Book Review: The Queen’s Diamonds

To order any of the books reviewed or any other book in print, at

discount prices* and with free p&p to UK addresses, telephone the Country Life Bookshop on Bookshop 0843 060 0023. Or send a cheque/postal order to the Country Life Bookshop, PO Box 60, Helston TR13 0TP * See individual reviews for CL Bookshop price.

The Queen’s Diamonds
Hugh Roberts (Royal Collection Publications, £60 *£50)

This book is remarkable for its text and illustrations, but also for its perfect timing, coinciding as it has with the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the exhibition ‘Diamonds: a Jubilee Celebration’, at Bucking-ham Palace until October 7. But it also stands alone and proud as a study of just one
element of the most famous collection in the world.

In the public perception, The Queen’s jewellery is sometimes muddled with her Regalia, and from time to time they are worn together. But the distinction is simple: the Crown Jewels are emblems of a rare sacrament, the anointing and crowning of the Sovereign, and are, therefore, inalienable. The jewellery worn by the monarch and the extended Royal Family, although not imbued with the same mystery, has been an important endorsement of sovereignty since the beginning of kingship itself.

There was a time when the sovereign was recognised by only the privileged few. Others had to rely on a few original works of art and the stylised profile on the coinage. Consequently, it was necessary to flag the presence of the monarch, not only with sumptuous furs and rich silks, but also with gemstones and the scintillation of diamonds. This kind of personal stage management demonstrated that the wearer was not only rich enough to afford these precious things, but powerful enough to keep them.

Recommended videos for you

Sir Hugh has meticulously chronicled this dazzling heritage from the dawn of the 19th century until the present day. As Surveyor Emeritus of The Queen’s Works of Art, he has had privileged access, not only to Her Majesty’s jewellery, but also to the rich documentation that survives with it. Therefore, the foggy provenances that have gathered around these remarkable pieces have largely been dispersed and confusion over similar jewels has been resolved.

The Jubilee is the obvious peg for this book, but, to the delight of the reader, Sir Hugh has strayed off-piste from the glittering frost of diamond-set jewellery to the snowy slopes of natural pearls. If diamonds are the hardest of the precious materials, then pearls are some of the softest, but they were among the most valuable commodities when the best part of this jewellery collection was made. Much diminished in the 1930s by the invention of the cultured pearl, their value has taken a long time to recover, but now fashion has turned full circle and, with frenzied competition from the Middle East, The Queen’s superb collection of natural pearls would pay a good proportion of any king’s ransom.

Pearls and diamonds are manifestations of natural beauty and, rare as these things are, their value is measured by precedent. There can, however, be aberrations. One such was the largest gem-quality diamond ever found, weighing 3,106 metric carats in the rough. It came from Pre-toria, given by the Government of the Transvaal to Edward VII in 1907. Cleaved and cut, it made nine polished stones, used to make several pieces of jewellery.

One, Cullinan VII, hangs from the magnificent Delhi Durbar necklace, which allows Sir Hugh to include some of The Queen’s jungle-green emeralds in a book on diamonds. It’s a welcome departure, but the reader, already transfixed, is left eager to learn more of The Queen’s gemstones. Let’s hope that is for later.

Due tribute should be made to the photographer Eva Zielinska-Millar, who has achieved the near impossible in conveying the essence of this magnificent and historic collection. The designer Raymonde Watkins has made this book a work of art in its own right: an enduring tribute to The Queen’s lifetime of duty to her country and her people. 

* Subscribe to Country Life and Pay just £29.99