Monday, December 13, 2010

Alexandria’s Royal Jewelry Museum: Part II

The entrance to the Royal Jewelry Museum; A diamond-studded snuff box bearing the name of Mohammad Ali, the founder of Egypt’s royal dynasty.

Intoxicated by its rise in power and wealth from cotton exports at the turn of the 20th century, the Egyptian royal family endowed its court with exceptional glamour and soon became the most brilliant in the Middle East. By 1922 the Ottoman court, which had long snubbed Egypt’s ruling dynasty, had ceased to exist. Saudi Arabia’s court wasn’t yet deluged by the riches of the oil boom and the courts of Jordan and Iraq were minor by comparison. As for the court of Iran, when King Farouk’s sister Princess Fawzia arrived there to wed the future shah, she soon yearned for the regal life she enjoyed in Egypt.

In Cairo, court life was a series of banquets and balls in palaces that stretched for miles, attended by ladies in the latest Paris haute couture, and tended to by thousands of servants in glittering livery. When the heat of the Cairo summer grew intolerable, court, government, and diplomatic corps fled to Alexandria. Lawrence Durrell has described this yearly migration of epic proportions in his Alexandria Quartet.

Queen Farida with King Farouk of Egypt on their wedding day, January 20th, 1938. Her wedding gown was designed by the House of Worth in Paris; Rubies, emeralds, enamel, and seed pearls inlaid in gold embellish the back of a mirror dating from the second half of the 19th century.

There, the summer was a whirlwind of social events and every night was an occasion. At dinners for two hundred, guests sat down to place settings made entirely of gold. Princesses covered in jewels strolled garden paths beneath palms illuminated by the moon, only to be eclipsed now and then by bursts of fireworks. But noisy Jazz bands couldn’t quite cover the boom of the German cannons as they fired without interruption, their rumblings traveling the hundreds of miles that separated the front from Alexandria. The festivities only died down in the autumn when everyone returned to Cairo.

But Princess Fatima El Zahra remained; the sole member of the Royal family to make her permanent home in Alexandria.

King Farouk’s glamorous sister, Princess Fawzia was dubbed one of the most beautiful women in the world; A display case holds a broach with her name spelt out in diamonds.

In 1952 the monarchy was deposed and not long after Gamal Adel Nasser came to power, he began striping foreigners of their wealth and expelling them from Egypt. Next he confiscated the property of the royal family. Although Princess Fatima married outside the dynasty, she was none the less considered part of it and subsequently shared its fate. No matter how many protests she logged or suits she filed against the government, nothing worked. The beloved palace on which she had lavished so much of her fortune was seized.

Yet mysteriously very few of the jewels confiscated ended up in the state treasury, and the whereabouts of the crown jewels are still unknown today. What did remain were some exquisite minor pieces that hardly represent the accumulated treasures of the dynasty that ruled Egypt for over 170 years.

In 1954 a British film crew captured rare footage of officials examining confiscated royal jewels before being auctioned. Today such images offer all that’s left of the royal family’s vast wealth in jewels. All that remains in the museum’s collection of this particular diamond and ruby set is a flower broach.

Those who made off with many of the jewels were mostly interested in the pieces with the largest stones, and neglected the delicate settings and mountings devised by some of the world’s most famous jewelers. Thus what went into the national treasury were works of art rather than “riches”, and much of that jewelry is on display at the museum today. Even if some of the pieces had “lost” their largest stones, the perfection of taste and craftsmanship remains intact.

In 1962, Princess Fatima El Zahra’s home was turned into a presidential guest palace for visiting dignitaries. Dieing in exile in 1983; she did not live to see her palace transformed yet again into a museum housing the royal family’s jewels, after a decree passed by President Hosni Mubarak in 1986.

Queen Farida of Egypt on her wedding day in 1938; On display at the museum is a box made of nephrite, which carries a miniature of Farida on its lid.

Although the Royal Jewelry Museum reemerged in May 2006 from an extensive two year renovation, an air of mystery still surrounds many of the pieces housed within its collection. The curators have either misplaced the original jeweler’s cases or haven’t managed to decipher the craftsmen’s marks, which has resulted in some inventive wording on some of the labels. Thus a “Gold Box” to identify a Faberge cigarette case or “Pair of Earrings” for an admirable example of Cartier or Van Clef and Arpels’ virtuosity.

Visitors can decide for themselves whether a jasper dish was a gift from the last Tsar of Russia to the Khedive; if a snuff box studded with diamonds was a present from King Christian IX of Denmark; or whether a box made of nephrite carried a miniature of the Kaiser on its lid before it was replaced with the face of Queen Farida.

A rare archival image from 1954 shows three broaches by Van Clef and Arpels, two of which found their way into the Royal Jewelry Museum’s collection.

Despite this, the museum’s collection not only provides a study in the art of fine jewelry but also a glimpse into the royal families more eccentric habits. Thus one will find a diamond inlaid chess board, King Farouk’s “toilet” of crystal flasks toped by solid gold caps, and an intriguing collection of miniature portraits of the Khedive Ismail’s family.

Although the whereabouts of the crown jewels is still a mystery today, the few royal heirlooms that have survived still poignantly recall the vanished splendor of Egypt’s royal dynasty.

To get a sense of the crown jewels, which had mysteriously disappeared from the state treasury, one only need observe the pieces of “dubious provenance” that occasionally surface at international auction houses. A few years ago Sotheby’s auctioned off a stunning necklace of three dimensional life-size, voluptuous roses. Covered completely in pavé diamonds, it was commissioned by Queen Nazli in 1938, who wore it to her daughter Fawzia’s wedding the year after to the Shah of Iran. At the time it was estimated to sell for $350,000-450,000, today if such a piece went on the market it would be double that amount.

© THE POLYGLOT (all rights reserved) CHICAGO-PARIS

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