LONDON – Still can't get enough of Britain's aristocratic headgear? Following hot on the heels of the royal wedding hatwalk, the crowning jewels of the country's once wealthiest woman are being offered for sale — a Victorian pearl-and-diamond tiara, bracelet, and brooch which auction house Christie's hopes will fetch as much as 1.9 million pounds ($3.1 million).
The opulent jewels once belonged to Hannah Primrose, a socially and politically active heiress whose husband Archibald Philip Primrose would eventually become Britain's prime minister.
Born into the powerful Rothschild family, Hannah reputedly became the country's richest woman when her father died in 1874, leaving her the then-immense sum of 2 million pounds in cash, a turreted mansion in England's Buckinghamshire, and a huge stash of jewels.
She married Archibald four years later, at which point she acquired the title of Countess Rosebery, and, Christie's believes, the tiara, along with the matching brooch and bracelet. The British-made headpiece boasts 13 saltwater pearls — six button-shaped ones ringed with diamonds and seven pear-shaped pearls dangling from teardrop diamond surmounts.
Keith Penton, the auctioneer's head of jewels, said in a statement that the three-piece set was "at the heart of Lady Rosebery's vast array of magnificent jewels, which rivaled those of the crowned heads of Europe at the time. They are a rare survival of 19th century English aristocratic splendor, as so much ancestral jewelry has been sold anonymously, remounted or broken down."
Primrose, described by her husband as "very clever, very warm hearted and very shy," was a prominent philanthropist and played an active role in the organization of Britain's Liberal Party. She was also deeply devoted to her husband and his career, although her early death, in 1890, meant she never saw him accede to the premiership four years later.
Archibald Primrose took her passing badly, writing all his letters in black-bordered stationery and never remarrying. His tenure at the top of British politics was stormy and short-lived, and he died a recluse in 1929.
Christie's said that Hannah Primrose's jewels were handed down through the family and now form part of a private collection, but didn't elaborate on their current ownership. It hopes the tiara will sell for up to 1.5 million pounds as part of its important jewel sale in London on June 8. The bracelet and brooch, being sold separately, are priced at between 300,000 and 400,000 pounds.
Hannah Primrose's biography, in the online Jewish Encyclopedia: http://ow.ly/4TJQW
Archibald Philip Primrose's biography, on the Britain's Downing Street website: http://ow.ly/4TJOc
Raphael G. Satter can be reached at: http://twitter.com/razhael