Monday, 3 September 2012

New books: British royal diamonds

As Queen Elizabeth II of Britain is in possession of some of the world’s most spectacular diamonds it seems only logical that the Royal Collection is marking her diamond jubilee with an exhibition on diamonds at Buckingham Palace this summer. There are two books to go along with the exhibition, both published by the Royal Collection: a smaller one by Caroline de Guitaut, aimed at a general audience, and a large one by Hugh Roberts, aimed at those who want the details.
However, Roberts’s monumental book, The Queen’s Diamonds, is not a complete account of all the jewels in the possession of Queen Elizabeth II. Such a work would surely require volumes, and this book is restricted to jewellery consisting entirely or primarily of diamonds, leaving out the emeralds, the sapphires, the rubies and so on. But this seems a fitting choice not only given the occasion of the diamond jubilee, but also because diamonds are arguably the stones most worn by and most associated with Queen Elizabeth. (Britain is also one of the few countries where the crown jewels are still worn by the Queen, but these are not included in the book as they are state property and not personal possessions of the monarch).
The book treats the selection of jewels chronologically. There are chapters devoted to Queen Adelaide, Queen Victoria, Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and Queen Elizabeth II, and after an introduction about each queen, her jewellery and her use of it we find what is to all means and purposes a catalogue of individual pieces of jewellery acquired by the queen in question, describing their origins, their provenance and the changes made to them.
Altogether there are some 74 pieces of jewellery included in the book, among them eleven tiaras and several necklaces, brooches, earrings, bracelets, pendants, rings and other items. There are three entries for Queen Adelaide, eight for Queen Victoria, six for Queen Alexandra, 29 for Queen Mary, fourteen for the late Queen Elizabeth and fourteen for Queen Elizabeth II, reflecting that much of the jewels worn by the current Queen have been acquired during the past three generations.
The book is very richly illustrated. All the items are shown in full, but for many there are also detailed close-ups, and for most of them there are also historical photos of the jewels being worn (sometimes the captions does not say when and where, which is a minus).
Along the way, some mysteries are solved and some misunderstandings corrected, making this the definite account of the British royal diamonds. However, while reading the book I occasionally wished for more details. For instance, the footnote saying that one of the tiaras most frequently worn by Queen Alexandra was inherited by Princess Victoria and then “disposed of” begs the questions how, when and perhaps why. Sometimes a subtle difference in wording also seems to suggest what might have been spelt out. For instance, the phrase “was loaned” seems to suggest an occasional loan, while the phrase “has been loaned” appears to indicate a permanent loan.
Perhaps one might also wish for more on each queen’s use of jewels, for instance how they used their jewellery for ceremonial purposes and for the enhancement and staging of the monarchy and themselves. For instance one may note that the current Queen has worn the so-called Diamond Diadem on her arrival to every State Opening of Parliament, but apparently this was not the case with her predecessors (her mother and grandmother wore private tiaras or their coronation crowns without arches). Roberts claims that the diadem has been worn by all the queens treated in the book and notes that it was slightly altered in 1937 for George VI’s consort. But apparently there is no record of Queen Elizabeth actually having worn it, which makes one wonder what may be the reasons for this.
This being an “official” publication means that some potentially interesting issues are passed over, probably out of discretion. For instance, Roberts writes that Queen Adelaide dutifully handed over what was considered crown heirlooms to Queen Victoria within days of William IV’s death and we know from James Pope-Hennessy’s official biography of Queen Mary that it caused some tensions when Queen Alexandra after the death of Edward VII insisted on retaining some of the jewels which should by right have been handed over to the new Queen. In Roberts’s book one notes that some of these crown heirlooms, which should have passed to Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, were apparently retained by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother for a full fifty years until her own death. No point is made out of this, but one may wonder if this was by special arrangement or if the new Queen simply did not care (or thought she already had access to enough jewellery as it was).
Nevertheless, this is a well-researched and beautifully illustrated account of the diamonds in the possession of Queen Elizabeth II and the book will by its sheer existence be an inescapable work of reference for anyone with an interest in the history of royal jewels.


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  2. Are royal jewels worn only by women, or did this author simply limit himself to women's jewels?

    By the way, I noticed the search function has disappeared from your blog; is there a reason for this?

    1. Today jewellery (or at least grand jewellery, not counting cufflinks and such things) are worn only by women, whether royal or not. Historically, however, grand jewels were also worn by men - Gustaf III is one example - but this went out of fashion in the early nineteenth century. The Diamond Diadem, which Queen Elizabeth II wears for the State Openings of Parliament and on stamps, and which is included in this book, was made for King George IV to be worn by him on his way to his coronation in 1821.

      I have not done anything to the search function and as far as I can tell it is still there. There is one search box in the upper left hand corner of the blog and another in the lower right hand corner.

    2. That's peculiar; the search boxes are no longer visible on my browser. I will try adjusting my browser settings.

      What became of the grand jewels formerly worn by royal men? Were they transferred to the women's jewelry collections, or simply packed away?

    3. Some of them are now used by females, like the aforementioned British diadem or what seems to have been a diamond epaulette now worn as a brooch by the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg - I seem to recall that there are also some items in the Swedish royal jewellery collection that were originally worn by Gustaf III.


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