“Wherever I lay my jewels, I lay my head.”
— HSH Princess Cécile zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg
It was on one of those stereotypically crisp, sunny late afternoons that are so emblematic of springtime in the City of Angels that I first met HSH Princess Cecile zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg for coffee on an outdoor patio at the heart of West LA’s tony Brentwood Country Mart. Fresh faced with her hair pulled loosely back and dressed casually in a fitted leather jacket and jeans, my regal coffee date looked more like one of the chic Santa Monica locals buzzing around the popular shopping plaza than one might expect of the progeny of one Germany’s oldest royal families.
As the eldest daughter of Prince Kraft zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg and Princess Charlotte of Croy, the granddaughter of Princess Margarita of Greece and Denmark, the great niece of Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh and Queen Elizabeth II, the cousin to Princes William and Harry, and also a direct descendant of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, to say that Cécile zu Hohenlohe’s royal connections are not only significant but dizzyingly fascinating, if almost impossible to follow, would be something of an understatement. And yet, though she can count her place in the royal succession to the throne of England, the most discernibly royal quality about the woman sitting across from me clutching a warm beverage and a bag of jewels on that picturesque Southern California afternoon was the beatific nature of her smile and the unconsciously effortless graciousness of her demeanor.
In fact, it is immediately obvious within minutes of conversation with Her Serene Highness (who actually in a nod to modernity eschews any of the pretense of titles beyond their association with her work) that while she readily acknowledges the unique and privileged nature of her heritage, she is far less enamored of her royal ties than others (myself included) seem to be. She is even quick to admit to not knowing her family history well enough, much to the chagrin of her mother. Which is not to say that she takes it all lightly, because, in truth, her family history is in large part the reason we had convened to chat.
After a lifelong interest in art and beauty that began at boarding school and then continued through her study of sculpture, prop making and stage design at art school in London, Cécile has created a singularly glittering exhibition of one-of-a-kind “hand sculptures” called In the Space Between that can currently be seen through Labor Day at Grey Area in East Hampton, NY. A collection of rings filled with contrasts, in which that which is old is made new, while that which is high is commingled with that which is low, In the Space Between combines precious and semi-precious stones along with other elements that have been culled from the Hohenlohe family estate and grounds, Langenburg Castle in Germany and Cécile’s extensive travels to exotic and sacred locales around the world to give birth to artistic creations that seemingly float on the hand while simultaneously providing vessels for telling stories, which is what interests their designer most.
“I like using things which may not traditionally be set together or be what we perceive of as valuable objects or materials,” Cécile explains with a certain air of delight. “It can be a pebble or piece of old concrete but you set it with an amazing stone and suddenly a completely different kind of dialogue begins to happen for both pieces. I like the contrast. I [like] allowing these pieces to come into conversation with each other.”
Conversation and stories are in fact the very foundation of Cécile’s collection beginning with the intimate discourse she entered into with nature at a very young age in the scenic Hohenlohe region of Germany. “”Growing up [at Langenburg Castle] was a very protected upbringing in the sense that it was wholesome. I had much contact with nature around home which was a big part of my refuge as child,” Cécile recalls of the centuries old childhood home where she still maintains the studio to which she returns to create with the help of local master goldsmiths and silversmiths whose connection to her family traces back more than a century. “Being in the castle had a certain rigidity … it was quite conservative and conventional… freedom and inspiration was often found in the woods where I could be free because I didn’t have to be the person I had to be in the castle. Everyone in the village knew who you were. With my name in Germany you’re somewhat branded so to speak. Freedom for me was when I was able to be without any of that on my back. I found it in nature.”
Meanwhile back at the castle, a different and perhaps equally formative conversation was taking place between Cécile and her royal forbears. “There were family events and balls that my parents, my aunt and grandmother attended,” she recalls. “As a little girl I loved when all the preparation began and the dresses came out. They would discuss the gowns they were going to wear, and what tiara and jewels would match. When I was twelve, we were in London for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. We children were able to watch from Buckingham Palace. I was too young to go to any of the balls, but it was special watching my mother getting dressed up and adorning herself with the jewels. I adored just sitting there and staring at these beautiful treasures as well as growing up with them – not just in their boxes but actually worn by my family which is rarer and rarer these days.”
