13 January 2020

Tiara Troubles: Meghan's Uncertain Royal Jewel Future

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex depart for their wedding reception (Steve Parsons - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

You knew it was coming eventually, magpies. It’s time for a post related to the biggest royal news of the past week: the announcement that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex plan to make changes in their royal roles.

The Sussexes at Canada House, January 2020 (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Before I go any further, though, I think I should be perfectly clear about one thing. This piece isn’t an opinion about whether or not Harry and Meghan should continue to be senior royals, or whether or not they should start a new life, or what they do or don't owe to anyone, or what the press should or shouldn’t write, or who decides what’s important for a royal family. I’m a historian who writes about royal jewelry – I’m not someone with insider knowledge of the inner workings of the palace or the royal family. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to be a member of a royal family, and I especially don’t know what it’s like to be a woman of color in that kind of position. So, to be clear: I’m not here to discuss the ins and outs of Harry and Meghan’s changing roles, and I would rather the comments not dwell on those kinds of judgments, either.

But what I do know is jewelry, and a whole lot of people, both online and in real life, have asked me one question since the Sussex announcement last week: what does this mean for the tiaras? Will we ever see the Duchess of Sussex wearing a tiara in public again?

The Queen wears the Girls of Great Britain and Ireland Tiara and the Crown Rubies in Germany, June 2015 (Chris Jackson - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Before we get into the specifics of Meghan’s access to the royal jewelry vaults, it’s probably helpful to review the way that royal jewelry is distributed and worn in the British royal family. Unlike some royal families – most notably in Sweden and the Netherlands – the Windsors don’t have a family jewel foundation that allows royals to borrow pieces with relatively few restrictions. In Britain, the jewelry belongs to the Queen, and she’s the one who ultimately decides who gets to wear it and when. Pieces are often loaned to other royal ladies on a long-term basis, sometimes for years or even decades, but the ownership of the jewelry remains with the monarch herself. For example, the Queen still owns the Greville Tiara, which is worn now by the Duchess of Cornwall; the Lover’s Knot Tiara, which is worn now by the Duchess of Cambridge; and the Aquamarine Ribbon Tiara, which is now worn by the Countess of Wessex. All of these tiaras are simply long-term loans from the Queen.

Many people like to analyze the Queen's jewelry loans as evidence of her feelings about Camilla, Kate, Meghan, or Sophie. I think that's probably, or at least usually, the wrong way to go about it. It’s helpful to think of royal jewels not as necessarily as playthings or sentimental items but as part of a uniform, assigned by a higher-ranking superior. Royal women aren’t wearing the jewelry for fun, or even really for aesthetic reasons, but because it’s part of the diplomatic mission they’ve been assigned within the family firm.

The Duchess of Cornwall attends the State Opening of Parliament, October 2019 (Paul Edwards - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Once the jewelry has been handed over, there are relatively few opportunities for the women of the British royal family to wear these grand gala jewels in public. Today, there are only a few annual (or semi-annual) British occasions that require a royal woman to wear a tiara: state banquets, state openings of parliament, and diplomatic receptions. While the diplomatic reception takes place annually in December, not many royal women are usually there – in recent years it’s mostly been the Queen, Camilla, and Kate. State banquets are scheduled more infrequently and irregularly, and there’s not always full attendance from every family member for every dinner. The same goes for the scheduling of the state opening of parliament: it’s only held at the start of a new parliamentary session, and today, only Camilla attends on a regular basis.

A British royal woman occasionally might wear a tiara for another special event, like a royal wedding in another country, or a one-off reception or gala in the UK or abroad. But in terms of semi-annual events where we can expect to see the women of the family dressed in tiaras and gowns? State banquets, state openings of parliament, and diplomatic receptions – that’s really it these days.

The Duchess of Cambridge attends the Diplomatic Reception, December 2019 (Victoria Jones - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

So, for those of us who like to see the British tiara collection in action, there are precious few opportunities to begin with, and the Queen doles out jewelry to the family on a limited basis. The royal women in Britain also don’t usually share their jewels, so once we see one of them in a loaned tiara, it’s unlikely that we’ll see it on another member of the family from the same generation. Few opportunities, limited access, little sharing: it means that we’re not seeing much grand jewelry on members of the royal family, period. To give you an idea of how little: the Duchess of Cambridge, who married into the family nine years ago and whose husband is second in line to the throne, has only worn three tiaras on ten separate occasions since her royal wedding. Ten! Her wedding day, five diplomatic receptions, and four state banquets. That’s it!

Meghan wears Queen Mary's Diamond Bandeau on her wedding day (Jonathan Brady - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that we haven’t seen Meghan wear a tiara since her wedding day in May 2018. There have only been four occasions in that time that would have theoretically given her the opportunity to do so: two state banquets and two diplomatic receptions. The Sussexes have not yet attended a diplomatic reception; in December 2018, the event conflicted with a charity carol service for the Henry van Straubenzee Memorial Fund, and the most recent reception occurred during their official hiatus in December 2019. As far as the state banquets go, one (the Dutch banquet in October 2018) took place while Meghan and Harry were on their royal tour of Fiji, and the other (the American banquet in June 2019) happened during Meghan’s maternity leave, only a few weeks after she gave birth to Archie. It’s not surprising or unusual that we haven’t seen her wear a tiara for almost two years. A similar amount of time elapsed between Kate’s first tiara appearance (on her wedding day in April 2011) and her second (at the diplomatic reception in December 2013). We had to wait almost two more years for her third tiara appearance, which happened during the Chinese state banquet in October 2015.

