Our bejeweled tribute to the life of the late Queen Elizabeth II continues this afternoon with a closer look at one of the most important days of her life: her 21st birthday, when she declared her life-long dedication to public service—and received some important diamond presents, too.
The spring of 1947 was undoubtedly one of the most exciting periods of the life of the young Princess Elizabeth. The war had ended, and though Britain was still living in an age of austerity, Elizabeth was experiencing a level of freedom she hadn’t yet known as a young adult. On the eve of her 21st birthday, she was looking forward to a new era of her life. Not only was she preparing to become a full-time working member of the royal family, she was secretly engaged to the dashing Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, who had proposed to her at Balmoral in the autumn of 1946.
Princess Elizabeth’s parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, had agreed to give their consent to her marriage, but under one condition: she would wait to announce the engagement until after they had embarked on an important foreign royal tour. The family, including Elizabeth’s younger sister, Princess Margaret, were scheduled to visit southern Africa for three months in early 1947, with time spent touring South Africa, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Bechuanaland (Botswana). It was the first major royal tour since the King and Queen’s trip to Canada in 1939. Above, the family arrives at Worcester Station in South Africa during the tour.
At the time, the Union of South Africa was a self-governing dominion within the British Empire, with the King as head of state. South Africa became an independent republic in 1961. The royal family is pictured here in Cape Town during the tour. Interestingly, the royal ladies wore new clothes throughout the tour, even though rationing was still in force in Britain. The three women were classed as trade ambassadors for the fashion industry and were given special allowances for the visit.
Princess Elizabeth’s 21st birthday took place during the tour on April 21, 1947. Celebrations took place throughout the trip to mark the important milestone. Here, she receives a bouquet during a stop in the Orange Free State on March 19, 1947.
As her milestone birthday drew closer, Elizabeth posed for formal portraits, like the one pictured above. Pearls were her primary jewelry accessory throughout the tour. She rarely wore earrings for daytime occasions during this period, partly because she did not have her ears pierced until 1951.
On the day of the birthday, April 21, the young princess made a speech that became one of the defining moments of her royal life. In Cape Town, wearing her signature pearls, she made a radio broadcast transmitted across the Commonwealth and Empire, committing herself to her future role as monarch and promising to devote “unwavering faith” and “courage” to the task. “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service,” she famously stated.
That evening, the princess’s birthday celebrations continued with a gala banquet and ball at Government House. She and Princess Margaret are both pictured dancing here during the birthday ball.
During the gala, Field Marshal Jan Smuts, then Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, presented Elizabeth with a magnificent diamond and platinum necklace. The jewel featured 21 graduated brilliant diamonds, with additional round and baguette diamonds between each larger brilliant. The largest of the brilliants weighed in at ten carats. During the presentation, Smuts declared, “This little gift will remind her of this wonderful visit to South Africa and of this milestone in her life. It will be a symbol of the link she has established with our country and its people. It will remind her of the deep and sincere feelings of sympathy and goodwill which this historic visit has stirred in the hearts of all my people.”
Later, Elizabeth had the necklace shortened. (She did this often with necklaces during the late 1940s and early 1950s, both so that the jewels would fit her better and to follow the current fashion of the time.) The sections that were removed were combined with another birthday present (a six-carat diamond that had been given to Elizabeth three days before her birthday by Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, the chairman of De Beers) to make a matching bracelet.
Elizabeth wore the South African Diamonds throughout her life, especially for events related specifically to South Africa and occasions connected to the larger Commonwealth of Nations. Here, she wears the necklace and bracelet (plus Queen Mary’s Diamond Cluster Earrings) as she makes her Christmas Broadcast on the radio from Auckland in December 1953, during her post-coronation tour of the Commonwealth.
The grand necklace wasn’t the only sparkling birthday gift presented to the princess during the 1947 tour. In Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe) on April 7, 1947, during a reception at Government House, six local children officially presented Princess Elizabeth with a delicate diamond brooch in the shape of a flame lily, the national flower. Schoolchildren from throughout the country had contributed small sums of money toward the creation of the brooch, which was made by local jeweler Len Bell and constructed by Eric Kippin in Johannesburg. The jewel features more than 300 diamonds (sourced from De Beers) set in platinum and white gold.
The brooch quickly became one of Princess Elizabeth’s favorites, but it was vaulted to iconic status in February 1952, when she wore it for her return to Britain following the sudden death of her father, King George VI, while she was visiting Kenya. She continued to wear the brooch for all sorts of occasions throughout her long life.
There were family gifts to celebrate the princess’s birthday as well. Her mother dipped into a cache of newly-inherited jewels, the Greville Bequest, to produce a suitable present for her daughter: a pair of diamond clip brooches, made by Cartier, in the shape of ivy leaves. Here, Princess Elizabeth wears them during a visit to Washington, D.C., in 1951, clipping one to her hat and the other to her lapel. We saw her continued to wear the ivy leaf clips for decades, including recent appearances in the spring of 2022.
This diamond floral brooch, in the shape of a clematis flower, is also said to have been one of Elizabeth’s 21st birthday presents, reportedly the one given to her by members of the Royal Household. The Associated Press wrote that the brooch was presented to the princess by Sir Alan “Tommy” Lascelles (her father’s private secretary) and Lady Harlech (her mother’s Lady of the Bedchamber). Here, Elizabeth wears the brooch for an engagement in May 1947. A few weeks later, she famously wore the jewel for the official portrait session following the announcement of her impending marriage to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten.
Members of the Diplomatic Corps gave Elizabeth this pair of diamond floral clip earrings as a birthday present as well. The clip earrings were a central part of her gala jewelry wardrobe in her younger years, especially before she had her ears pierced in the late summer of 1951. Here, she wears them with the Girls of Great Britain & Ireland Tiara for a banquet during a state visit from her great-uncle, King Haakon VII of Norway, in June 1951.
And there were gifts related to her beloved regiment, the Grenadier Guards, as well. (She had been named honorary colonel of the regiment in 1942, an appointment that was very important to her.) She received a new regimental badge in the shape of a firing grenade (worn above with her original badge in May 2010), plus a diamond brooch from officers of the regiment. There was an additional military-related brooch as well, in the form of a shape of bejeweled wings, a present from the King’s Flight. The press corps following the royal tour recognized the Grenadier Guards connection to mark the princess’s birthday as well, offering her a floral display in the shape of the regiment’s badge.