Sunday, January 17, 2016

A civilization of crowned women, or -- yes, tiaras matter

Before I begin, let me acknowledge my great debt to the delightful blog, Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor. Faithful followers call it "OoS" for short. 

I like tiaras. I like fabulous jewels of all kinds, but I especially like tiaras.

Russian imperial tiara

A friend of mine scoffs at such trifles, for several reasons. He scoffs at the idea of any person being conceived as so superior to anyone else that he may crown himself with jewels. He resents the palpable fact that, whoever such persons are, they must be rich enough to buy the baubles for a start, and so that's unjust. And he's outraged at the thought of anyone wearing gemstones that must have been got -- mined, dived for, sorted, ported -- by the poor and the anonymous. To him that ruins it. Emeralds from Colombia, rubies from Burma, sapphires from Sri Lanka, diamonds from India or Africa, pearls from the Gulf of Mannar or the Venezuelan coast -- to him, all these stones cry out with suffering and misery exactly as "your brother's bloods cry out to Me from the ground" (Genesis 4:10  -- 'bloods' is plural in the Hebrew, which leads to all sorts of interesting exegesis). All this moral tainting is the worse the older the gems are, and therefore the closer to actual slavery.

I take issue with him on all counts. Go to Pinterest and look at the tiaras, and at all the women wearing them. It's not that they think they're better than we are. It's just that they happen to have been born into, or married into, families which own tiaras. For a special occasion, they haul them out and dust them off, and why not? It might be a wedding or some affair of state. In the latter case the jewel becomes a gesture of respect to the company assembled. If it were your family and your job, you would do the same. "Don't you buy suits and ties, and put them on for court?" I ask. He rolls his eyes. As for these families being rich enough to afford them, so what? I say. "You're rich enough to afford a couple suits and a car, and a house, and two vacations to the tropics a year. Plus all you spend on your garden. Plus -- " but he scoffs. "That's different."

As for many of the world's jewels being stained by their origins in exploitation and suffering, true, I have no good answer for that. "It can't be helped now," I sputter. He rolls his eyes. But really, -- is mankind morally obliged to chuck in the garbage these beautiful things, or any beautiful things, because they come to us marred by the cruelties of centuries past? By the time even our most (presumably) guilty emeralds and diamonds go into a parure (a matched set), they have been so transformed by the jeweler's art as to become a breathtaking homage to God's good world and to His pleasure in human handiwork, too. Mankind is never, ever going to stop "sourcing," as the verb has it now, superb jewelry. If you did chuck it all into a dustbin, the next generation of mankind would dive in and fish it all back out. How does it make you -- I am still, interiorly, hollering at my friend -- privately virtuous to dismiss it?

Tiara of Empress Marie Louise (or Josephine), second wife (or first) of Napoleon

He remains unconvinced. He sees display in general as a sort of symbol of man's corruption. I am not equal to that level of, what shall we call it, Savonarola-esque judgment. Besides, if we must wallow in vicarious guilt (as if that helps anyone), then ask yourself. Do you own any item whatever with a stamp or tag saying "Made in China"? We're told that sometimes slave notes, written in English, fall out of the packaging. And this for, say, a thirty-dollar, "Totally Ghoul" Halloween graveyard kit. If it is essentially wrong to own stuff, which is where the logic of the guilt-of-all-provenance takes us, I'd prefer the brazenness and the near-immortality of jewels over anything else.

"The Danish ruby parure" tiara. Dates from the time of Napoleon, who bankrolled his marshals' gifts to their wives when it came time to create an Imperial court from scratch.

And, besides. There is one more notable thing about all the glittery whatnot you can refresh your soul with on Pinterest. These spectacular creations were made to adorn women. Over and over again you read in the captions, "made for the princess So and so" -- "a gift from duke So and so to his wife on their wedding day" -- "designed by Chaumet" -- or Cartier, or Harry Winston -- "for Lady So and so to celebrate the marriage of her son" -- "a gift from This-city to the queen, in honor of Thus and such."

