In 1947, just before Princess Elizabeth announced her engagement to Prince Philip, the royal family embarked on a lengthy tour of southern Africa, visiting South Africa, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and Bechuanaland (Botswana). In Cape Town, Queen Elizabeth wore a magnificent royal tiara for the first and only time.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth arrived to open parliament in Cape Town on Friday, February 21, 1947. They were accompanied by their daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, who would watch the ceremony from a balcony inside the hall.
The King delivered a speech from the throne during the ceremony. “For six years, ” he said, “you were engaged with the problems of the war—a war which called for greater fortitude, endurance, and sacrifice than any previous conflict in the history of mankind. The spirit in which you met those problems and the great contribution to victory made by the Union, especially through the gallantry and devotion of its armed forces, brought me great comfort during that period of trial.” At the end of the address, the King spoke in Afrikaans as he declared the session of parliament officially open.
The press described Queen Elizabeth’s dress as “a sequined white crepe gown, with full train embroidered in aquamarine blue.” With the elaborate gown, she wore the Order of the Garter (including the jeweled Garter itself on her left arm!) and a very important tiara. For the occasion, Queen Mary loaned her the Delhi Durbar Tiara, part of the elaborate suite of jewels that had been made for Mary to wear at the grand Delhi Durbar in 1911.
Newspaper articles describe Queen Mary as being “very anxious” for Queen Elizabeth to wear the tiara for this specific event. Why, you ask, did she want her to wear a tiara made for an event in India at parliament in South Africa? It’s because the diamonds used to make the tiara were given to Mary by De Beers during a visit to South Africa in 1901. Mary initially had the diamonds set in a different jewel, the Boucheron Loop Tiara. Later, she had that tiara dismantled and the stones reused in the making of the Delhi Durbar Tiara. That Queen Mary—she certainly kept track of the provenance of her diamonds!
The Delhi Durbar Tiara really is almost a crown, as it completely encircles the wearer’s head, making it especially appropriate for a Queen Consort attending a function like the opening of parliament. In this photograph, taken as the King and Queen departed after the ceremony, you can clearly see that the tiara is a closed circlet. You also get a good look at the fascinating split train of Queen Elizabeth’s gown.
With the tiara, Elizabeth also wore several other heirloom pieces of jewelry. Her earrings and bracelet are frustratingly difficult to see in photographs from the day, but they’re definitely a pair with drops (perhaps either the Coronation Earrings or the Greville Pear Drop Earrings). She also wore Queen Alexandra’s Wedding Necklace and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Brooch.
On March 9, 1947, Queen Elizabeth took a moment to write to Queen Mary as the royal family made a train journey during the tour. The missive is included in William Shawcross’s collection of the Queen Mother’s letters. Elizabeth tells Mary, “I wore your lovely tiara for the Opening of Parliament , & I told the Press that you had lent it to me for the purpose, & they were all delighted.” Ultimately, though, this would be the only time that Elizabeth would wear the tiara in public. She kept the jewel in her collection until her death in 2002, and today, it’s on long-term loan to the Duchess of Cornwall—who has also worn it just once so far.