It was a most touching gesture of the Queen to lend her diamond fringe tiara to her granddaughter Princess Beatrice of York on her recent wedding day. Interestingly, Her Majesty had worn the self-same tiara at her own wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh in November 1947. Fortunately, for Beatrice, there was no mishap, or drama, involved in the wearing of it. The same cannot be said for the then Princess Elizabeth as, on the morning of her wedding day, the tiara’s fragile frame snapped, as the bride-to-be was dressing. Fortunately, the court jeweller was on hand to rush it-accompanied by a police escort-to his workroom for a quick but necessary repair.
But what is the history of this sparkling jewel which the catty diarist, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon referred to, dismissively, as ‘an ugly spiked tiara’? According to Suzy Menkes in her worthy examination of royal jewellery, the Royal Jewels and Leslie Fields in the exhaustively-researched Queen’s Jewels, the ‘sunray’ tiara was made, around 1830, to be worn as a necklace from brilliant-cut stones belonging to King George III (and referred to as the King George III fringe tiara). Fields indicates that Queen Victoria was the first person to use it as a tiara, when the graduated necklace was mounted on a thin wire band. In her book, she even includes an image of a young Victoria wearing it in a Winterhalter painting, carrying her infant son Prince Arthur (later the Duke of Connaught) in her arms. This necklace/tiara was one of an extensive list of items of jewellery (sometimes referred to as the ‘Crown Jewellery’, to distinguish it from the Sovereign’s personal gems) left in perpetuity to the Crown by Victoria on her death in 1901.
This tiara/necklace eventually passed into the hands of that most acquisitive of royal consorts, Queen Mary. However, this is where the story takes an unexpected and confusing turn. According to more recent sources (and meticulously highlighted in a post in the blog, The Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor in 2017), although Queen Mary did wear this 1830 version as a tiara, she also subsequently had a similar-styled tiara made from stones from a necklace she had received as a wedding present from Queen Victoria in 1893. This new ‘Queen Mary Fringe Tiara’ was manufactured by E. Wolff & Co. for the royal jewellers, Garrard and Company, in 1919 and was apparently easier to wear. She passed this version on to her daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth (along with a portion of the Crown Jewellery) following the accession of her second son, Albert (‘Bertie’), to the throne as King George VI in December 1936.
While both Menkes and Field state that it was the 1830 version which was worn by Princess Elizabeth as the ‘something borrowed’ on her wedding day in 1947, the more recent sources, including Hugh Roberts in his publication The Queen’s Diamonds, point to the later 1919 Queen Mary Fringe Tiara version’s use. He and the Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor Blogspot (17 February 2012) also point out that the two tiaras are frequently confused, as was the case when the Queen wore the later version in a formal portrait to be used in New Zealand to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee. The tiara was also worn by Princess Beatrice’s Aunt, Princess Anne (the Princess Royal) on her wedding day in November 1973.
Queen Elizabeth was glad of the acquisition of jewels from Queen Mary-which she wore on a tour of Canada in the summer of 1939-for as she revealed to the photographer, Cecil Beaton, ‘The choice [of jewellery available] is not very great, you know.’ Although this is an exaggeration, it was a tactful acknowledgement by her successor that Queen Mary, now Queen Dowager, still held on to the vast majority of royal gems, much of which had been amassed from often impecunious relatives during her husband, King George V’s reign. Fortunately, Queen Elizabeth’s jewellery box would be augmented by a wonderful bequest from the shrewd Scottish brewery heiress, Mrs Ronnie Greville in 1942.