Look at just a few of these faces, old and young, past and present. Observe the headpieces, yes, but that's not all. I'll even throw in a fantasy lady. See if you can spot her.

The Duchess of Manchester, early 1900s? The "Manchester tiara" was made by Cartier in 1903. Consuelo, the American-born her Grace who supplied 1400+ diamonds to construct it, died at the age of 51 only six years later, in 1909. The woman above, wearing ducal robes and the tiara, looks rather young and fresh-cheeked to be about 45 years old. But who else can it be? Perhaps Consuelo's charm of  personality preserved her: "The Complete Peerage quotes a contemporary who wrote that 'no one knows how gloriously beautiful a woman can be who did not see the Duchess when she was thirty.' " 

"Crown princess Mary of Denmark," nee Mary Donaldson of Australia, in the "Midnight Parure Tiara" -- moonstones, diamonds, rose gold, white gold, and oxidized silver. Its creator, Charlotte Lynggaard, designed it specifically for an exhibition on tiaras in 2009, and cannot sell it; the lady above has exclusive rights to borrow it. 

"Queen Margrethe (of Denmark)." These Danish ladies have a very fine collection. 

Queen Mary, grandmother of the present queen of England, in the early 1900s wearing the "Delhi durbar" tiara. It is set front and center with two massive "chips," Cullinan III and IV, cut from the legendary Cullinan diamond. They can be removed, switched out for emeralds perhaps, if desired. A jewel lover and a foundress of the present British royal collection, she looks supremely pleased with life. With that "weight" who wouldn't be?

We'll call her "Titania."

"Princess Ella of Hesse" wearing the "Yugoslavian emerald" parure. Circa 1884. Her tiara is a "kokoshnik," its crescent shape modeled on the traditional cloth headdresses of married Russian women. Extraordinary life: she was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and married a Russian Grand Duke, thus becoming the Grand Duchess Yelizaveta Fyodorovna. Her younger sister, Alix, also married a Russian -- the last czar (thus becoming the last Czarina, Alexandra). "Ella's" husband was assassinated by a socialist bomb in 1905. She forgave the assassin, sold all her jewels, and became a nun serving the poor in the slums of Moscow. After the Russian revolution she was murdered by being thrown down a mine shaft -- followed by some grenades -- and left to die of wounds and starvation along with a score of other very high-status victims of the Bolsheviks. The tiara eventually ended up in the vaults of Van Cleef and Arpels in the 1950s. They sold the emeralds to an anonymous buyer and replaced them with paste; the tiara, thus denuded, is "occasionally displayed." 

Yes, observe these faces. Glowing out of them, excepting perhaps Titania's, who is a professional model, there seems to be a mix of emotions. I see sheer joy, pride of course, and sometimes a sort of rigid submission to history: hold still for the camera, the future must see this. There is also a twinkling wonderment, a sense of thankful custodianship, which I like to think the rigid ladies also expressed once the flashbulb popped and they could breathe again. What ... for me, now? A great jewel collector who was not born into families that owned tiaras, Elizabeth Taylor, put it well. "I adore wearing gems, but not because they are mine. You can't possess radiance, you can only admire it."    

Not because they are mine. What is theirs, these ladies', is the belonging to an entire civilization of crowned women. A little legend about Britain's royals' Koh-i-noor diamond is a propos here. A "Hindu text" supposedly tells of a curse on all owners of the "mountain of light," but also sighs, "only God or a woman can wear it with impunity." It used to be about eight times its current size, by the way. My friend who is upset by tainted origins or the fat cat rich or assumptions of superiority, does not dream of complaining about the crux of the matter, -- the long centuries of Western women, crowned. Who would?

