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Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna and the Vladimir Tiara

Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia wearing her famous Grand Duchess Vladimir Tiara. Image: Wikimedia

This is the first of a two-part article about Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna and her famous tiara that now belongs to the British Royal Family. You can read the second part here

On March 28, 1874, twenty-year-old Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin tied the knot with Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovitch of Russia, the imposing and bear-like third son of Czar Alexander II. The princess was transformed into an elegant Russian grandduchess who took the name Maria Pavlovna, a tribute to her Russian heritage (her great-grandmother was Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna of Russia).

She was born to the Grand Ducal House of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, a small German state ruled by her father Grand Duke Friedrich Franz II. Her mother, the grand duke’s first wife, was Princess Augusta Reuss of Kostritz. Duchess Marie was already engaged to George Albert, Prince of Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt when she met Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovitch. Perhaps, she thought she’d be better off as a Russian grand duke’s wife rather than being another obscure German princess, so the engagement was broken off and she was betrothed to Vladimir. Her refusal to convert from Lutheran to the Russian Orthodox Church prolonged their engagement, but they married, anyway, in a style befitting a Russian grand duke’s station.  She only converted to Orthodoxy when her oldest son, Kirill, became closer to the line of succession.

Maria Pavlovna set out to become the grandest of all the grand duchesses, so grand that she rivaled her sister-in-law, the glamorous Czarina Maria Feodorovna, and her niece, the aloof Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna. She wanted only the finest clothes and she had to have only sparkling jewelry to match her outfit.

Grand Duke Vladimir wanted to give her a tiara for a wedding gift . Court jeweler Carl Edward Bolin was commissioned to design a diamond-studded tiara of 15 gold and silver circlets. Fifteen tear-shaped pearl drops served as the tiara’s masterpiece and it cost 48,200 rubles—a huge fortune already! But never mind, the Romanovs had all the money in the world. Bolin created the tiara in such a way that it would be flexible enough and yet still stand out even if the pearl drops are taken.

The Vladimir Tiara was a novelty in that era that even Cartier made three copies of it when the tiara was sent there for cleaning.  The tiara was clearly a favorite of the Grand Duchess’ since many of her official photographs were taken featuring her wearing this stunning piece.  

The grand duchess became more and more ambitious and wanted to advance her status in the court. As Empress Alexandra withdrew from society, the grand duchess emerged as the leading court hostess and her residence, the Vladimir Palace, turned out as St. Petersburg’s most cosmopolitan and most sought after grand ducal court of all Russias.  What better way to amaze Russian aristocrats than flaunt her stunning collection, acquire more and more jewels. As Luis Miguel Howard puts it, she “preferred artists and revolutionary styles of her day,” acquiring “wonderful stones then considered slightly inferior such as cat’s eyes and tourmalines.” Maria Pavlovna grew accustomed to acquiring jewels, which eventually included a 100-carat emerald once owned by Catherine the Great and the 5-carat ruby of Josephine de Beauharnais.

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