In 2006, at age 16, Marie Boltenstern – granddaughter of Erich, architect of the Vienna State Opera House;daughter of Sven, award- winning jewellery designer whose clients spanned queens, sheikhs and Hollywood greats – joined 179 debutantes in opening the 50th Vienna Opera Ball, the most prestigious event of the city’s society season.
The now 26-year-old Boltenstern has since followed in the footsteps of both grandfather and father,taking a degree in architecture before reviving her father’s eponymous jewellery brand, Sven Boltenstern. The pieces she designs are statement makers, natural shapes in hammered gold that resemble rock formations, liquid lava, weeping willows.
There is science to her art. “When you look at [my father’s] designs from the ’60s and ’70s, it’s very organic, with natural forms. That’s what I’m generating, with a computer. I look into the mathematical rules behind something that grows, and then make it grow within a computer. That’s the speciality – that I have one object that can grow, in 100 different ways, so each piece is a unique piece,and that’s what my father did as well. I don’t model it with my hands, I model it by computer,and it’s finished by a traditional goldsmith.”
It’s fitting, then, that on the 10th anniversary of her debut, Boltenstern found herself at the headquarters of Swarovski, another Austrian born brand whose success was also predicated on the invention of very important jewellery technology – an electric machine to cut crystal, patented by Daniel Swarovski in 1892.
The premise of her visit was to discuss a partnership with the globally renowned crystal manufacturer and sponsor of the Vienna Opera Ball. She’d been asked to design the tiara that would be worn by each of the debutantes on a chilly February evening in 2016. It’s an affiliation that could almost be seen as a foregone conclusion, despite Boltenstern being a relative unknown in comparison with past tiara designers such as Shaun Leane (2015) and Stephen Webster (2014).
“Our family has already been bound to the opera ball for many, many years,” says Boltenstern. “My grandfather rebuilt the Opera House [after it was destroyed by bombs during World War II]; and my father, he opened the first ball. I opened the 50th ball 10 years ago. Since he’s a renowned jeweller, it was always in my father’s mind to do the [tiara] project once. Then I took over the company, and with the 60th ball, somehow it fits that the organiser approached us. She said now is the right time, and then also Swarovski had a nice story, so we approached each other,in a way.”
Swarovski began producing tiaras for the Vienna Opera Ball in its 50th edition, putting Boltenstern in the first group of debs to wear – and own – such a headpiece. Royally endorsed jewellery houses such as Chaumet may be more famous for creating the delicate crowns, but the Opera Ball works with the multifaceted crystal-maker Swarovski because of its uniquely Austrian heritage. And a plus side to the association? Debs get to keep the bijoux.
While those of us in Asia may see Swarovski primarily as the manufacturer of trinkets such as teddy-bear figurines (an image that admittedly is changing, thanks to associations with reputable fashion houses such as Gaultier or de la Renta), in Austria it’s known for being the most recognisable home-grown brand the country has seen.
When she was 12, Boltenstern recalls, she received her first piece of Swarovski jewellery “a really beautiful stone on a small necklace. It was a gift and I was really happy, because when I was small I was always really happy to receive jewellery other than my father’s, because everybody was telling me I cannot wear any other jewellery unless it was a gift.
“My mother said I couldn’t wear the big jewellery [he designed] because I was just a small girl,so I wore no jewellery until I had the Swarovski necklace.” For the debutantes, the tiara is not just an accessory, but also a representation of their country’s greatest success.
The welcome performances for the Opera Ball don’t start until 10pm, though the debs report for duty in the early evening, just as,across the street, the cream of Viennese society begins arriving for a special cocktail and dinner at Hotel Sacher Vienna, which is owned by the family of former ball chairwoman Elisabeth Gürtler. Swarovski, of course, has its table, hosted by family member Evelyn Haim-Swarovski, an elegant woman in her early 60s who sports the most impossibly chic vintage Dior gown encrusted with Swarovski crystals, a piece she says has travelled as far as Beijing for exhibition purposes. Boltenstern takes her place beside Haim-Swarovski, and joins her in her box at the Opera Ball.
Haim-Swarovski herself, of course, was a debutante once as well, proving the ball was as much a rite of passage for Viennese elite then as it is now. Her turn came in 1972. “I remember I was in the third row,” the older woman confides. “But I liked a boy in the first row. And there was another boy who admired me, but I didn’t like him. I saw him again recently, and we talked, and he told me, he admired me too back then!” She shakes her head, laughing at what could have been.
The 2016 debutantes and escorts make their grand entrance after the Austrian President’s opening remarks, before lining up by the side of the stage, where they must stand and wait until all the other performances have been completed – a good hour’s worth of serious stillness. Atop each girl’s head is Boltenstern’s tiara. “The design was inspired by the feeling that you have as a young girl entering this huge ballroom. For me, when I opened, it was like an opening flower and you’re a princess. You’re a young girl entering society for the first time in a tension-filled room. I wanted to capture this feeling,” whispers Boltenstern.
“Watch them. Someone always faints,” Haim-Swarovski says. Boltenstern nods her assent. “Tension-filled” doesn’t begin to cover it for the debs. Three thousand pairs of eyes (not to mention those of tens of thousands of Austrian television viewer at home) are trained on the floor, where a ballet performance by the Vienna State Opera Ballet is about to begin, and the stress and fatigue is sometimes too much for at least one young lady.
This being an opera ball, there are opera singers – not just any, either, but soprano Olga Peretyatko and tenor Placido Domingo,who perform solos and a duet to the large crowd, whose mix has evolved throughout the years. Brooke Shields is confirmed to be on the arm of 83-year-old Austrian industrialist Richard Lugner, jokingly referred to as “the Donald Trump of Austria” for his political ambitions and predilection for younger beauties. Since the early ’90s he has paid a hefty appearance fee annually to a Hollywood star to attend the ball as his guest (among other duties, such as meet-and-greets at one of his shopping centres), a practice that’s stirred up controversy in the past for overshadowing local luminaries in attendance and cheapening the image of the high-society event.
This year, Shields may be Lugner’s official arm candy, but she’s not the only international celeb in attendance. Pamela Anderson, who attended with Lugner more than a decade ago, joins this year’s ball, as does internationally known Dutch rapper Mr Probz and Jack Reacher star Jai Courtney. But of course, it’s not all gone to Tinseltown. Austrian President Heinz Fischer is there, as well as several members of the Porsche family, including Wolfgang with sons Felix and Ferdinand.
The end of Domingo and Peretyatko’s performance signals that the debs and escorts may finally begin theirs. Indeed, as predicted,one row seems to be missing a white-dress-clad girl – but she rises to the occasion at the last minute for her moment in the spotlight. Watching 180 young couples perform in perfect unison is a sight to behold indeed, and when it’s over,there’s a sigh of relief that seems to travel across the thousands of guests like a Mexican wave. As the young couples break form and begin to waltz freely, the crystals in the tiaras catching the light and refracting it, the guests rise and join them, until the floor is entirely covered. For the debs the performances have ended, but for the rest of the crowd the night is just beginning, and the festivities will continue until the sun rises, with the opera hall closing its doors at 6am.
Boltenstern is giddy as she lifts her tulle skirts and attempts to navigate the halls of the Opera House her grandfather designed. “I hope that my children will understand the tradition we’ve kept,” she says.