The controversial origins of the Royals' family jewels

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Sarah Royce-Greensill
·10 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
The Duchess of Sussex wearing the now controversial earrings - Wireimage
The Duchess of Sussex wearing the now controversial earrings - Wireimage

It has emerged that a pair of earrings worn by the Duchess of Sussex during the Royal Tour of New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga in 2018 were a gift from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who is accused of ordering the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

At the time, Kensington Palace said simply that the diamond chandelier earrings were ‘borrowed’ for the event. Meghan later wore the same pair of earrings to Prince Charles’s 70th birthday party at Buckingham Palace. Predictably, this news has caused controversy, with lawyers for the Duchess insisting that at the time she was unaware of any speculation about the crown prince’s involvement in Khashoggi’s murder, and denying that she misled anybody about the provenance of the earrings.

According to People magazine, the earrings were gifted from the Saudi Arabian royal family on March 7, 2018, when the crown prince dined with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Neither Meghan nor Prince Harry were present, and there is no suggestion that Meghan ever met the crown prince personally. Wedding gifts from heads of state remain the official property of the Crown.

The earrings aren’t the only piece of royal jewellery with a dubious history. From tiaras with ties to the Russian Revolution to priceless emeralds that were gifted to a mistress, the Crown Jewels have never been short of controversy.

Grand Duchess Vladimir tiara

The Queen wears the Grand Duchess Vladimir tiara - Rex Features
The Queen wears the Grand Duchess Vladimir tiara - Rex Features

This grand diamond tiara with removable pearl drops was originally made in 1874 by Bolin, the Russian court jeweller, for Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (the elder), wife of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich. One of the last Romanovs to escape Revolutionary Russia, she reportedly hid out in the war-torn Caucasus throughout 1917 and 1918, hoping that her eldest son would become Tsar. They eventually escaped to Anapa on a fishing boat in 1918, before eventually leaving Russia in 1920 for Venice.

During her exile in 1917, the Duchess revealed where she’d hidden her jewels to Bertie Stopford, a british antiques dealer and friend of the Romanovs. He snuck back into the Vladimir Palace, disguised as a workman, to retrieve 244 pieces, including the tiara, and smuggled them out of the country and back to England.

After the Grand Duchess’s death in France in 1920, the tiara was inherited by her daughter, Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna, who sold it to Queen Mary, the Queen’s grandmother, in 1921 for £28,000. The tiara has been in the royal collection since, and has been worn frequently by the Queen, both with and without the pearl drops - or with emerald drops, which were an addition commissioned by Queen Mary.

Garrard Burmese ruby tiara

queen Garrard Burmese ruby tiara - Getty Images
queen Garrard Burmese ruby tiara - Getty Images

One of the few tiaras commissioned by Queen Elizabeth II during her reign, the Burmese Ruby tiara was made by Crown Jeweller Garrard in 1973, using diamonds from the Nizam of Hyderabad tiara. The Queen had received the tiara as a wedding gift from the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad in 1947 - the story goes that the Indian ruler let her choose anything she liked from Cartier, and she selected the tiara and a matching diamond necklace (which is still in her collection and has been borrowed by the Duchess of Cambridge).

A few decades later the Queen obviously had a change of heart about the tiara, dismantling it in order to create a new piece, which also used the 96 rubies she’d received as a wedding gift from the people of Burma. The rubies were set in yellow gold into Tudor rose motifs, a striking contrast to the white diamonds set in platinum.

The Burmese believe that a gift of 96 rubies helps to protect the wearer from the 96 diseases that can afflict the body - a fact that was brought up when the Queen chose this particular tiara for a state banquet with President Donald Trump in 2019.

Burmese rubies are now considered a controversial gemstone, with several high-end houses pledging not to use them due to concerns that profits from the ruby trade help to fund the military regime responsible for the genocide of Rohingya people, which dates back to the 1970s. The US banned the import of Burmese rubies and jade from 2008 until 2016, and last month placed sanctions on three Burmese gem companies controlled by the country’s military.

The Cambridge emeralds

The Queen wearing The Cambridge emeralds - Rex Features
The Queen wearing The Cambridge emeralds - Rex Features

Historians can never quite agree on the background of the Crown’s exceptional collection of so-called Cambridge emeralds, which were named after the original Duchess of Cambridge, Augusta of Hesse-Kassel, Queen Mary’s grandmother. Apparently Augusta and her husband Prince Adolphos entered a lottery in Frankfurt and won a box of cabochon emeralds; between 30 and 40 of them.

The Duchess had some of them set into earrings and a necklace, which were inherited by her daughter, Mary Adelaide, the Duchess of Teck. When she died, the collection of emeralds were passed on to her son, Prince Francis of Teck (Queen Mary’s brother).

Known as an incorrigible gambler who was expelled from Wellington College, The Prince died suddenly from pneumonia in 1910, at the age of 40. His will was sealed to avoid potential scandal - and for good reason, as it transpired that he’d bequeathed the Cambridge emeralds to the married society beauty Ellen Constance, Countess of Kilmorey, a former mistress of King Edward VII.

Queen Mary, who was crowned shortly after her brother’s death, set about retrieving the emeralds by any means necessary - reportedly paying the countess £10,000 for the gems after other rumoured tactics such as social exile failed to work.

Once safely back in the royal family’s collection, the Cambridge emeralds were used in a number of fabulous jewels - including the Delhi Durbar parure, made for the 1911 celebrations of King George V’s coronation in India. The Delhi Durbar necklace features nine Cambridge emeralds. Queen Mary also used Cambridge emeralds to form detachable pendants for the Grand Duchess Vladimir tiara, which she frequently used in place of the original pearls.

