19 September 2020

The Cambridge Sapphires

Queen Mary wears the Cambridge Sapphires (Wikimedia Commons)

Queen Mary's jewelry collection included several complete parures featuring colorful gemstones. Today, we're talking about the history of one of those sets -- the Cambridge Sapphires -- as well as their current royal status today.

Princess Augusta, Duchess of Cambridge, ca. 1830s (Wikimedia Commons)

The suite of sapphire and diamond jewelry takes its name from its first owner: Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel, who became the Duchess of Cambridge when she married King George III's seventh son, Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, in 1818. The Cambridges married as part of the race to produce an heir to the British throne after the untimely death of Princess Charlotte of Wales in 1817. Though they didn't win that particular race -- the Duke of Kent did, fathering the future Queen Victoria -- the Cambridges did have three children: Prince George (who later succeeded his father as Duke of Cambridge), Princess Augusta, and Princess Mary Adelaide.

The Cambridges were important members of the royal family through the reigns of Adolphus's brothers, King George IV and King William IV, and his niece, Queen Victoria. As an active member of the royal court, the Duchess of Cambridge needed plenty of glittering jewels. Her jewelry collection included not only the Cambridge Sapphires (including a tiara, brooches, necklace, and bracelets) but also the original Cambridge Lover's Knot Tiara (which was later copied by Queen Mary). In May 1835, for example, the Morning Post reported that the Duchess of Cambridge wore her sapphires to a court function at St. James's Palace: "Dress of white satin, richly embroidered in gold; the body and sleeves splendidly ornamented with sapphires and diamonds; train of white satin, with a handsome gold border, and lined with gros de Naples. (The whole of British manufacture.) Head-dress, feathers, sapphires, and diamonds."

Miniature portrait of Grand Duchess Augusta of Mecklenburg-Strelitz wearing the Cambridge Sapphire Tiara by Hermann von Hanstein, ca. 1861 (Royal Collection/Wikimedia Commons)

In June 1843, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's elder daughter, Princess Augusta, married her first cousin, Hereditary Grand Duke Friedrich Wilhelm of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. To mark the occasion, the Duchess gave her daughter the family sapphires. Augusta wore them at Buckingham Palace on her wedding day. The Evening Standard reported: "The Princess wore on her head a wreath composed of orange flowers and myrtle, and a tiara of sapphires and diamonds," adding that she also "wore a necklace of brilliants" and a "stomacher ... of sapphires and diamonds, and ear-rings en suite." Nearly two decades later, Grand Duchess Augusta posed for a miniature portrait, done by the German painter Hermann von Hanstein, wearing the sapphire and diamond tiara. That portrait now belongs to the Royal Collection.

Queen Mary wears the Cambridge Sapphires in a portrait, ca. 1920s (Bain News Service/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Grand Duchess Augusta kept the Cambridge Sapphires throughout her lifetime. When she died in December 1916, she decided to pass them on to her beloved niece, Queen Mary of the United Kingdom. (The jewel that Mary had truly admired from Grand Duchess Augusta's collection was the Cambridge Lover's Knot Tiara; she had previously commissioned her own copy of the tiara, which is now worn by the current Duchess of Cambridge.) Queen Mary posed in the sapphire parure for a fantastic photographic portrait in the 1920s.

Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent wears the Cambridge Sapphires in a portrait, ca. 1930s (Wikimedia Commons)

But Queen Mary didn't keep the sapphires in her own jewelry box for long. When her fourth son, Prince George, Duke of Kent, married Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark in November 1934, Queen Mary offered the sapphires to Marina as a wedding present. Contemporary newspaper reports marveled at the gift, with one reporter enthusing, "Of regal splendour is a diamond and sapphire set which is the gift of Queen Mary to the bride. It consists of a tiara, a necklace, two bracelets, ear-rings, and three brooches in these lovely gems." The new Duchess of Kent wore her sapphires early and often, posing for a portrait wearing the jewels shortly after her wedding. Like her mother-in-law before her, Marina liked to play around with the configuration of the set, wearing the necklace in both short and long settings, and adding supplementary elements to the sides of the tiara.

Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent wears the sapphires, 1956 (screencapture)

Though the Duke of Kent died in an air crash during World War II, Princess Marina remained an active working member of the royal family during her widowhood. For decades, the sapphires were among the jewels she wore regularly for state functions at home and abroad. In the image above, Marina wears the sapphires for a dinner honoring the army in the Great Hall of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 1956.

Princess Alexandra, Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, and Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, April 1960

She also wore the sapphires during a pair of state visits in 1960. In April 1960, she wore the suite at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden during a state visit from President de Gaulle of France. (Beside her is Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester, wearing the Teck Turquoises.)

Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent wears the Cambridge Sapphires during the French state visit, April 1960

Here's a close-up of Marina wearing the sapphires in newsreel footage from that glittering occasion.

Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent wears the sapphires during the Nepalese state visit, October 1960

And in October 1960, she wore the sapphires at Covent Garden again during a state visit from King Mahendra and Queen Ratna of Nepal.

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Marina also sometimes wore the set without the tiara, as you can see in this image, taken at Grosvenor House in London in April 1961. This color photograph shows the light blue hue of the sapphires quite nicely.

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But more often, we saw Princess Marina wearing the sapphires as part of her full gala glamour, as in this photograph, taken before the Liberian state banquet at Buckingham Palace in July 1962.

Princess Marina wears the sapphires for a pre-wedding ball in honor of her daughter, Princess Alexandra, April 1963 (Keystone/Getty Images)

Princess Marina also wore the sapphires for a ball held the night before the wedding of her daughter, Princess Alexandra, in April 1963. This side view from her arrival at the event shows how she's used an extra piece to lengthen the side of the tiara.

The Duchess of Kent wears the Cambridge Sapphires during the Japanese state visit of October 1971 (PA Images/Alamy)

When Princess Marina died in 1968, the sapphires were passed on to her son and daughter-in-law, the current Duke and Duchess of Kent. Katharine wore the set occasionally during her time as a working royal. Above, she wears the suite for a state banquet in honor of the Emperor and Empress of Japan in October 1971.

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But at some point, the Kents decided to sell the original tiara from the parure. In its place, they had a new button-style tiara constructed using diamond and sapphire clusters from other parts of the set. Above, the Duchess of Kent wears the new tiara for a banquet at the Guildhall during a state visit from the Emir of Bahrain in April 1984.

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Here's another look at the new sapphire tiara from the same occasion. It's been a very long time since we've seen the Cambridge Sapphires in public. The Duchess of Kent retired from life as a working royal around twenty years ago, and the sapphires haven't been seen since on her or any other members of the family. Here's hoping these historic gems are still waiting in a safe for another Kent to take them out for a spin.