Meghan wears diamonds at a state dinner in Fiji, October 2018 (Ian Vogler - Pool/Getty Images)

As a quick side note: we used to see British royal women wearing tiaras much more in public than we do now. The previous generation of royal wives, notably Diana, Princess of Wales and Sarah, Duchess of York, wore tiaras very often at black-tie gala occasions during their tours abroad. That practice has since been discontinued, with only the Queen now wearing tiaras for receptions and dinners abroad during foreign and Commonwealth tours. This is speculation on my part, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this change is at least partly a decision made by Prince Charles. Remember the story that came out after the Sussex tour of Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Tonga? The British papers wrote that Meghan had asked whether she could wear a tiara for a state dinner in Fiji during the trip, and Charles reportedly “very kindly” told her that it wasn’t a good idea, because “extravagant” royal jewels are often seen as relics of “a bygone era” in certain parts of the world -- especially the parts of the Commonwealth, I'd imagine, which keenly remember Britain's imperial and colonial past. (Meghan wore a pair of diamond statement earrings and a diamond tennis bracelet for the dinner in question.)

A whole lot of hullabaloo was made over this anecdote, but at the root of it, it simply seems that Charles is doing a lot of the deciding about which jewels should be worn where by his daughters-in-law, especially where foreign visits and tours are concerned. (The Queen may be the gatekeeper of the royal vaults, but Charles is increasingly influential, especially regarding matters related to his sons and their wives.) There has been a significant shift in this use of royal jewelry uniforms in the past three decades, and it makes sense that there would be need to be discussions within the family about what’s considered appropriate and normal now where the use of gala jewelry is concerned. These jewels are diplomatic tools, in essence, and the diplomatic way to wear them has shifted.

The Earl and Countess of Wessex represent the Queen at the wedding of Princess Madeleine of Sweden, June 2013 (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

On those occasions when jewels are deemed appropriate, we tend to see British royal women wearing more and more important heirloom jewelry over time, as either their proximity to the throne grows closer, or their time within the family grows longer. The Duchess of Cornwall wears tiaras more often than the other senior royal women (with the exception of the Queen, of course), because she’s the wife of the heir to the throne, and she attends more high-profile events as a result. The Countess of Wessex’s access to jewelry from the royal vaults has slowly gotten more and more extensive as her marriage endures -- and as she's increasingly relied upon to represent the Queen at foreign royal events. Our recent post on the royal jewels worn by the Duchess of Cambridge shows how many more pieces of jewelry Kate has worn the longer her marriage has lasted. Again, think of it like a uniform: access to important gala jewelry increases as a royal woman needs it for her role within the firm. (The Princess Royal doesn’t really count in this discussion, as she was born into the family and owns nearly all of her gala jewelry personally. Neither do royals like the Duchess of Gloucester or the Kent ladies, because they wear jewels that their branches of the family own, not pieces borrowed from the Queen.)

Meghan wears diamonds at the Royal Academy of Arts, September 2018 (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

So, what does all of that tell us about Meghan and the royal vaults? For one, there’s a reason we haven’t seen her wearing jewelry more often – her role within the family largely hasn’t required it yet, and her current stage of life (becoming a mother, raising a child) means that she has been on leave during some opportunities. It’s also not surprising that she hasn’t been loaned other important pieces yet, because she hasn’t been married all that long. If Meghan and Harry were to continue as full-time working royals, I’d say that we should expect to see Meghan’s access to jewels continue to grow in the coming years, just as Kate’s did. (There have been rumors in the press, of course, that the Queen has “banned” Meghan from wearing royal jewelry because of personal conflicts within the family, but none of those reports has been substantiated. I think it’s equally likely that Meghan simply hasn’t been loaned jewelry yet because she hasn’t needed it.) But now that the Sussexes have announced that they plan to step back from their roles, I think it’s less likely that we’ll see Meghan wearing the kind of grand jewels that a working senior royal woman would need to wear for white-tie events. Only those doing the job need the uniform, if that makes sense.

Harry and Meghan at a state dinner in Tonga, October 2018 (Paul Edwards - Pool/Getty Images)

On their new website, Harry and Meghan have stated that they plan to continue “to fully support Her Majesty The Queen” even as they “step back” as senior royals. As I understand it, the royal family is still working to decide exactly that support will look like. Will the Sussexes simply continue to work with their own patronages on behalf of the Queen? Will they still attend larger family events like Trooping the Colour, or diplomatic events like state banquets? Until we know for sure what the parameters of their new roles in the family are, it’s tough to say exactly what kind of jewelry we can expect to see on Meghan in the future. Until we know precisely what job she’ll be doing, we can’t know what kind of uniform she’ll need to wear.

As I said, I’m not comfortable weighing in on the whys and hows and shoulds of any of the decisions and plans currently being made by the Sussexes and the rest of the royal family. All I’ll say is this: as someone who has an admittedly selfish and vested interest in seeing royal women wear beautiful jewelry, I’ll be sad if we don’t get to see Meghan – who has worn jewelry very well in her limited appearances so far – wearing tiaras and gala jewels in public again.

Update: On Saturday, Buckingham Palace announced that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will no longer perform royal duties and will cease to use the style of HRH. Sadly, I think this confirms it: unless Meghan wears one for her father-in-law's coronation one day, I doubt we'll be seeing her again in a tiara.

As I said above, I'd appreciate that you keep the comments on this post civil and on the topic of jewelry. Thank you!