Princess Michael of Kent’s brooch

Princess Michael of Kent attends a Christmas lunch at Buckingham Palace  - Getty Images
Princess Michael of Kent attends a Christmas lunch at Buckingham Palace - Getty Images

Princess Michael of Kent was forced to apologise after being branded a ‘racist’ in 2017, when she was photographed wearing what was described as a ‘blackamoor brooch’ at the Queen’s annual Christmas Banquet. The Duchess of Sussex also attended the festive lunch at Buckingham Palace, and was said to have been ‘offended’ at the accessory. The Duke and Duchess’s biography Finding Freedom (which they did not contribute personally to) claimed that the brooch, which depicted a black man wearing an opulent gold robe and turban, was “insensitive to her African American roots”.

Blackamoor jewels were popular in Europe in the Renaissance period, and are now considered controversial due to their depictions of Africans as slaves or servants.

The authors wrote that “Princess Michael’s choice of brooch could have simply been a mistake, but in the back of Meghan’s mind, she wondered if there wasn’t a message being sent in the pin of the torso of an African man wearing a gold turban and ornate clothing.”

After media reports of the faux pas, a spokesperson for the Princess, who is married to the Queen’s first cousin, said she was “very sorry and distressed that it has caused offence”. Experts subsequently pointed out that her brooch wasn’t actually a piece of blackamoor jewellery, but a specific type of Venetian jewellery known as Moretto Veneziano.

Depicting a Moorish Venetian prince, it was made by goldsmith Alberto Nardi, who owns a store in Venice’s Piazza San Marco. “A whole lot of nonsense has been written, and I wish to defend an object that is rich in history and unique to Venice,” he told Italian media at the time. “Regardless of the princess’s conduct, this is an object that is the total antithesis of racism.”

Camilla’s emerald and diamond Prince of Wales Feathers brooch

The Duchess of Cornwall wears the emerald and diamond Prince of Wales Feathers brooch - Getty Images 
The Duchess of Cornwall wears the emerald and diamond Prince of Wales Feathers brooch - Getty Images

One part of her life as a princess that Lady Di clearly loved was the opportunity to delve into the royal jewellery collection. The Princess borrowed a great many pieces from the Crown, piling on diamond tiaras, necklaces and bracelets with abandon.

The Duchess of Cornwall, in contrast, has been relatively restrained, wearing the same honeycomb tiara to most state events, and in general keeping her jewels to a minimum, avoiding comparison. But in 2019 Camilla caused controversy by wearing an emerald and diamond brooch that was refashioned from a necklace once worn by Princess Diana.

Princess Diana wearing the Prince of Wales Feathers necklace during a Royal Tour of Australia in 1983 - Tim Graham/Getty Images
Princess Diana wearing the Prince of Wales Feathers necklace during a Royal Tour of Australia in 1983 - Tim Graham/Getty Images

At the 50th anniversary of the investiture of Prince Charles, the Duchess complemented her dark green skirt suit with the Prince of Wales Feathers Brooch, featuring the heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales picked out in diamonds, from which hangs a large cabochon emerald.

The bejewelled badge previously hung as a pendant on a necklace worn by Princess Diana. The necklace was a royal heirloom which the Queen Mother reportedly gave to Diana on permanent loan when she married Prince Charles in 1981. Princess Diana wore it on several occasions, both with and without the emerald drop. After her death the necklace was returned to the royal collection, and was subsequently transformed into the brooch now worn by Prince Charles’s second wife.

The Koh-i-Noor diamond

The Crown of Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother (1937) made of platinum and containing the famous Koh-i-noor diamond along with other gems - Tim Graham/Getty Images
The Crown of Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother (1937) made of platinum and containing the famous Koh-i-noor diamond along with other gems - Tim Graham/Getty Images

More myths and legends abound about the Koh-i-Noor diamond than almost any other jewel in the royal collection. Known as one of the world’s most controversial diamonds, the 105.6ct stone is set into the Crown of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, which is part of the Crown Jewels, on display in the Tower of London.

The diamond has been part of the Crown Jewels since 1849, when it was ceded to Queen Victoria under the Last Treaty of Lahore, and it has a long and fabled history.

The diamond is believed to have originated from India’s Kollur mine in the 13th century - although experts dispute this claim, arguing that it was more likely to have been discovered in a riverbed. Its first known mention was in 1306, when it was documented as belonging to the Rajas of Malwa. It is believed to have originally weighed 186 carats.

The diamond passed through the hands of various rulers and Mughal emperors, many of whom met unfortunate or bloody ends, leading to the belief that the diamond was cursed. Legend has it that whoever owns the Koh-i-Noor - meaning “mountain of light” - will “own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes”.

The myth, which allegedly dates back to a Hindu text, continues that “only God, or a woman, can wear it with impunity”. It has therefore only ever been worn by female members of the royal family.

The supposed ‘curse’ continued on the diamond’s voyage from India: the ship in which it was travelling was hit by an outbreak of cholera on board, and later battered by severe gales.

Having safely reached British soil, the diamond was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 but received a lacklustre response - potentially due to its inclusions. As a result Prince Albert ordered for it to be recut into its current 105 carats. It was first set into a brooch, part of the Queen’s personal collection, although she apparently disliked wearing it.

After the Queen’s death the Koh-i-Noor was set into two consort crowns - those of Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary - before being used for the Queen Mother’s crown, where it remains today.

Superstitions aside, its modern-day controversy revolves around a dispute over its rightful ownership: since India gained independence, the governments of India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan have all laid claim to the fabled stone.

Sign up for the Telegraph Luxury newsletter for your weekly dose of exquisite taste and expert opinion.