A Field Guide to the Crowns and Gems of the Coronation of King Charles III

A Field Guide to the Crowns and Gems of the Coronation of King Charles III

On May 6th, for the second time in a year, the world will be privy to a rare viewing of the most important gems and regalia of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. They include, without question, some of the rarest gems ever to be discovered. Get out your binocs, here’s a field guide to the most important ones:


St. Edward’s Crown

The oldest of the crowns and the most modest in gem adornment. In fact, even those stones were hired as needed until 1911, when King George V had the crown permanently set with modestly precious gems. True, it is a solid gold frame that includes rubies, amethysts, sapphires, garnets, topazes, peridots, zircons, and tourmalines, but while colourful, they pale in rarity and importance to those of the Imperial State Crown, the Sceptre and even the crown the Queen Consort will wear.

The relative ‘modesty’ is befitting: the crown is a replica of the one assumed to have been worn by the 11th-century King Edward the Confessor, later known as Saint Edward.

St. Edward’s Crown, together with almost all other regalia (the spoon to be used in the anointment of King Charles III, one of the few exceptions), was destroyed in 1649 during the Civil War. Following the Restoration and in preparation for his own coronation, