tiara time! the Crown of the Andes

crown of the andes closeup

“The crown should surpass all other crowns in the World, both of reigning monarchs and those of the past.”

crown of andes corona de los andes

Nothing short of a sweeping epic, the Crown of the Andes spins a yarn whose highlights include: miracles, Viking-style pillaging, pre-Colombian artifacts, theft, the liberation of an entire continent, papal dispensation, and the rescuing of a bunch of orphans. sooo not kidding!

Colombia Cauca PopayanOur tale begins in Popayán, a frontier town founded during the Spanish Gold Rush at the foot of the Purace Volcano in southwestern Colombia, 5700 feet above sea level. In 1590 a devastating plague of smallpox spread east from Ecuador to Colombia. Thousands in neighboring towns perished but not a soul in Popayán so much as sneezed. “Do you believe in miracles?”exclaimed the Bishop of Popayán in elation. (No wait, that was Al Michaels. This one’s way bigger. It’s got a plague salvation. That pretty much trumps anything.) Since the town had been spared from a plague that seemed to enjoy exacting sweet death, the bishop suggested Popayán do something to thank the Virgin for her deliverance. (Remember, it’s a Spanish settlement. It’s the 16th Century; everything is trés Catholic.) The town’s top men convened and adjudicated a resplendent crown “befitting of the divinely status of the Queen of Heaven.” So grandly beautiful and priceless, the finished project indeed drew the distinction betwixt the mundane and the celestially ordained. (BTW, the agnostic theory as to why the town was saved from smallpox is the dizzying elevation. The germs just couldn’t jump that high, We suppose.)

Atahualpa last Inca Emperor

Atahualpa, lost his empire and his bling.

Then there came the Spontaneous Outburst of Generosity. The entire town donated in “cash and kind,” whatever they had to make the crown as heavenly as the lady for whom it was intended. Imagine back when Colombia abounded in gold and emeralds. *nostalgic but maybe a minor key* In fact, the emeralds are plunder taken from the last Incan Emperor, Atahualpa (right). Francisco Pizarro ripped the famed and aptly-named 45-carat Atahualpa Emerald from the emperor’s throat in 1532. After a brief imprisonment to amuse himself, Pizarro had Atahualpa killed for ‘treason.’

Work began in 1593, 24 goldsmiths from Spain designed and crafted the corona with the gold and emeralds “donated” by whomever. *cough* Like so many other diadems, the Crown of the Andes is also known for the lady who wore it. The spectacular display of craftsmanship also goes by the moniker the Crown of Our lady of the Asuncion (la Corona de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.) To make things more confusing, Popayán’s iconic Virgin is also called Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. After six years, la Corona de la Inmaculada Concepción was completed in 1599. The coronation took place in the Cathedral of Popayán during a special mass on Thanksgiving. (Huh. They have Thanksgiving in Colombia? I know they do in Cuba. Food for thought.)

Our Lady of the Ascuncion Lady of the Immaculate Conception

Painting of Our Lady of the Ascuncion also known as Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception at her coronation. Check out her headgear! It’s the Crown of the Andes, by gum!

The crown herself boasts 450 emeralds, the centerpiece–surprise!–is the Atahualpa Emerald, the same stone torn from the throat of the last Emperor of the Incas. Cut into a square, it measures 16mm by 16mm. (That’s over half-an-inch for those of us who weren’t brought up metric.) The 17 tear-drop shaped esmeraldas that dangle from the supporting arcs were donated by the Hurtado family. Many more of the verdant gems were gifts from the Olanos. Descendants of the Hurtado and Olano clans would come to play a large role in destiny of the Corona de la Inmaculada Concepción. For centuries the sons of these prominant families served as guards in the la Cofradía de la Inmaculada Concepción. Come the 2oth Century, an Olano great-grandson would become persona non-grata in the tale of the crown. Forshadowing!

crown of the andes closeup tear drop emeraldsNot to be scoffed at, the gold itself is a mix of 18 and 22 carat, suggesting various sources or a later re-tooling of the crown. (Some of the gold has dated from the 16th Century, some from the 18th.) So you get an idea of how larger-than-life Nuestra Señora de la Asunción really is, fathom a head that requires a diadem of 20.5″ (52 cm) in circumference. The crown apexes at 13.6″ (34.5 cm) and weighs 4 pounds and 13 oz. (2.18 kg.) Go on! Find Us a human head that can (1) fit that crown and (2) sustain the neck upright under five pounds of gold. Double dog dare you!

nuestra señora de la inmaculada concepción Popayán

She’s not as dainty as she looks! With a hat size measuring nearly two feet around, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception could kick your ass!

