Farah Pahlavi
An icon of style and strength

Andy Warhol’s Polaroid of Farah Diba Pahlavi, Empress of Iran, 1976.
© 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS)

Farah Diba met Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the spring of 1959 at an embassy reception in Paris. At the time, the 20-year-old was in France studying architecture and the Shah of Iran was in the market for his third wife. They married a few months later, and in 1967 she became Shahbanu Farah Diba Pahlavi, the Lady Shah, Empress of Iran.

Andy Warhol’s Farah Diba Pahlavi, Empress of Iran, 1976; Warhol’s Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, 1978 © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS).

The two shared 20 years in power together before the Islamic Revolution swept them both from the Peacock Throne—the symbol of the Iranian monarchy—and out of the country forever, in 1979. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi died of cancer a year and a half later. The former shahbanu now lives between the Washington, D.C., area, and the city where she first met her future husband, Paris.

Alexander Calder’s tapestry Disque et Gramophone, circa 1970, hanging at Kykuit, the Rockefeller Estate, in New York, during the Shah of Iran and the empress’s visit, in 1975.
Courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center.

Farah Diba’s singular style was noted even during her reign. The conservative majority at the time viewed her fashion choices as a betrayal of traditions and a pandering to the West. These days her designer outfits look more like the flags of a freedom that has been denied to Iranian women for too long.

Signs that the shahbanu will gain the status of a style icon were clear from the very beginning. The fact that her wedding tiara and coronation crown were designed by two of the biggest jewellery houses is just one of those signs.

Farah’s signature Noor-ol-Ain tiara was designed for her wedding by Harry Winston. The piece is set with white, pink and yellow diamonds. The largest stone in the tiara is one of the largest pink diamonds in the world: the 60-carat Noor-ol-Ain (meaning “the light of the eye”) Diamond. It was brought to present-day Iran from India in the 18th century by Persian soldiers.

The Noor-ol-Ain Tiara

The Shah and Farah Diba on their wedding day, December 1959

Farah wore the tiara throughout her years as Queen consort and then Empress of Iran but left it (and all other crown jewellery) behind when her family went into exile in 1979. The Noor-ol-Ain Tiara can be seen today at the National Treasury of Iran in the Central Bank in Tehran.

The empress, at the time of her coronation

A new crown had to be made for Empress Farah’s coronation. It had been centuries since an Iranian empress had been crowned, and no appropriate crown existed. The commission went to Van Cleef and Arpels, who constructed the piece out of white gold and green velvet. Farah and other important figures in Iran consulted on the design of the piece.

The crown featured 36 emeralds, 36 spinels and rubies, 105 pearls and 1,469 diamonds. The full ensemble also included a pair of earrings – two emerald pendants – and a necklace. The latter was embellished with an engraved hexagonal emerald fashioned as a pendant, four emerald-cut emeralds, four pear-shaped pearls, 11 cushion-cut yellow diamonds and diamonds cut in antique-style. Other jewels were created for the event as well, in particular parures for the Shah’s daughter and sisters.

Pahlavi’s legacy extends beyond her appearance and style, she is also a consummate art collector. Her most noteworthy acquisitions include more than 200 masterpieces of Impressionist and Modern painting and sculpture. Renoir and Paul Gauguin give way to Fernand Léger and Pablo Picasso, up through Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Jasper Johns. The sculptures include important works by Alberto Giacometti, and Alexander Calder.

That collection – said to be the most valuable collection of modern Western masterpieces outside Europe and North America – found its home in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art commissioned by the Empress and inaugurated in 1977.

‘I thought we should have a museum where young Iranian artists could exhibit, but then I thought, Why not also have foreign art and not just ¬Iranian art? The whole world has our art. We cannot afford to have their ancient art, but we could afford their modern art’ – she told W Magazine.

Just two years after the opening of TMoCA these artworks came under threat of destruction. Although most works survived the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (but remained largely hidden), one iconic piece was destroyed. The 1976 silk screen portrait of the Empress by Andy Warhol depicted the poised, elegant but modern and forward-looking Farah Pahlavi in a way akin to Jackie Kennedy and Merilyn Monroe. Unfortunately, it was perhaps this Western influence and glamour that ensured that the original painting was ripped to shreds by an angry crowd in the early days of the revolution.
Despite this former shahbanu always maintains that her collection was always meant for the people of Iran and thus she did not try to take any of it with her.

Farah Pahlavi with Andy Warhol in New York, 1977

Visitors view Roy Lichtenstein’s The Melody Haunts My Reverie, 1965, on display at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1999.

Theodore & C is in awe of Farah Pahlavi and admires her poise and strength of character in the face of adversity and tragedy – these are the true treasures she keeps.