22 February 2021

The Queen Mother's Amethyst Sautoir Necklace

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We've spent all month celebrating jewels set with February's birthstone, the divine amethyst, and jewels that are all about love. Today's piece, the Queen Mother's Amethyst Sautoir Necklace, is a delightful combination of the two. Here's a little history behind the royal necklace.


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In January 1923, after several proposals, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon finally agreed to marry Prince Albert, Duke of York, the second son of King George V. Shortly afterward, Bertie and Elizabeth, along with her parents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, headed to Norfolk for her first round of official introductions to her soon-to-be in-laws. She met Bertie's grandmother, 78-year-old Queen Alexandra, over tea at Sandringham House. Elizabeth's biographer, William Shawcross, records her reaction: Alexandra "looked beautiful in her old age, and tho' practically stone deaf, managed with those Danish gestures to convey quite a lot!" (It was a busy luncheon: along with Queen Alexandra, Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia—Alix's sister and mother of the late Emperor Nicholas II—was also present, as were Bertie's aunts, Queen Maud of Norway, Princess Louise, Duchess of Fife, and Princess Victoria.)

Soon, wedding planning had begun in earnest, and presents began arriving in droves. In April, shortly before the wedding at Westminster Abbey, Elizabeth spent a few days with the royal family. There, Queen Alexandra came for lunch. She brought a special wedding present with her: a sautoir necklace of pearls, diamonds, and amethysts, with a large heart-shaped amethyst and diamond pendant.


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The necklace was displayed, along with the rest of Elizabeth's wedding presents, at Buckingham Palace, where they were admired by the public and photographed by the press. The necklace was displayed in a fitted heart-shaped box, along with the original note that Queen Alexandra had given to Elizabeth along with the jewel.


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Here's a closer note, written on Marlborough House stationery, with Alexandra's royal cypher in the corner. In her own distinctive handwriting, Alexandra wrote, "For my dear future grand daughter Elisabeth from her affte Grand Mother." ("Affte" is an abbreviation for affectionate.)


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Long sautoir necklaces set with seed pearls were all the rage in 1923, and Elizabeth's wedding gifts included several of them. In this photo, you'll spot a seed pearl sautoir with diamond accents and a pearl pendant on the left, a gift from the Citizens of London. On the right, another diamond, pearl, and platinum sautoir with a pearl tassel is displayed; this was a gift from Elizabeth's mother, the Countess of Strathmore.


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Lady Elizabeth, who was known as the Duchess of York after her marriage (and later on, as Queen Elizabeth and then the Queen Mother) was very fond of these long, stylish necklaces in the early years of her marriage. In the photograph above, she wears the Citizens of London Sautoir (plus other pearl necklaces) in Belgrade, where she and the Duke attended the baptism of the future King Peter II of Yugoslavia in October 1923. (They were godparents of the baby.)

These sautoirs didn't stay in fashion long, and we don't appear to have any photographs of Elizabeth wearing Queen Alexandra's wedding gift. But we know that she did wear it, appropriately choosing it for the mourning period around Alexandra's death at the end of 1925. In 1933, Mary Abbott wrote a column about amethysts that was syndicated in several British papers. She explained, "Queen Alexandra had a particular fondness for these stones, and wore them oftener than any others except diamonds and pearls," adding that when "her grandson the Duke of York was married, she gave his bride a sautoir of pearls studded with circular amethysts, the pendant being a large heart-shaped amethyst rimmed in brilliants. It was this ornament that Her Royal Highness the Duchess of York mostly wore during the period of family and Court mourning for the late Queen."

It makes sense that Elizabeth would have used the amethyst necklace as a mourning jewel, both because of its sentimental association with Alexandra and because purple was an acceptable color for some phases of formal mourning. It also makes sense that we wouldn't have photographs of Elizabeth from this time. For one, the royal family was not extensively photographed during Alexandra's funeral ceremonies. Elizabeth attended, but I don't believe we have any images of her from the funeral itself. The funeral took place at the end of November, and the royals canceled most of their subsequent December engagements, and then spent Christmas together privately at York Cottage on the Sandringham estate. There was also another factor at play: Elizabeth was pregnant with her first child, the future Queen Elizabeth II, and she withdrew from all public engagements around the time of the new year. The press didn't have many opportunities to capture the mourning duchess wearing the necklace.


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It would be almost a century before the necklace would be worn in public again. The Queen Mum died in 2002, and virtually all of her jewelry was inherited by the Queen. However, many pieces have been subsequently loaned to the Duchess of Cornwall. This necklace was among them. Camilla wore the piece in public for the premiere of the James Bond film Skyfall in London in October 2012.


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The details of the necklace, including the seed pearl chain and the amethysts, have remained the same, though it has been shortened from its original sautoir length. The new necklace is certainly more wearable with modern fashions. Camilla, who has a rather large collection of amethysts, wore the necklace with her own diamond and amethyst earrings for the outing.