September 28, 2022

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The memories and meanings behind the Queen’s jewellery

This week, Her Majesty’s coffin made its final journey from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall, where it will lie in state for four days. For this final public appearance, the Queen, as ever, was adorned in her best. This time, with the Imperial State Crown, which sat atop her coffin, on a purple cushion.

She first famously wore it at her coronation, in 1953. It was designed for Queen Victoria in 1839 by Rundell, Bridge and Rundell – then the royal jewellers – and it is a fascinating amalgam of British monarchical history. Among its treasures are the St Edwards sapphire, Queen Elizabeth I’s pearl earrings, The Black Prince’s ruby, the Stuart sapphire, and the gargantuan Cullinan II diamond – one of two major stones cut from the largest gem-quality diamond ever found (the second sits atop the sovereign’s sceptre and cross). Re-made by George VI in 1937, by royal jewellers Garrard, in order to make it lighter, the crown nonetheless still weighed more than 1kg when the Queen wore it.

imperial state crown

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It was a moment of great solemnity; full of ceremony and ritual. As ever, the Queen had the correct regalia for the moment. “The Queen knew – and said so – that crowns are important,” says Joanna Hardy, jewellery historian and curator at vintage jewellery destination Omneque. “The fact that it is on her coffin now speaks volumes.”

If the Crown Jewels speak to the royal ancestry of this remarkable woman, so much of Elizabeth’s private jewellery spoke to who she was as a woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter and granddaughter. For her last ceremonial appearance, she will be outwardly draped in regalia, but what jewellery she wears within, will no doubt be innately personal.

Elizabeth’s private jewellery collection spoke to who she was as a woman, a wife, a mother, a daughter

The Crown Jewels are kept in the Jewel Room in the Tower of London and comprise of 142 pieces of regalia with 23,578 polished gemstones. The Queen’s personal jewellery collection is less distinct: a coterie of brooches, necklaces and tiaras inherited from grandmothers and aunts one likes to imagine she kept hidden away in old sock drawers (we doubt it). This collection is, however, no less impressive and overflows as much with global history as it does familial anecdote, as can be expected when your family is no ‘ordinary’ family.

The family jewellery

Most of these pieces snake a line between fascinating artefacts of history and familial sentiment. The Prince Albert Brooch has been worn Queens Alexandra, Mary, Elizabeth and Elizabeth II, and was first given to Queen Victoria by Prince Albert the day before her wedding. She loved it so much that she wore it on her wedding day. The Queen’s Oriental Circlet Tiara, a beloved favourite of her own mother, was initially also designed by Prince Albert for Queen Victoria, in 1853. It was originally set with opals, but Victoria replaced them as she thought them to be unlucky; replacing them with rubies.

the queen mother wearing the oriental circlet tiara

The Queen Mother wearing the Oriental Circlet Tiara

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Much of the collection, the Queen inherited from her jewellery-obsessed grandmother Queen Mary. One of the most recognisable of her tiaras, (spot it on your notes, coins and stamps) is officially known as The Girls of Great Britain and Ireland Tiara, as it was presented to the then-Duchess of York as a wedding gift. Yet the Queen has always lovingly referred to it as ‘Granny’s Tiara’. It is perhaps one of the most touching examples of how Elizabeth’s two sides intersected in her jewels – a tiara known as a shorthand for royalty, was simply known to her as her ‘Granny’s’.

the queen in ’granny’s tiara’

The Queen in ’Granny’s Tiara’

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Queen Mary’s collection was vast and intriguing. One of her more interesting pieces was the Vladimir Tiara, made for the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, wife of Grand Duke Vladimir, who fled to Britain following the Russian Revolution. One of Russia’s most senior nobles, she hid her jewels in a secret compartment in her St Petersburg palace. Later that year, a British officer dressed as a worker went and retrieved them for her and, when her jewels were subsequently auctioned off after her death in 1920, Queen Mary bought the smuggled tiara herself.

