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Imperial Jewels Throughout History

When it comes to royal jewels, there’s always more than meets the eye. Discover the extraordinary stones and intricate designs that make them one-of-a-kind, as well as 
the compelling stories that make them the stuff of legend.

By Charlie Co
November 24, 2021

What could be a more impactful emblem of power than a bejewelled crown, a dazzling tiara or an incredibly extravagant necklace? In today’s constitutional monarchies, the monarchy is largely ceremonial and no longer wields nearly as much political influence as it once did. However, the presence and the power they once represented, as well the unimaginable wealth that comes with this privilege, continues to capture our imagination and pique our interest.  

While the British royal family is famed for the dazzling Crown Jewels, other countries have some rather impressive royal jewellery of their own, too. Traditionally passed through the monarchy from generation to generation, crown jewels can include anything from diadems and jewellery to gilded trinkets and gothic belts. In these pages, we examine some of the most remarkable and storied imperial jewels throughout history – and the maisons that created them. 

 

BOUCHERON  

Queen Elizabeth II giving a speech on the 75th anniversary of VE Day wearing Boucheron

When Queen Elizabeth II addressed the British people on the 75th anniversary of VE Day at Windsor Castle on May 8, 2020, all eyes were on the art deco-style double-clip brooch she was wearing with her powder-blue dress. The two clips – set with exquisite aquamarines and surrounded by oval, baguette and round diamonds – were purchased in London on July 31, 1937 by the Duke of Kent, the Queen’s uncle. They were gifted to then-Princess Elizabeth II by her parents, King George VI and the Queen Mother, in 1944 on her 18th birthday.  

The clips aren’t the only Boucheron pieces in the Royal Collection. There’s the Boucheron Honeycomb Tiara, often worn by the Duchess of Cornwall and also referred to as the Greville Tiara in a reference to Margaret Greville, the wealthy socialite who gifted the tiara to Queen Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother. Greville was a fixture in British high society and the widow of the Honourable Ronald Henry Greville, the heir to a baronetcy and a member of the sociable Marlborough Set. She frequented Paris and sought out Boucheron on Place Vendôme, where she was one of the maison’s most loyal patrons for more than two decades. In 1906, the Grevilles purchased Polesden Lacey, a country house in Surrey, where they hosted many dignitaries and members of the elite including Edward VII and Queen Elizabeth; the royal couple even spent their honeymoon there. When Margaret Greville passed away in 1942, she bequeathed all her jewels to the Queen Mother – an act believed by many as a way of ensuring that her jewels would be worn by queens.  

 

CARTIER 

 

Cartier Panthère de Cartierbrooch created in 1948 

King Edward VII famously described Cartier as the “jeweller of kings and king of jewellers”. True to form, the French maison that was founded by the Cartier brothers would become the jeweller of choice for British royalty. Cartier’s royal ties started when Pierre Cartier opened a store in London at the time of King Edward VII’s coronation, for which it’s believed the monarch ordered 27 tiaras from Cartier. For that, King Edward VII bequeathed Cartier with the distinguished Royal Warrant, effectively making the maison an official purveyor of jewels to the crown.  

Today, we still see many of Cartier’s tiaras worn by the monarchs, including the Halo tiara that was famously worn by Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge at her wedding to Prince William in 2018. The Halo tiara has been also worn by Queen Elizabeth, who in turn gave it to her daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth II. Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister, also wore the tiara in the 1960s, while Princess Anne, the Queen’s daughter, wore it in several official ceremonies in the 1970s, including on a high-profile visit to New Zealand. 

Cartier Panthère de Cartierbrooch created in 1949

The diamond-encrusted tiara is mounted on platinum with scroll and palmette motifs, and features an astounding 739 brilliant-cut diamonds and 149 baguette-cut diamonds. Created by the Cartier workshops in London, it was purchased by the Duke of York in 1936 for his wife just a few weeks before he assumed the throne of England after the abdication of his brother, King Edward VIII. The head ornament was designed to create a halo-of-light effect. 