There is an answer, but before we get to it, this. It won't do to be provincial you know, for other cultures and civilizations do crown women. Paradoxically, you must surf the royal-jewelry-chronicling blogs, which seem at first blush the happy nadir of frivolity, to de-provincialize yourself. The young queen of Bhutan wears a silk brocade crown at her wedding; Japan's imperial family favor only diamonds and pearls, as they are white, the color of purity. (They used to favor a much different, and very beautiful, style of dress, with crown.) No more phantasmagoric set of jewels can exist in the world than those once belonging to the various rulers, and now to the state, of Iran. Among everything else now kept in Teheran's central bank, are simply bowlsful of loose emeralds .... Queen Saleha of Brunei wears emeralds and diamonds with her cerulean hijab. Even though it seems mean to correct her, we must. Surely the tiara is meant to adorn woman, not cloth. Princess Lalla Salma of Morocco's choices for her wedding point up the difference: a "meander" tiara and tumbling chestnut curls for one picture, and a thick white burqa for the other. Guess which look is "traditional," i.e., -- well, i.e. what? We know the answer, reflexively -- non-Western. Interested commenters, below those photos, hope that Morocco's king can fend off the infection of wahhabi Islam; no less a source than International Business Times hopes he can fend off ISIS.  

This brings us back to our question about who would object to civilizations of crowned women. It's not the same thing as objecting to royalty, royalty, royalty. Remember Elizabeth Taylor, who could afford to buy anything and did, wore it all, and still knew thankful custodianship. Our point is woman, crowned. And the answer to "who would object" is, Muslims would. The news of the hundreds- or thousands-strong Muslim gangs lying in wait for Western women all across Europe on -- meaningfully -- New Year's Eve is still resounding. Now we have a new term to learn, taharrush gamea, "collective harrassment," which seems a polite translation for thousands-strong Muslim gangs lying in wait for women in any public square anywhere. Why would they do this? Listen to what just one scholar, Christie Davies, has to say.
"Under Islam women are inferior beings who should be denied autonomy—particularly over their own bodies—[they are] sexual property, the property of their male relatives. If Muslim women step out of line, they are liable to be the victims of an honour killing. If they suffer a sexual assault, they are forced to say nothing, lest disgrace fall on their families, even when they themselves are entirely innocent.

"For Muslims, non-Muslims are in every way inferior and the freedom enjoyed by their womenfolk is the worst aspect of that inferiority. In consequence non-Muslim women may be attacked and exploited without compunction. There is a direct link between the insistence on the wearing of a hijab for those within the fold and the raping of those outside, between an obsession with modesty for those women who are family property and the utter disregard for the rights of those women who are free. They are the two sides of the same Islamic coin."  -- Rape, Islam, and the Deafening Silence, Quadrant online, October 20, 2015.

It makes us fear, among other things, that the crowns perched precariously on non-Western women's heads are perched very precariously indeed. And then what about us?

Given all this, my friend's ideas about tainted jewels -- remember? -- seem just quaint and far away. I can imagine one sort of person really living out the offense he takes. I can imagine some young lady somewhere in the empire of New Spain, and her retinue, getting lost one day on a journey from one provincial capital to another. She gets a glimpse of conditions in the Muzo valley, perhaps and is sick, and when she returns to her small palace, she puts away her gems in a box and never wears them again. Her father is perplexed .... She would have a right to take action that is not symbolic. Better to do what you could do in whatever way a moral question authentically touches your life.

Since we can't afford all these parures anyway, and vicarious outrage is dilettantish, we draw conclusions instead. We can reflect that the tiara, far from being problematic for us, may be a kind of little vaccine, inoculating the cultures that adopt it from the woman-hatred that thrives in Islam. But then we go back further. Where do the cultures that adopt the tiara adopt it from? How is it that one civilization, the West, crowns women to begin with while another loathes, fears, and imprisons them? It must have something to do with founding documents, yes? With sources.   

Further reading: 

Pinterest. Just type in "tiaras."  Also type in "the Persian jewels." 

Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor. Otherwise known as Can't say enough about how fun it is. 

The Court Jeweler. Ditto. 

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