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Lady Marguerite Allan wears her Cartier diamond tiara.

A delicate piece of vintage jewellery, a Cartier diamond tiara, circa 1909, is about to pass out of a Canadian family's hands for the first time in more than 100 years. Embedded with a history of happiness, having been worn by brides for many generations, it also comes with a tale of great tragedy that would be the beginning of much misfortune for the prestigious family at the start of the First World War.

Sir Hugh Montagu Allan, a prominent Montreal businessman at the turn of the 20th century, commissioned the Cartier diamond tiara for his wife, Lady Marguerite. It goes up for auction at Sotheby's in Geneva, Switzerland, on Nov. 11 with a reserve price of 295,000-445,000 Swiss francs ($390,000-$588,000)

The tiara was on the doomed Lusitania, a passenger ship from New York, which was torpedoed without warning in May, 1915, by a German U-boat in sight of the Irish coast, with the loss of 1,198 of the 1,989 people on board, including 200 children. The sinking – the ship went down in less than half an hour – breached international laws and is widely seen to have influenced the United States to enter the conflict two years later.

Lady Marguerite was travelling on the Lusitania to England with a small group of friends and her two younger daughters, Anna, 16, and Gwendolyn, 15, as well as two maids. They had all jumped into the water as the ship began to sink. In the tumult of the cold Atlantic, amid debris and panic, Lady Marguerite suffered a broken collarbone and hip, letting go of Anna's hand. A family friend, Frederick Orr-Lewis, a wealthy Canadian businessman who was travelling with the family, lost his grip on Gwen. Both girls drowned, while the two adults survived.

One of the maids – both of them also survived – miraculously saved the tiara.

How they ended up on the doomed Lusitania is a tale of duty and determination. Sir Montagu (as he was known) was the principal heir of Sir Hugh Allan, a Scottish immigrant to Montreal in the 1830s who developed the family business, the Allan Shipping Line, into the largest privately owned shipping empire in the world at the time of his death in 1882. Sir Montagu had retired from the family shipping business in 1912 and was president of several major financial institutions. Among other philanthropic and community activities, he was Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Highlanders of Canada, the Black Watch, the founder of the Royal Victoria Hospital and president of the Montreal General Hospital. He was instrumental in setting up the No.umber 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) for the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) on the front.

The Allans planned to spend the duration of the war in England. Lady Marguerite, 42, was to work at a convalescent hospital and with the Red Cross. Their eldest daughter, a headstrong 20-year-old named Martha, had set sail for England the month before to serve with the Voluntary Aid Detachment (field nursing services on the front) after she was turned down by the military hospital her father was organizing due to her age and inexperience.

Sir Montagu was not on the Lusitania, having stayed behind in Montreal to tidy up his business affairs. Ravenscrag, their impressive Italian Renaissance residence in Montreal, which was built by his father shortly before Confederation, was to be closed up. The maids had packed 18 steamer trunks of their belongings. Even though the Imperial German embassy in Washington warned of the dangers for passengers sailing the Atlantic due to the threat of U-boats, Lady Marguerite and her small entourage boarded the Lusitania. Many thought the speed of the ship would make it a difficult target.

Until the Lusitania tragedy, the war effort must have seemed like a grand adventure of duty and honour. In Montreal society, Sir Montagu and Lady Marguerite were "like monarchy," according to Robert Paterson, a descendant in Knowlton, Que., who is working on a history of the family and other prominent Montreal families during the First World War. Members of the British Royal Family often stayed at Ravenscrag, which comprised 60,000 square feet and 72 rooms. Sir Montagu was also a great sportsman. He donated the Allan Memorial Cup, which is still the trophy for amateur hockey in Canada.

With the deaths of his two younger sisters, Hugh, their only son, who had finished at Eton, the prestigious British boarding school, joined the Royal Naval Air Service. He was shot down and killed on his first service flight in 1917. After the loss of Hugh, Martha, who was driving ambulances on the front, returned to be with her mother in England and never married. She, too, would die young at 47, back in Montreal.

Sir Montagu and Lady Marguerite rose to the challenge of the war. "Their losses brought them closer. In their loss, they had the same response of generosity," Mr. Paterson says.

The family poured money into Moor Court, a convalescent hospital in Sidmouth, Devon. Lady Marguerite, after the Lusitania disaster, joined forces with other Montreal society ladies to help the families of Canadian soldiers. In April, 1916, at the age of 55, Sir Montagu enlisted for active army duty. Toward the end of the war, along with family friend, Dr. John Lancelot Todd, Sir Montagu set up the pensions system that became Veterans Affairs.

Surviving all four of their children, they lived out their lives with great dignity, family members say. When Lady Marguerite died in 1957 at the age of 85, she bequeathed the tiara to Elspeth Paterson Dawes, her first cousin, once removed. Ms. Dawes's granddaughter, Elspeth Bourne Straker, who lives in Northumberland, England, decided to put the tiara up for auction. "I am sad for it to be passing from the family," she said in a telephone conversation. "I grew up with the story of how it was saved on the doomed Lusitania. But the moment is now with the 100th anniversary of the war."

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