England’s Crown Jewels also includes a few exquisite Panthère de Cartier brooches. In 1948, Jeanne Toussaint, the Belgian-born French jeweller and fashion designer who had considerable influence on Cartier’s jewellery designs after Louis Cartier appointed her the maison’s director of fine jewellery in 1933, created the panther for the Duchess of Windsor. The result is a gorgeous pin featuring a 116.74-carat emerald cabochon on which sits a gold panther spotted with black enamel. Deeply drawn to the panther, the Duchess of Windsor sought out a second brooch the following year, this time crafted in platinum set with pavé-cut sapphires seated atop a 152.35-carat sapphire cabochon – a piece she’d often attach to her belt. In 1948, the Duke of Windsor commissioned Toussaint to create yet another Panthère brooch as a gift for the Duchess. It certainly didn’t disappoint, featuring a 116.74-carat emerald cabochon and marking the first representation of the panther in its entirety.  

Photo: Cartier

Cartier also made its mark on the other side of the world in British India. The wealthy Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, who was known for his penchant for extravagance, commissioned Cartier in 1925 to “Westernise” the royals’ traditional Indian jewels. Among the jewels that Cartier created for the Maharaja was a resplendent ceremonial necklace mounted on platinum, which was composed of more than 2,930 diamonds, two rubies and a 234.65-carat De Beers diamond at its centre – the seventh-largest diamond in the world. Unfortunately, the piece vanished after Indian independence in 1947. In 1998, Éric Nussbaum, the former director of the Cartier Collection, rediscovered it in poor condition. The piece was restored for more than two years at Cartier’s workshops, where the original stones were replaced with less precious gems but ultimately brought back the brilliance of its former glory. Now part of the Cartier Collection, it was shown in public for the first time in 2002. 

 

CHAUMET 

Empress Marie-Louise’s ruby and diamond parure by Chaumet

Chaumet was to the French monarchy what Cartier was to the British royals. The maison was founded by Marie-Étienne Nitot, who had also happened to be the official jeweller for Empress Joséphine since 1805. The Nitot father-and-son duo continued to be in high demand from 1810, after Napoléon’s second marriage to Marie-Louise. Orders for ceremonial jewels and other sentimental jewels for the new Empress followed at a frantic pace, with pieces featuring the most beautiful gems and pearls.  

Among the most exquisite pieces is the Gothic belt, crafted in gold and set with natural pearls and onyx. Inspired by the long belts that fell from the waist to the hem of dresses worn by the ladies of medieval times, it was centred on a Greco-Roman cameo representing the god of the arts, Apollo, slaying the snake Python on Mount Parnassus. Created in 1813 for Empress Marie-Louise, this extraordinary piece was a present from Pauline Borghese to her sister-in-law. 

Gothic belt by Chaumet

The Wheat Sheaf tiara, created in 1811, featured a modern light wind-blown wheat design that was well ahead of its time. A known symbol of prosperity, wheat would become one of Napoléon’s anointed symbols. Through time, Nitot would revisit the wheat motif when creating pieces for the monarchy, perhaps most notably for Empress Joséphine, who was crowned with diamond ears of wheat at her first official sovereign ceremony. 

Another stunning piece by Nitot is a double-strand pearl necklace, otherwise known as the Necklace of Leuchtenberg. A present from Joséphine to her daughter-in-law, Amalie Auguste of Bavaria, it features seven baroque natural pearls topped with delicate diamond caps. As natural pearls, they were extremely hard to come by even then and today they’re virtually non-existent, meaning the significance of this piece cannot be understated. 

 

VAN CLEEF & ARPELS 

 

Tiara from the Van Cleef & Arpels Collection

More than a century later in the Principality of Monaco, American actress Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III in 1956, becoming Princess of Monaco. To mark their union, Princess Grace was gifted with a Van Cleef & Arpels wedding set featuring pearls and diamonds – a parure that stayed in her collection throughout her life. Van Cleef & Arpels was subsequently named “patented supplier of the Principality of Monaco.” 

Already a client before her engagement, Princess Grace further enriched her collection over the years with 
Van Cleef & Arpels pieces, such as the Marguerite clip set with diamonds and sapphires. She also added everyday pieces including diamond and pearl earrings, as well as a few Alhambra sautoirs and animal clips from the La Boutique collection. 

Grace Kelly wearing Van Cleef & Arpels

These are but a few of the royal jewels in existence, most of which are kept in tightly guarded vaults – and only seen by us mere mortals in quick glances on televised royal occasions or in pictures. Such royal jewels are truly extraordinary, but the gorgeous gemstones they’re set with notwithstanding, the stories they tell and the secrets they hold are sure to bring any jewellery connoisseur or history buff to their knees. 

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