelry from Sutton Place.
Many of the missing pieces are Sutherland Heirlooms. They include the famous Marie Antoinette Jewels which had have been in the family for 150 years.”
However, the culprits, a former secretary and commission agent, were sentenced a few years later, and presumably most of the Jewels were returned.
There was another theft in 1953, just two days before the Coronation of the Queen, when £50,000 worth of Jewellry was stolen from their house in Wilton Crescent, though the thieves left the Ducal Coronets and also the Diamond Rivière which allowed the Duke and Duchess to be ‘properly attired’ at the Coronation. There was another theft from their home in Jamaica in 1954, with £1,800 worth of Jewellery stolen, among them a pair of diamond earrings.
One of the jewels that survived the thefts was the Diamond Rivière with ‘Marie Antoinette’s Diamonds’, which was worn by the Duchess, usually in two rows, at the Henley Polo Club Ball at Ciro’s Club in 1951, as well as for numerous occasions through the 1950s.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Diamond Rivière was exhibited multiple times by the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, most notably at the ‘Ageless Diamond’ Exhibit at Christie’s in 1959, along with Queen Alexandra’s Kokoshnik Tiara, The Cullinan Diamonds, the Queen’s South African Diamonds, the Northumberland Clover Coronet, and the Spencer Diamond Rivière. After the Duke’s death in 1963, his titles were divided according to their patents: the Earldom of Sutherland and Lordship of Strathnaver passed to his niece, Elizabeth Sutherland, 24th Countess of Sutherland, while the Dukedom and the remainder of the titles passed to the heir male, a distant relative, the Earl of Ellesmere.
The Countess of Sutherland, who inherited the extensive family estates, also inherited the Diamond Rivière, and while some insignificant jewels have come up at Auction after her death in 2019, the Diamond Rivière, valued at £1.4 million, was given to the UK Government as part of the acceptance in lieu scheme. The necklace was offered with a wish to the Victoria & Albert Museum but the Panel agreed that, given the importance of the necklace within the context of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s jewellery collection, the allocation wish should be changed to a condition. The Sutherland Diamond Rivière will go on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London at some point next year, along with Queen Victoria’s Sapphire Coronet, the Manchester Tiara, the Londonderry Tiaras, and the Dufferin Tiara.