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Today, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom celebrates her 92nd birthday. To commemorate that remarkable occasion, we’re focusing today on her very favorite diadem: the Girls of Great Britain and Ireland Tiara.
The history of the tiara goes back more than a century, to the early 1890s, when royal wedding excitement in Britain was suddenly mixed with tragedy. Princess Mary of Teck, the daughter of one of Queen Victoria’s cousins, was engaged to marry the future king, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale in December 1891. But he suddenly died of influenza only a few weeks after the engagement was officially announced. Mary (called “May” in her family) was left without a groom, and the country had a new future monarch — the Duke of Clarence’s younger brother, Prince George, Duke of York.
George had been in love with one of his cousins, Princess Marie of Edinburgh, but she’d turned him down in favor of the Crown Prince of Romania. Now, in the spring of 1893, George did what many of his future subjects had long expected: he proposed to his late brother’s fiancee. May accepted, and the pair were married at the Chapel Royal in St. James’s Palace on July 6, 1893.
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Among May’s glittering hoard of wedding presents was the Girls of Great Britain and Ireland Tiara. The tiara takes its name from the committee of women, led by Lady Eva Greville, who raised money for its creation. They purchased the tiara, which features festoon and fleur-de-lis designs, from Garrard in June 1893. The tiara was made of diamonds set in silver and gold, and the original 1893 version was topped by fourteen pearls. Inside the custom mahogany box provided by the jeweler, a second frame was also supplied, which allowed the tiara to be worn as a coronet. Even better, it could also be taken off a frame entirely and worn as a necklace.
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Lady Eva’s committee was so successful in their appeal to raise funds for the tiara that they ended up with much more money than they needed. The extra funds ended up serving a very good purpose. As the tiara was being made, a maritime disaster shocked Britain: a battleship, the HMS Victoria, accidentally collided with another ship off the coast of Tripoli, killing more than 350 sailors as it sank. May personally requested that the surplus funds from the appeal be sent to a fund that had been established to support the widows and children of the perished sailors.
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Although May didn’t wear the tiara on her wedding day — she wisely chose to wear the diamond fringe presented to her by the groom’s grandmother, Queen Victoria — the tiara quickly became one of her favorite pieces. She wore it on its coronet frame at the famous Devonshire House Ball in 1897. When George ascended to the throne in 1910, the new Queen Mary wore the tiara in one of her first official portraits.
Mary was photographed and painted in the tiara and her Garter robes in 1912, shortly after her coronation. In 1914, however, Mary decided to tweak the tiara just a bit. She had Garrard remove the pearls from the top of the tiara, replacing them with 13 diamond brilliants. (The pearls were incorporated into her new Lover’s Knot Tiara.) The base of the tiara was also removed around this time so that it could be worn separately as a bandeau. In the 1920s and 1930s, Mary was frequently photographed in the tiara without the signature Garrard diamond-and-dot base.
When Princess Elizabeth, Mary’s granddaughter, married Prince Philip in November 1947, Mary decided to make the tiara one of Elizabeth’s wedding gifts. She presented her with both the tiara and its base (still separated as two distinct jewels), and both went on display with the rest of Elizabeth’s bejeweled wedding presents.
In recognition of the gift, Elizabeth still reportedly calls the diadem “Granny’s Tiara.” It quickly became a central part of her jewelry wardrobe, first as a princess, and then as Queen Elizabeth II. She even wore the tiara in Edinburgh during one of her first public appearances after the funeral of her father, King George VI. Above, she wears the tiara in a portrait taken on her 25th birthday in 1951.
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In the late 1960s, the bandeau base of the tiara was finally reunited with the rest of the sparkler, bringing the piece back to a more magnificent height. The Queen has worn the tiara in that more complete form ever since, pairing it with virtually all of the other gala jewels from her collection, including her rubies, the emeralds from the Delhi Durbar Parure, the Brazilian Aquamarines, and even the Kent Amethysts. Above, she pairs the tiara with the Godman Necklace during the 1984 French state visit to Britain.
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In the twilight years of her reign, the tiara has become one of the only diadems that the Queen regularly wears. She has chosen it for several important recent occasions, including the landmark state visit to Ireland in 2011 (pictured above) and the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014.
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The tiara’s classic design will surely make it a favorite of royal ladies in the future as well, but it’s somehow difficult to imagine anyone else wearing the Queen’s signature tiara. The diadem may still be “Granny’s Tiara” to Elizabeth, but she has undoubtedly made it her own.
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