It’s one of the most classic stories in British royal jewelry history: the saga of a set of lovely emeralds, won in a lottery, and nearly lost to a love affair. Settle in today for 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 royal, 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. The Cambridges moved to England, settling in Kensington Palace. Back in the United Kingdom, the emeralds were incorporated into pieces of jewelry for the first time. Princess Augusta had an English jeweler create a necklace with five pendants and a pair of drop earrings from the emeralds.
Adolphus and Augusta had three children: Prince George, who inherited his father’s Cambridge dukedom; Princess Augusta, who married the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz; and Princess Mary Adelaide, who married the Duke of Teck, a member of the royal family of Württemberg. (Augusta is pictured above with the elder two in a portrait from 1823.) When Princess Augusta, Duchess of Cambridge died in 1889, the youngest of the three, Princess Mary Adelaide, 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, Princess May, married the future King of the United Kingdom. (She’s also wearing the Teck Crescent Tiara, now with the Duchess of Cornwall, and the Teck Hoop Necklace, currently owned by the Earl of Snowdon.)
Princess May of Teck had originally been selected as a bride for the Duke of Clarence, the eldest son of the Prince of Wales. After he died unexpectedly, she eventually decided to marry his younger brother, the Duke of York, 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 of Teck.) 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 their grandmother’s emeralds. 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 back from Nellie. Some say that Mary simply demanded them back, but it’s much more likely that money exchanged hands. Ultimately, Queen Mary 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, King George V and Queen Mary 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 originally 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 (top right) that Mary received at the durbar; that emerald isn’t one of the Cambridge set. Ditto for the choker necklace (bottom), 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, as well as a classic diamond and emerald cluster brooch with an emerald pendant, which uses two of the Cambridge emeralds in its setting.
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 emeralds removed from the top of the Delhi 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 and adapted it in 1924 to be worn with the Cambridge Emeralds. The ten stones that had been set atop the Delhi 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 other parts of the Delhi 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 more of Queen Mary’s descendants—including Princess Charlotte of Cambridge, the current-day Cambridge princess—may someday also wear parts of the emerald set that hearkens back to her family’s early royal roots.