We make no assumptions that you’re all familiar with the Catholic celebrations typical to Holy Week. Many countries (Spanish-speaking, Italy, Poland) have week-long processions during which the church’s icons, carried on “floats” more akin to a litter, are translated from the Cathedral and through the city streets. Popayán’s Holy Week has an entire Wikipedia page, complete with schedule delineating which icons will be featured on which day. Your blog hostess failed you, she couldn’t bear to watch six 50-minute YouTubes of every saint as it passes by. (Editing would have helped, people. So many marching bands…) You have no idea how many saints there are. Take it from an ex-Catholic school girl. Oy vey, so many saints. Anywho, I couldn’t find the 19th Century repro in action which leads me to believe it’s either kept in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception or no longer exists. The crown pictured above is also a reproduction, as blatantly illustrated by the dull lack of bling in the photo. Either way the 19th Century remake is too frail to be paraded about like she’s in her 200s any more.

confraternity of the immaculate conception

crown of the andes emerald gold detail(Here’s the part where it starts to feel a little Indian Jones & the Last Crusade.) Housing such priceless riches in a frontier outpost invitably entails frequent raids by pirates, mercenaries, thieves, treasure-hunters and other assorted shmucks blew into town. Volunteers from the church formed a secret society to guard Popayán’s ecclisastical treasures. When one of the aforementioned no-goodniks showed up, the members of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception would high-tail it into the woods, hiding the relics in the jungle.

In 1650, the Corona de los Andes was captured by English privateers. According to legend the Confraternity and the town got it back after a 3-day street fight. A street fight! Bet you never thought We’d have one of those on Tiara Time. I didn’t. (I’m imagining something choreographed like “West Side Story” but something tells me there wasn’t a ton of finger-snapping and pivot-turns.)

Simón Bolivar

Bolivar strikes a ‘no-nonsense’ pose

Later in 1812, Simón Bolivar, el Libertador de Sudamerica, snagged the crown then later returned it to Popayán. (Not surprised. If the guy’s ethical enough to liberate a continent from overseas oppression, I’d imagine he’d also have a conscious about stealing from a church. Remember, fairy tale feelings. We need a hero.)

The Confraternity felt that a re-tooling of their tactics to keep the crown of miracles out of the wrong hands were necessary. The Crown of the Andes was apportioned, partitioned then propagated, each guardian absconding his fragment to a perdu purlieus. Split amongst several of the confrats, the crown was scattered in the most disparate safe-holds, only to reunite once a year for Holy Week. These clandestine precautions are the only reason the Crown of the Andes survived into the 20th Century. Most all others were scrapped for parts. La Corona de los Andes is the oldest emerald diadem in existence, most likely the gold is quite senior too.

let’s save some orphans! (…or not.)

In 1914, the Confraternity petitioned the Pope to allow the sale of an ecclesiastical relic. Why would Popayán part with the symbol of an historic miracle? To raise the sheckles to open an corona de los andes close uporphanage and hospital. It was a descendant of the Olano clan who began overtures with Pope Pious X to sell the priceless crown. According to Olano, the profits were destined for the construction of an elderly hospital and an orphanage. In reality neither edifice was ever built. The Vatican green-lighted the sale in 1914. Embezzlement, hospitals never built, orphans without homes, corruption…it’s getting difficult to stick with the fairy tale version where people have good souls and miracles happen. Thanks Olano!

The Confraternity searched for an international buyer. Czar Nicholas II took great interest, legend tells, but the Bolsheviks proved to be a speed bump in that transaction. The crown first caught Warren J. Piper’s eye in 1915 during the much-publicized czar sales negotiations. Piper’s first attempts to purchase the crown in the ‘20s fell through due to the Stock Market Crash. Instead, according to conspiracy lore of the most inflammatory internet source, the jewel was sold to one Guillermo Rodríguez Fonnegra at a price of  $85,000. It became an obsession for the American gem exporter and wholesaler. Since the deal fell through Piper had been meticulously plotting, selecting members for his syndicate, an Ocean’s Eleven of  gem dealers, if you will. Twenty-one years of recruiting, raising funds and negotiating a price later, la Corona de los Andes was sold for $125,000. Fonnegra facilitated the crown’s sale to Piper and his syndicate in 1936.

At the time of purchase Piper claimed the Virgin de la Ascunción’s halo of heavenly majesty would be broken up and sold individually. (He was an importer/wholesaler, after all.) Thankfully, that didn’t happen and odd as it sounds, instead the crown went on tour.

the Waldorf-Astoria and Car Shows

1937 Chevrolet ad

no photo of both Chevy and crown available

This spectacular regalia toured America, stopping twice at the Chicago World’s Fair. (I’ve never been to a world’s fair, have you?) At a special exhibit in June 1936 at the Waldor-Astoria in New York, Piper appraised the emeralds at $3000 per carat, revealing there were 1500 carats in the crown. You do the math. Thousands flocked to 5th Avenue for a gander at the golden garland.