Mary had pearl drops inserted and made them interchangeable with emeralds she already owned. When the Queen inherited this tiara, she was seen wearing it all three ways – pearls, emeralds and plain diamonds. This tweaking of jewellery was typical of Mary, who frequently dismantled pieces she had herself inherited, or had them copied. The Queen Alexandra Kokoshnik Tiara, made by Garrard in 1888, to celebrate the then-Princess of Wales’ silver wedding anniversary, was inspired by a traditional Kokoshnik Russian headpiece and the tiara worn by her sister, Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia. It was passed to Queen Mary who had another version made in 1919, which was known as the Queen Mary Diamond Fringe Tiara. This was passed on to the Queen Mother who lent it to the Queen on her wedding day and it became part of one of the Queen’s best jewellery stories.

the queen wearing the queen alexandra kokoshnik tiara

The Queen wearing the Queen Alexandra Kokoshnik Tiara

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“My favourite piece is her wedding tiara, the Queen Mary Fringe Tiara,” says Elizabeth Holmes, author of HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style. “It broke on her wedding day, when they were attaching the veil, which caused quite the stir. Her mother assured then-Princess Elizabeth that there were others she could use, but a jeweller was called in to fix the original choice. I love that you can see a tiny imperfection in the very top in her wedding pics. What’s even more special is that the Queen loaned it to Princess Beatrice, for her own wedding day in 2020.”

queen wedding day

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Loaning the jewellery

The Queen famously loaned her jewellery on many occasions. The Lover’s Knot Tiara, was initially made for Queen Mary by Garrard, from stones used on her wedding day. It was loaned to Diana as a wedding gift from the Queen and has frequently been seen on Kate, the new Princess of Wales. Kate also famously borrowed The Cartier Halo Tiara, made from diamonds and platinum, on her wedding day. It was originally purchased by George VI for his wife, the Queen’s mother.

Queen Mary’s Diamond bandeau is a stunning Art Deco piece which holds a diamond brooch at its centre, originally a wedding present in 1893 for Queen Mary who – in typical fashion – repurposed it into a tiara. Rarely seen, it had its moment in the spotlight recently, when Meghan wore it for her 2018 wedding to Prince Harry.

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Diana and Kate wearing the Lovers Knot Tiara

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Since Queen Mary’s glittering spending sprees, the royals have actually rarely purchased new jewels. In fact, when Charles purchased Diana’s now famous sapphire and diamond ring from Garrard in 1981, it caused quite a stir for being a ‘new’ piece.

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Meghan wearing Queen Mary’s diamond bandeau tiara

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“Most of the new additions to the royal jewellery collection in recent decades have been gifts, not purchases,” says royal jewellery expert Ella Kay. “When royals have added new pieces themselves, they have occasionally acquired antique jewels, but more frequently they have had existing pieces dismantled and remodelled – a strategy that began with Queen Mary, more than a century ago, who loved to rework and renovate her existing jewels to keep up with current styles and trends.”

Though loaded with sentiment, it does, of course, chime with our increasing interest in sustainability, and our ever-shifting views on the monarchy itself. “Today’s royal family needs to be both aspirational and accessible, fancy yet frugal, which means big jewel moments are few and far between,” says Holmes. “Think of how rare it is to see Catherine in a tiara, whereas the Queen, and Diana, used to wear them quite a lot. When they do, it’s nice to see them play around with existing jewels. It’s super sustainable, which is obviously a big issue for both the new King Charles and his heir, William.”

Today’s royal family needs to be both aspirational and accessible, fancy yet frugal – big jewellery moments are rare

catherine wearing the cartier halo tiara

Kate wearing the Cartier Halo Tiara

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“There really is no need for them to buy new pieces, when they have such a vast collection,” says Hardy. “But they also know it would send out a very bad message if they did.” She goes on to explain that any new pieces commissioned, were done with meaning and special intent. The last piece commissioned for the Queen was done by the Goldsmith’s Company just this year, to honour her Platinum Jubilee. The Queen selected the design, by British designer David Marshall, and wore it to the lighting of the Beacons.

