On the subject of diamonds

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Looking up at the Time Warner Center. 3:30 PM. Photo: JH.

Monday, March 29, 2021. Rainy and wet, yesterday in New York, and cooler: in  the 50s; after a sunny, warmer Saturday. The fair weather has been spoiling us New Yorkers, after that long, quite cold, blank winter.

Click to order Once Upon a Diamond: A Family Tradition of Royal Jewels.

Back On Track with the city beginning to open up. I spent the better of yesterday getting caught up in a book I had no intention of reading: Once Upon a Diamond: a Family Tradition of Royal Jewels by Prince Dimitri (of Yugoslavia – which is now part of another country.  Christopher Walling, the jewelry designer who has a shop at 58th Street and Park Avenue, hosted a book signing for Dimitri last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and packed the place (it’s very small shop but still …)!

Dimitri and I are social friends, the kind that we have with many in a city where the circle is vast. A knowledgeable, charming, goodlooking, well-mannered real honest-to-God European prince, he is sophisticated to the point where he is comfortable with one and all. What our politicians “acquire” (or hope to) when they gain position. Dimitri’s are real. You could also describe him in the very American nice-guy. 

Host Chris Walling and author Prince Dimitri at a book signing last week for Dimitri’s Once Upon a Diamond: A Family Tradition of Royal Jewels.

His business background is jewelry. He was a vice-president at Sotheby’s in that department. Several years ago he opened his own business with his own designs. I was not familiar with much simply because it’s not a subject I follow out of personal interest. But I’ve been told his work is very popular.

So there was this book. The cover is intriguing because it suggests another time and place, a faded photo, of another era, with a young woman wearing a tiara. Accompanied by a Technicolor piece of jewelry of rubies, diamonds, and gold.

So, I say to myself: Dimitri’s book about Diamonds are beautiful just to look at, with the mixture of graphics and words. A highly attracting subject for those who are eternally interested. For some. It looked like a coffee table book. Expecting a book of images, I was immediately caught up in the history of the characters. It begins with Russia at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20 century when the Tsars were losing power fatally. Bur this is also a story with its roots in history, our history of Western culture.

Dimitri’s grandmother‘s grandmother, Queen Olga of Greece. According to Dimitri, “My grandmother Olga told me that when she went to Greece (when she was 16 she married King George I of Greece) she brought all her dolls and mountains of fabulous jewelry like only the Romanoffs had. At the first court ball in Athens, nobody could find the young queen. She was hiding under the staircase playing with her dolls. She was in tears because she wanted to be a little girl, not a queen! Olga was kind and devoted to her people and became immensely popular. In 1913 her husband the King was brutally assassinated. Soon after his death, she returned to her native Russia to support her country in the war effort after the outbreak of World War I. Queen Olga set up a military hospital in her brother’s Pavlosk palace.” The rest of her story is in Dimitri’s book!

First hearing about the book and the history of diamonds in the royal families of Europe and Russia, I assumed it would be a kind of promo for Dimitri’s business. Well, maybe that’s true, but this book is rich on its own. It is another view of our civilization of the past five or six centuries right up to today. It is central to our behavior as a society, and yet often escapes the historian’s summation. In this story it is about royals and all their luxury and treasures (and power), and about their decline almost to obscurity today.  But mainly it is a unique insight into Who We Are and How We Get There as a civilized society.

I found myself rapt with interest in the Family; one of power and wealth and revolution and loss. It’s our history, laid out before your eyes and sparkling; simply a view of it all, from another perch, one that belongs to all of us.

For those compelled by the subject of diamonds, there are many  pages of photographs of pieces designed for this princess or that empress. Catherine the Great, for example, “was reputed to be completely enamored with diamonds.” During her reign she spent vast fortunes on acquiring “presentation jewels” which were “deeply political, as they have the empress the incomparable aura  of majesty. This set her apart from her subjects; it ensured that whenever she entered a room, everyone present would be awed by her greatness.”

These circa 1740 Silver Spray Brooches were but two of many ornaments and jewels that the Catherine the Great could select from her “Brilliant Room.” Because Catherine had no limits to her spending, “her jewels were also grander and more imposing than other monarchs could ever hope to possess.”

Revolutions are also the end result of too many diamonds for too few. But diamonds, you could conclude from Prince Dimitri’s history and personal background, are in fact forever.  

In the last quarter of the 19th century, there was a Russian Grand Duchess Vladimir, a German princess who at age 20 married the senior grand duke of the House of Romanov. As Grand Duchess Vladimir who became a huge collector of diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, including a pair of diamond earrings that belonged to Marie Antoinette. The earrings lasted more than one owner until the late 1920s when the Communists had taken over Russia and were selling a lot of the royal jewels to pay government expenses, the earrings were purchased by Marjorie Meriweather Post, the cereals heiress who often wore them on fancy dress balls. Eventually a gift to one of her granddaughters, they were then donated to the Smithsonian as a record of another time and place and political power.

Dimitri’s great great grandmother Maria Pavlovna, better known as Grand Duchess Vladimir, wearing Vladimir’s tiara that now belongs to the Queen of England.
Queen Elizabeth II wearing the Vladimir Tiara, March 25, 1972. (AP Photo)
These two large, pear-shaped diamonds weigh 14.25 and 20.34 carats respectively are believed to have been set in earrings that belonged to Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France. The earrings were eventually purchased by Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Here’s Marjorie Merriweather Post dressed as Marie Antoinette for a costume ball at Mar-a-Lago in the 1920s.
Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna with the Russian Nuptial Crown at her 1902 wedding to Prince Nicholas of Greece and Denmark. The crown was created around 1844, with 320 carats of large diamonds and 80 carats of small diamonds.The crown was also purchased from the Russian Communists  in 1928, and today resides in the Hillwood Museum in Washington D. C. donated by her granddaughter.
This important ruby ring belonged to Queen Marie-José of Italy. 16 brilliant old-cut diamonds surround the center stone, which weighs approximately 8.48 carats and is an exceedingly rare Burmese ruby.
In this 1950 photograph, Henri, Count of Paris, and his wife, Isabelle Orléans-Braganza, Countess of Paris, are seen seated next to each other; the countess is wearing the full sapphire and diamond parure, which includes a coronet, a necklace, a pair of earrings, as well as two small brooches and one large one. Elements of the parure were modified over time and remained in the Orléans family until 1985.

Prince Dimitri drew a very big crowd over the three day reception. Among those who came by Christopher Walling’s shop to see their friend Prince Dimitri and see what his book is up to were: Susan Gutfreund, Jill Spalding, Amanda Rubin, Istanbul’s “Queen:” (and Omer Koc’s mother) the incredible Cigdem Simavi, Alejandra Cicognani, Barbara Tober, Margo Langenberg, Pia Getty, Cecile David Weill, Charlotte Ford, Diana Feldman, Sean Gilson, Elbrun Kimmelman, Sharon Novak, Frank Lavervin, Amy Fine Collins, Judith Agisim, Jennifer Crandall, Liliana Cavendish, Judi Harvest, Susanne Klevrick, Richard and Geanne Zaroff, Rebecca Koven, Jeffrey Podolsky, Linnard R. Hobler, Dr. Edward Seidel.

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