Of particular note to a young Cécile was a jewelry casket she found while rummaging through the castle’s many attics, cupboards and drawers, a practice which remains one of her favorite pastimes at Langenburg. “The box was just so beautiful because it had this vibrant Yves Klein blue lining like the sky on the inside and contained three trays,” she says. “Sadly it was empty because the jewels had been sold to support Russian family members after the revolution and what wasn’t sold was burned in the devastating castle fire in 1963. So it was up to my imagination to fill the boxes because there was nothing left other than the imprints of the jewels which were like echoes of past times. That box certainly was a big part of my inspiration. It was this blue emptiness allowing new things to arise from it.”
“My grandmother, Margarita of Greece, the sister of Prince Philip, would often show me jewelry and tell me stories,” she continues. “It was about the connection of the stories attached to [the gems], which made them more special. It was about who gave the jewels to her and on what occasion. She lost most of her possessions when the castle burned down in 1963 so sometimes she only had photographs of herself with these pieces that had been lost. I think there was a sense of displacement in her life, having fled from Greece to Paris and then marrying my grandfather in Germany. A way of connecting with her was looking at these jewels together and her allowing me to play with them as well. It was a special treat to adorn myself with her jewels even though the rings and bracelets would slip off my fingers and arms. I treasure these moments I had with my grandmother.”
Today, Cécile continues the tradition of telling stories through well-traveled jewels with the collection of her creations with which she has been making her way around the world for more than a year. “There are pieces I found on beaches such as in Jordan on the Red Sea, on the Black Sea in Bulgaria, on some islands in Greece, little pebbles from the Ganges and also from a number of sacred sites I’ve been to visit… Pieces that have meaning to me,” she offers in explanation of the make-up of her collection. “I always have my eyes peeled. Just the other day I was on the beach at a house in East Hampton that had been gutted and there were some fabulous crumbled chunks of concrete in a skip outside. I never know where I’ll find something that could end up in one of my pieces. It’s a constant way for me to be in contact with my environment where ever I am. So I schlepp these bags back from wherever I go filled with stones, rocks, this that and the other,” she says with obvious amusement at herself.
Perhaps more than any other, one particular ring captures the spirit and beauty of In The Space Between, because of the journey from the past to the present it tells. “I call it the Lotus Ring. It gives new life to the engagement ring my father gave my mother. I married it with a big chunk of molten bronze found in the ashes after the castle fire,” the artist says of the piece.
“My mother gave me the engagement ring after my father passed and I never wore it. It was sitting in a box in a drawer yet it meant a lot to me and I regretted not wearing it. When I was making the other pieces, it was placed there with all the other stones and I kept wondering what to do with it. I set it with other stones and it just wasn’t happening. Then its history came to mind. It was the only piece left from the box of jewels. Everything else had been sold or charred so it found its natural place with the molten piece of bronze. Symbolically speaking, it’s very much like the Phoenix rising from the flames, which happens to be our family crest, but I prefer the analogy to the lotus rising from the mud unstained.”
Like a Lotus rising from the mud indeed. Just as might be said of the entire collection, the name of which was inspired by the quote “In the space between thoughts, non-conceptual wisdom shines forth continuously” from Tibetan sage Milarepa, In The Space Between is an eclectic array of pieces that have traveled from places both significant and inconsequential to tell unique tales and share the uncommon sagacity of a most compelling life.
See a full range Cécile zu Hohenlohe’s stories told through her art at Grey Area in East Hampton through Labor Day and then keep your eyes peeled for upcoming exhibitions around the world in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Delhi and Mumbai.
To visit Langenburg Castle or find out more about its history click here.