Okay, everybody — now that we’ve all met the new Cambridge princess via television and the internet, let’s sit down for a story, shall we? I can’t think of any better tale to tell you today than the strange and sometimes scandalous story of the Cambridge emeralds.
Our tale begins in Germany, nearly two hundred years ago. After the unexpected death of Princess Charlotte of Wales, the sons of King George III had to scramble to marry and produce a legitimate heir to the throne. In 1818, the king’s seventh son, Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, married a young German princess, Augusta of Hesse-Kassel. The new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge settled in Hanover, where Adolphus served as the viceroy for the monarch. While visiting her native Hesse, Augusta decided to buy raffle tickets for a state-sponsored charity lottery in Frankfurt. She won a small box that contained around forty cabochon emeralds of various sizes. The stones, appropriately, became known as the Cambridge emeralds.
After their niece, Victoria, became queen in 1837, the personal union between the crowns of Britain and Hanover ended, and the Cambridges moved to England, settling in Kensington Palace. Back in the UK, the emeralds were incorporated into pieces of jewelry for the first time. Augusta had an English jeweler create a necklace with five pendants and a pair of drop earrings from the emeralds. (In the portrait above, she’s wearing another famous set of Cambridge jewelry: the lover’s knot tiara and pearl jewels that ended up with the Mecklenburg-Strelitz family.)
Adolphus and Augusta had three children: George, who would inherited his father’s Cambridge dukedom; Augusta, who would marry the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz; and Mary Adelaide, who married the Duke of Teck, a member of the royal family of Württemberg. When Augusta died in 1889, the Duchess of Teck inherited her mother’s emeralds, including the necklace, the earrings, and the remaining loose stones.
Mary Adelaide kept the necklace and the earrings intact, but she used two of the loose emeralds to embellish one of her diamond stomachers. Garrard had previously made the stomacher for her using only diamonds, but she set one of the emeralds in the middle of the piece and had another suspended from the bottom as a pendant. You can see her wearing the necklace, the earrings, and the stomacher in the photograph above, which dates to 1893 — the same year that her own daughter, also named Mary, married the future king of the United Kingdom.
Mary of Teck had originally been selected as a bride for the Duke of Clarence, the eldest son of the Prince of Wales. When he died, her affections were transferred to his younger brother, the Duke of York, and the two married in July of 1893. But although the new Duchess of York was now the most dynastically important of Mary Adelaide’s children, she did not inherit the Cambridge emeralds when the Duchess of Teck died unexpectedly in 1897.
Instead, the emeralds went to Prince Francis of Teck, the third child of the Duke and Duchess of Teck. (Just the emeralds, though — the diamond stomacher from Garrard, sans emeralds, went to the youngest son, Prince Alexander.) Frank was a bachelor, so he had no wife to wear the stones, but he did have a mistress: Nellie, the Countess of Kilmorey. The Cambridge emeralds nearly left royal hands entirely in 1910, when Frank died suddenly — because he decided to bequeath them to Nellie.
As you can probably imagine, Frank’s sister, who became Queen Mary only a few weeks after Frank’s death, was not particularly happy about the fate of her mother’s jewels. She instructed lawyers to have Frank’s will made private — a practice that continues, to the chagrin of many, today — and went straight to Nellie Kilmorey to get the emeralds back. And she did! There are varying versions of precisely how Mary managed to acquire the emeralds from Nellie — either she simply demanded them back or, more likely, money exchanged hands — but she carefully assured that her own family’s jewels would become a major part of the British royal jewel collection.
Once Mary had her hands on the emeralds, she innovated. For her 1911 coronation in India, the Delhi Durbar, the commissioned Garrard to create a new suite of jewels. The jewelers made a parure of that included a tiara, a necklace, a stomacher, and a pair of earrings. The tiara featured ten of the pear-shaped Cambridge emeralds mounted atop a border of diamonds. Nine more of the Cambridge emeralds are set in the parure’s necklace, seven in the stomacher, and two in the earrings.
(The set also includes a carved emerald brooch that Mary received at the durbar; that emerald isn’t one of the Cambridge set; ditto for the choker necklace, which Mary was also given at the event, and which was later made famous by Diana, Princess of Wales.) Today, the set also includes a bracelet with three of the Cambridge emeralds.
The Delhi Durbar Parure is remarkable in part because it combines stones that came from Queen Mary’s own family (the emeralds) with some of the biggest, most impressive diamonds in the royal vaults (the Cullinan stones). Nothing says “I’m your rightful queen consort” like merging your own family’s treasures with the great pieces of royal jewels.
A few years after the Delhi Durbar, Queen Mary had the Cambridge emerald stones removed from the Durbar tiara and used them on a smaller diamond bandeau. But she wasn’t done wearing those particular Cambridge emeralds on a major diamond tiara. She purchased the Vladimir Tiara from the daughter of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia after the revolution (much more on that transaction here!) and adapted it in 1924 to be worn with the Cambridge emeralds. The ten stones that had been set atop the Durbar Tiara were adapted to be hung as drops; five more were added, bringing the grand total of emeralds in the Vladimir Tiara to fifteen.
Today, Queen Elizabeth II regularly wears the Vladimir and parts of the Durbar Parure. (The Delhi Durbar Tiara, now sans emeralds, has been loaned to the Duchess of Cornwall.) Queen Mary was an important figure during Elizabeth II’s formative years, and she wears a great deal of her grandmother’s jewelry today. It’s exciting to think that another of Queen Mary’s descendants — another little Cambridge princess — may someday also wear parts of the emerald set that hearkens back to her family’s roots.