“The Queen was not into ‘brands’ or fashion in that sense,” Hardy explains. “She was very much about championing craftsmanship and individual makers, particularly in Britain.” The brooch – the last piece made for the Queen, will be on rare public display at the upcoming Goldsmiths’ Fair (27 Sep-9 Oct) in tribute to the late monarch.

the queen wearing her platinum jubilee commissioned brooch by david marshall

The Queen wearing her Platinum Jubilee-commissioned brooch by David Marshall

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The symbolism behind the jewellery

The Queen frequently used her jewellery to convey messages. Some of the most blatant examples of this are, of course, her Crown Jewels, which are purposefully loaded with meaning. The George IV State Diadem was worn by the Queen to the opening of parliament and other major affairs, including on the way to her coronation in 1953. It was made in 1820 for George IV’s coronation by Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, designed with the rose of England, thistle of Scotland and shamrock of Ireland.

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The Queen wearing the George IV State Diadem

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The Queen understood that her jewellery could often speak louder than words

The Queen would famously wear symbols in her jewellery for meeting foreign dignitaries, for royal visits to Commonwealth nations or to mark special occasions. One great example is the Maple Leaf Brooch, given by George VI to his wife in 1939 to mark their state visit to Canada. The Queen Mother was very attached to the piece, which she wore until her death at 100 and, after the Queen inherited it, she has since loaned it to Camilla and Kate for their respective tours of Canada. “The Queen understood that her jewellery could often speak louder than words,” says Hardy. “For that reason, everything she wore was very carefully thought out.”

These messages were sometimes – in keeping with the Queen’s famous sense of humour – cheeky. Much comment was made about the subtle middle-finger given to President Trump on his visit to the Queen in 2018 through the medium of… brooches. On the first day of his trip, she wore a simple green brooch given to her by the Obamas, on the second, a gift from Trump’s other foe at the time, Canada. Coded messages were often assumed to be written into her wardrobe, not least the first state opening of parliament after Brexit, when the Queen – famously thought of, though of course, never confirmed, a ‘Remainer’ – wore a hat which looked like the European flag.

Of course, many of these messages were simply symbols of meaning and sentiment personal to Elizabeth herself. Her signature pearls were a gift from her father, who gave her her first necklace when she was three, and added two pearls for every birthday she had. She was rarely seen without them. Her so-called ‘Honeymoon Brooch’ – a chrysanthemum-inspired diamond design – was given to her before her wedding, and worn in her official honeymoon portraits with Philip, and again when the couple recreated the shot in 2020, for their 73-third wedding anniversary.

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The Queen first wearing her Honeymoon Brooch

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“She always selected pieces with personal meaning,” says Holmes. “To Philip’s memorial service earlier this year, she wore the “Scarab” brooch, a modern ruby piece designed by Andrew Grima, which he had given her in 1966. For his funeral in 2021, she wore the Richmond brooch, which was given to her by Queen Mary on her wedding day—saying her final goodbye in a piece with very special meaning.”

queen wearing green for prince philip's memorial

The Queen wearing the Scarab brooch given to her by Philip, at his memorial

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What will happen to her jewellery now?

Though unconfirmed, it is expected that the Queen, a stickler for tradition, will follow that of her ancestors and pass her collection entirely to the new monarch. Her own was, after all, comprised of the pieces left to her by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. It is expected that Charles, who will have little use for the pieces himself, will pass them among the high-ranking female royals.

the princess of wales and duchess of sussex in pearl jewellery given to them by the queen

The Princess of Wales and Duchess of Sussex in pearl jewellery given to them by the Queen

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In the next coming months, and perhaps even at the funeral itself, it will be interesting to see who may be wearing what. Kate, the new Princess of Wales, was seen wearing a pearl brooch given to her by the Queen at her lying-in-state service this week, while Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, was seen wearing pearl studs also given to her by the Queen. Pearls were established by Queen Victoria as a royal symbol of mourning. Already, we see the family continuing the Queen’s legacy for conveying meaning through pieces of history, both royal and personal.

“The Queen left a very strong understanding that jewellery is important – and it can be used and it should be used sensitively,” says Hardy. “I hope that the next generation of royal jewellery-wearers will continue with that emphasis.”