As well as the crown played at the Waldorf, nobody loves a good royal headgear exhibit like an industrial car show. No I did not mistype that.  In 1937, GM used the Crown of the Andes at a show to inagurate new Chevys in Detroit. Chevrolet saw 225,000 visitors in one week. That’s 15% of Detroit’s population.

The outfit of jewel dealers continued to tour their prize, swinging by the 1939 World’s Fair in New York (not the Queens one, that’s 1969,) and then on loan to the Royal Ontario Museum in 1959. The fact that the emerald crown was displayed in the Royal Ontario Museum is a delightful kismet as a spectacularly preserved court gown of Marie Antoinette’s is on display there. Anyone here remember that post from way back?

back on the market

nuestra señora de la asuncion

I’m certain Vásquez y Ceballos had a Chevy in mind when they painted the “Coronation of the Our Lady of Immaculate Conception.”

For reasons unknown, Piper’s Outfit decided to auction off Popayán’s miracle coronet at Sotheby’s London in 1963. It sold for $154,000 to the Asscher Diamond Company of Amsterdam on behalf of the near-clíché “anonymous third party”.  Ugh. Don’t you just hate private collectors?

That collector–rumored to be a descendant of an original syndicate member–put the Crown of the Andes up for auction with a reserve of $3,000,000 in 1995. Clearly this guy hasn’t been paying attention to current tiara market trends. Yes, most tiaras are selling for far more than their worth. People who can afford to overpay. Don’t you just hate them too? Unfortunately none of them crack the million mark. Unable to meet the reserve, sale was put to a halt. Financial inadequacies aside, the original Confraternity salesman Olano was brought up on some sort of mishandling charge by the Roman Catholic Church for his sale of a divine relic to a secular collector, car show success not withstanding.

The Crown of the Andes was last displayed in an Indiana museum in 2010. There is a vocal movement to return the crown Popayán and its original owner, the miracle-working Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. Lacking the scratch or refusing to pay $3 million, the town of Popayán did not bid on the crown at the 1995 auction. In fact, no representatives for Colombia even showed up.

What do you think? Should the Crown of the Andes be returned to Popayán?

About ♔ la dauphiine ♔

Connecticut-based jewelry monger, history buff, Mets fan. On the hum-drum side, call me a lauded poet, novelist and ghost-writer. (That's right, I haunt prose.)
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7 Responses to tiara time! the Crown of the Andes

  1. aubrey says:

    Yes, I think the Crown should be returned, as soon as they man up en masse to pay for something truly important – something that is a part of their history and damned pretty, to boot.

    As I was reading this, my skin was crawling – waiting for the tragic end: the tiara was lost; torn apart, melted down…any of the many disasters that await a work of art.

    And third parties are a scandal – The Museum Is Our Friend. I hate stating the obvious. (though in this case, I must swing to the beginning here and restate that this wonderful thing should be returned to the place of its creation)

    I might sound a little cross. I just finished lunch, which was soup. And all I really want is a gallon of potato salad.


  2. e1aine says:

    I don’t know if it should be returned – my favourite museum is full of stuff people want back!

    The crown is stunning and I love the drops. But the best part of this post? Definitely the thought of the street fight with the clicking fingers and the pivot turns!


  3. Daniel Arpin says:

    Please learn how to spell!!!

    ecclisastical – ecclesiastical
    conscious – conscience

    It would make your research and article a lot more believable and newsworthy instead it appears sloppy and not well researched.


  4. Andres Felipe Cosme Hurtado says:

    yes, it should be definitely returned, I think by minimum business ethics principles (no matter your religion or agnosticism/atheism), people should refuse / never trade with relics that are part of a country´s national inheritage and with so much historical meaning like the “crown of the Andes” has for the city of Popayán.

    I was born in Popayán by the way, and although I have traveled the world extensively (more than 35 countries and counting) and lived in many parts in the world, I simply do not change the opportunity to stay in my hometown during the Holy Week (I´m descendant from a family of “cargueros”: the people who put the “floats” carrying the images in their shoulders during processions).

    For us, the real “payaneses”, this tradition is in our blood from the moment we were born (my last name is Hurtado by the way, so I´m wondering after reading your article if some of my ancestors were part of the Cofradía that you mention), our traditions (and all the different histories and anecdotes from which the crown of the Andes is one of those) have been in our families for centuries (Holy Week processions started in Popayán in 1558, just few years after the city was founded by the Spaniard Sebastian de Belalcázar in 1537) and with just reason have been declared recently by the UNESCO as oral and intangible heritage of the world.

    I know that the “Corona de los Andes” is now at display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and although I´m a fan of New York city, I would prefer to see the crown where it belongs. For those who want to see a video of the crown, I put here the link of the video made by MET museum: https://www.metmuseum.org/metmedia/video/metcollects/crown-of-the-andes


it's not just a love-affair with my own voice

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