Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the Death of Loelia Ponsonby, Duchess of Westminster and Lady Lindsay, who passed away on this day in 1993! The Aristocratic Bright Young Thing who became the third wife of the second Duke of Westminster and was a leading Socialite of the Inter-War years, the Duchess was behind the commission of the spectacular Westminster Halo Tiara!
Soon after the 2nd Duke of Westminster married Loelia Ponsonby as his third wife in 1930, he commissioned a spectacular new Tiara from Lacloche Freres, which was designed as a halo to be worn over the crown of the wearer’s head and extending outwards in the manner of a traditional Chinese headdress, and could be worn with a diamond rivière attached to the outer border.
The Tiara was originally with the Hastings Diamond and the two Arcot Diamonds, which had been gifts to Queen Charlotte from the Nawab of Arcot and following her death, were sold to the first Marquess of Westminster. The Duchess described the Diamonds:
I seem to have talked a great deal about diamonds, but before I leave this sparkling subject, I must just mention the most wonderful of all. One evening Bendor and I were setting off to dance at the Embassy and as we were about to get into the car he said, ‘You’d better have these. Put them on,’ and he handed me two large almond-shaped stones set side by side on a gold safety-pin. They were the famous Arcot Diamonds which the Nawab of Arcot gave to Queen Charlotte. She left them to be sold for the benefit of her daughters and they were eventually bought by the first Marquess of Westminster as a birthday present for his wife.
Later they were set into a golden crown but remained detachable and later still we had them worked into the Tiara which, in 1959, was sold at Sotheby’s to help defray death duties and fetched the record price of £110,000. Fixed by themselves on the safety-pin the Arcot Diamonds looked extremely bogus and a friend who saw me that evening remarked, ‘What on earth does Loelia think she’s doing, pinning those two lumps of glass on herself?’
When the Halo Tiara was completed, the Duchess of Westminster wore it for her Presentation at Court, despite the disapproval of the Duke, describing the events:
My father, as Head of the Household and a great believer in ceremony, naturally wanted his daughter Presented on her marriage and I was not at all averse to the idea; it would give me my first opportunity to wear the Tiara with the Arcot diamonds. Benny of course was dead against it but relented when his aunt, Lady Molly Stanley, undertook to Present me. It was most gallant of her considering that she had had a bad hunting accident and was in a wheeled chair. So in due course Lady Molly propelled herself in front of the throne, bowing from a sitting position as she went past, and I followed in the tiara and silver lamé.
Loelia, Duchess of Westminster more famously wore the Halo Tiara for a series of portraits taken by Cecil Beaton, one of which was featured in her autobiography, ‘Grace and Favour: The Memoirs of Loelia, Duchess of Westminster’ in 1961, writing:
In my memoirs I captioned this photograph of me by Cecil Beaton appropriately enough as “Fine feathers make fine birds” – the Westminster Tiara was subsequently sold to America and the famous pair of perfectly matched Arcot diamonds split up.
Following the Duke and Duchess’ divorce in 1947, the Duke soon remarried and the new Duchess wore the Westminster Halo Tiara for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in 1953, just a few weeks before the Duke passed away.
The Westminster Halo Tiara was inherited by William Grosvenor, 3rd Duke of Westminster, the cousin of the 2nd Duke, but due to death duties, was auctioned at Sotheby’s in June 1959 for £110,000, where it was acquired by Harry Winston, who removed the Hastings and Arcot Diamonds to be sold separately, replacing them with Turquoises and later smaller diamonds, making small, subtle changes.
In 1961, the Westminster Halo Tiara was worn by Carol Channing at the Hearts and Diamonds Ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.
The turquoise version of the Halo Tiara was worn by Rose Movius Palmer at the Opera in the 1960s.
In 1973, Alice Cooper wore the modified Halo Tiara as a necklace for a portrait with Salvador Dali. The Halo Tiara was again sold at Sotheby’s in October 1988, and later belonged to Isi Fischzang Inc., being frequently exhibited.
When the Westminster Halo Tiara went on display at the Sotheby’s ‘Power & Image: Royal & Aristocratic Tiaras’ Exhibition last year, it was listed as the Property of a British Noblewoman:
In the late 17th century, European fascination with the Far East began to be reflected in art and design. The trend continued into the next century but fell out of fashion in the 19th century. However, the rise in Art Deco design saw a return in vogue of the Eastern style and a blending of Chinoiserie motifs and design elements in this new modern aesthetic.
Exemplary of this is the Westminster Halo Tiara. The tiara takes inspiration from the traditional Chinese Fengguan and Kuitou headdresses but infuses it with modern, angular motifs and sleek baguette- and marquise-cut diamonds. It was most notably worn by the 3rd Duke’s wife Loelia Ponsonby, whom Cecil Beaton photographed wearing the tiara. The Duke’s second wife, Anne Sullivan, later wore the tiara to the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1952.
The tiara was originally created to showcase three exceptional diamonds: the Hastings diamond, gifted to King George III by Nizam Ali Kahn in 1785 via an intermediary, Warren Hastings; and the two pear-shaped Arcot diamonds which were originally a gift for Queen Charlotte from the Nawab of Arcot, Azim-Ud Daula. These three diamonds came into the hands of the Duke of Westminster after the deaths of the King and Queen when they were sold to the crown jeweller Rundell, Bridge & Rundell. They had previously been set in many of the Westminster family’s jewellery pieces before Lacloche was finally asked to incorporate them into the tiara design in 1930. The original tiara design featured the three impressive diamonds alongside some 1,400 smaller diamonds.
In June 1959, the tiara was bought by Harry Winston at Sotheby’s for £110,000 – a price that broke the world record at the time for a piece of jewellery sold at auction. He removed the Arcot and Hastings diamonds, recut them and sold them each as solitaire rings. (The tiara is now struck on the reverse with Harry Winston’s maker’s mark beside the setting). At one point, cabochon turquoise stones were set in the diamonds’ place – the tiara in this version was worn by Rose Movius Palmer, an American artist. The tiara can even be taken off its frame and worn as a necklace, as was demonstrated by Rockstar Alice Cooper in 1973 in an iconic photograph with Salvador Dalí. In October 1988, Sotheby’s once again sold the tiara, and the Arcot and Hastings diamonds continued to be sold and re-set into various forms such as a pendant created by jeweller Van Cleef & Arpels.
In its present form, the tiara has been redesigned to feature clusters of circular-, baguette-, marquise-cut, cushion- and pear-shaped diamonds in place of the original historic diamonds.