27 May 2015

The George IV Diamond Diadem

When the Queen gives her annual speech at the State Opening of Parliament later today, she'll do so wearing the Imperial State Crown. (Read all about that crown over here!) But on her way to and from Westminster, she'll wear another piece of heirloom royal jewelry: the diamond diadem that belonged to King George IV.

Although the diamond diadem is today worn exclusively by British queens, it was actually made for a British king. George IV ordered the crown from Rundell, Bridge, and Rundell in 1820. The jeweler finished the diadem that May, constructing it out of silver, gold, diamonds, and pearls. (Here are some great close-up photos courtesy the Royal Collection.) The diadem was charged to a special account set up for costs related to George's coronation, which took place the following year.

Detail of Hayter's portrait of Victoria, ca. 1838 [source]
At the time, it was common practice for the British royals to rent gemstones for major events like coronations. After the coronation was over, the stones were simply removed from various crowns and diadems and sent back to the jeweler. (This stopped after Queen Victoria's coronation in 1837.)

For George IV's diadem, the stones were initially rented -- a fee that ended up being charged a second time when the controversy over Queen Caroline delayed the coronation -- but Rundall and Bridge ended up simply selling the stones to the royal family rather than removing them from the delicate settings of the diadem. The 1,333 diamonds set in the diadem, including a rare pale-yellow stone in the center of one of the crosses, are the original stones from 1820.

George IV wore the diadem, which features English roses, Scottish thistles, and Irish shamrocks, on his way to Westminster Abbey for his coronation. On that occasion, the diadem was worn with a large purple velvet cap, which was adorned with an ostrich feather. Reportedly the cap was so large that it obscured most of the brilliant diamonds of the diadem.

George's reign was a relatively short one. The diadem was inherited by his sister-in-law, Queen Adelaide, only a decade after it was made. Since then, the diadem has been in the jewel collection of every British queen, both regnant and consort: Victoria, Alexandra, Mary, Elizabeth (the Queen Mum), and Elizabeth II. The diadem has also been altered slightly three different times over the past two centuries: for the coronations of Victoria (1838), Alexandra (1902), and the Queen Mother (1937).

Queen Elizabeth II wore the diadem for the first time in public at her very first state opening of parliament in 1952.

She then followed in George IV's footsteps when she wore it on the way to her own coronation in 1953 (pictured above).

The diadem also features in one of my favorite portraits of the Queen: the cartoon-like cover of a ladies' magazine special edition from the time of the coronation. The colorful mid-century image of the Queen was painted by the Welsh artist Margaret Lindsay Williams.

Stay tuned later today: you'll be sure to spot the Queen wearing two hundred years of bejeweled history atop her royal crown!