The jewelry collection of a royal starts young. In May 1937, a simple gilt crown was made in miniature to fit the head of 11-year-old Princess Elizabeth so she could wear it at the coronation of her father King George VI.
This gem-less object marked the historic moment she became heir presumptive to the British throne. It was a humble precursor to the later troves of diamond headpieces that have embodied the Queen’s image as monarch. Now, several of the tiaras most closely associated with her 70-year reign—including her childhood crown, among other royal jewels—will be exhibited this summer at Buckingham Palace in celebration of her Platinum Jubilee.
This is a long record of a life lived in jewels. Distinct from the Crown Jewels, these are pieces frequently worn by the Queen with great historical, as well as personal, significance for members of the family. They range from a pair of 21st-birthday diamonds and her beloved grandmother’s bangles to her favored everyday pearls worn with a diamond brooch.
Days after the Queen ascended the throne, official photographs were taken of her in a set of tiaras. They would be used as the basis of the Queen’s image on new coins, stamps, and bank notes. “The Diamond Diadem and The Girls of Great Britain and Ireland tiara are the jewels we all know and recognize,”
explains deputy surveyor of the Queen’s works of art and curator of the exhibition Caroline de Guitaut, who looks after 700,000 works of art in 13 royal palaces. “Most people don’t really think about it, but these tiaras are always there to see in our purses and pockets.
”The pictures of Queen Elizabeth wearing the tiaras with a variety of Norman Hartnell gowns, taken by London and New York–based photographer Dorothy Wilding, will also be on show. These powerful images could be one reason why we identify the Diamond Diadem as feminine. In fact, it was originally conceived and made for a man.
The flamboyant George IV commissioned the jewel for his coronation in 1821, using 1,333 brilliant-cut diamonds and 169 pearls, for which he paid the princely sum of $343. It was a groundbreaking piece at the time, with what’s believed to be political messaging interspersed with the gemstones. Instead of using traditional fleur-de-lis motifs on the regal circlet (too suggestive of France for his liking), George requested shamrocks, thistles, and roses—the emblems of Scotland, Ireland, and England, respectively—reinforcing the Act of Union combining the United Kingdom.
You might also be surprised to know that the Cambridge emeralds, suspended in the Vladimir tiara passed down from Queen Victoria, were originally won in a German lottery. The exhibition also shows a piece of the Cullinan diamond—the largest diamond crystal yet to be found—dazzling on the Delhi Durbar necklace.And because the Queen’s jewelry collection is so extensive, another selection is currently being exhibited at Windsor Castle.
This one includes the poignant Flame-Lily brooch she wore pinned to mourning clothes when she stepped off the plane returning to Britain from Kenya, after receiving news of her father’s death. It was the first jewel the nation saw her wear as a new Queen.
“I think the perennial jewel we see on the Queen are magnificent brooches,” de Guitaut says. “They have a way of communicating with the audience without having to say anything.” Unlike her predecessor, George IV, Queen Elizabeth’s messaging is never political. She often uses jewels as a gesture to the country or place she visits. Emblems of Commonwealth countries—a glittering Canadian maple leaf, New Zealand Silver Fern Brooch, or Australian Wattle—have shone from her lapel during royal tours.
Her Majesty’s royal life has given her a unique skill set when it comes to jewelry. Princess Margaret was once quoted saying that her sister was the only person who could place a tiara on her head while running down the stairs. As de Guitaut added, “The Queen’s had practice.”