Pierre Arpels on the jewelled wonders of the Iranian royal family.
Vincent Maylan’s new book digs into treasure troves across the world, recounting the stories behind Van Cleef & Arpels’ creations for princesses, film stars and ballerinas. In this extract, Pierre Arpels describes working with the thousands of gemstones owned by the Iranian royal family and the maison’s resulting 1960s creations.
Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi wished to celebrate Iran’s dynastic, social, economic, and political advances when he planned his coronation in 1966. Having acceded to the throne in the middle of World War II he had never been crowned, unlike his father and all the other Persian rulers before him.
The coronation ceremony was to respect traditional protocol to the letter: the Shah would wear the Pahlavi Crown, created for his father by the jeweller Haj Serajeddin, who had taken his inspiration from the crowns of the Sassanid dynasty, rulers of Iran from the second century to the sixth. He used a total of 3,755 gems from the royal treasure: 3,380 diamonds weighing a total of 1,144 carats, 368 pearls, five emeralds and two sapphires.
The conspicuous – and significant – difference between this coronation and preceding ones was that on this occasion the shah’s wife would be crowned with him. A change in the constitution had granted [his wife] Farah a status that was almost equal to her husband’s. She had been Queen since her marriage, but now she was officially Shahbanou, meaning literally “the Shah’s lady”. Henceforth the constitution stipulated that in the event of the Shah’s death before his heir reached the age of maturity, she could rule as regent in her son’s name.
It remained to find a crown for the new Shahbanou and it was at this point that Van Cleef & Arpels entered the story. Pierre Arpels was in charge of the project: “In November 1966, we received a visit from the Governor of the Bank of Iran, who asked us if we could prepare some designs for the future creation of a crown. Which is what we did. We sent them through the Ambassador, who arranged for them to be delivered to the government in Iran. For several weeks we heard nothing. We later learned that three or four other jewellers had been sounded out, and each of them had supplied around fifteen drawings. For our part, we had sent some thirty drawings. Three designs were retained, two of them from our maison. The final choice was left to the Shahbanou.”
The decision came on December 16 1966. One of the two Van Cleef & Arpels designs had been accepted. There was no time for the Paris workshops to celebrate this honour, however, as it quickly became clear that the making of the crown was to be something of an obstacle course. The budget was not an issue, as it was a question of making the armature alone, without supplying the gems, as these would come from the crown jewels. Nor was the choice of stones a problem, as the crown jewels contained thousands of unmounted gemstones of every possible shape and hue. The difficulty lay in the status of the stones.
“None of these gems, however small, was allowed (under the Iranian constitution) to leave the museum premises or Iranian territory,” explained Pierre Arpels. “So we had to have a gem-cutter on the ground to re-cut all the stones that we wanted to use. We had been informed that there was no question of finding such skills locally. Gem-cutters therefore had to be brought in from Europe. So it was a matter of going out there to see what was available, choosing the stones that we needed for the crown, sending the gem-cutters out for however long was needed to do the work, making the crown in Paris without the stones (a task that seemed an impossibility), and finally sending out a team of jewellers to finish, mount, and assemble the crown, and set it with the stones which would never have left Iranian soil.”
Twenty-four trips to Iran were needed to complete this imperial commission. The task was made all the more delicate by the fact that in March 1967 the court added a second commission, this time for the mounting of three parures, two in emeralds and diamonds and the third in diamonds, for the Shah’s eldest daughter Princess Shahnaz and two of his sisters, Princess Shams and Princess Fatemeh.
On his first trip to the [Iranian] treasure vaults, Pierre Arpels chose the central stones around which the whole structure of the crown would be laid out: “A very large shell-shaped emerald, together with another even larger emerald, hexagonal and engraved, like the shell. These two gems together offered the advantage of being extraordinary in size. The hexagonal emerald weighed 150 carats, the shell-shaped stone between 50 and 60 carats. After working for three 10-hour days, we finally managed to assemble all the essential stones for the crown. We classified them by quality, and numbered them on the various plans and frameworks that we had made. We were still hamstrung by the veto on re-cutting or even retouching the principal gemstones. We set off back to Paris with plans and numbers, but without the stones, which stayed behind in the bank vaults.”
On his second trip, in late January 1967, Pierre Arpels took with him not only a larger team but also 60kgs of equipment, including tools, wax blocks and plaster. The structure of the entire surface of the crown was copied in two dimensions on blocks of black wax, which were spread out on a table in a secluded area of the Bank Markazi vault. “All the stones, now in small paper packets, were placed on the wax blocks in the positions they had been given on the crown,” Arpels explains.
The ceremony, on October 26 1967, was televised throughout the world. At dawn, the Shah, his bride, and the crown prince left the Niavaran Palace, overlooking the city, to fly by helicopter to the Marble Palace, the former residence of Reza Shah in central Tehran. From there, they were to drive in a carriage procession to the Golestan Palace. The day before, the imperial throne had been transferred from the vaults of the Bank Markazi to the Great Hall of the Marble Palace. Instead of the traditional Peacock Throne, a vast affair of Mughal inspiration so tall that it had its own steps for the sovereign to climb up to it, the Shah had chosen to use the more classic Naderi Throne, consisting of an imposing seat with backrest and arms and a low footrest. Composed of 12 detachable wooden panels, it was sheathed throughout in sheets of gold set with 26,733 rubies, diamonds, emeralds and spinels. The nine principal engraved emeralds set into the backrest weighed between 150 and 200 carats.
The crown prince, then aged seven, was the first to enter the Great Hall, where he took his seat to the left of the Naderi Throne to await his parents. In the front row to the left, close to the empress’s seat, sat Princess Shahnaz, Princess Farahnaz (then aged four), Princess Shams, and Princess Ashraf, with the other members of the imperial family behind them. “I came to kneel at the feet of the Shah,” Empress Farah later remembered, “and when he placed the crown on my head, I felt as though he was crowning all the women of Iran.” Until just four years earlier women had been viewed by the law on a par with the mentally disabled and had not even had the right to vote. In the empress’s view, the crown swept away centuries of humiliation, proclaiming more emphatically than any law that men and women were equal.
Professional Jeweller readers can by Van Cleef & Arpels for £38.50 – 30% off – by registering at www.accdistribution.com, entering the code VC1 at the checkout. To order by telephone call 01394 389977. P&P £4.00, overseas rates available on request.
This Book Club was taken from the September issue of Professional Jeweller. Read the issue in full here.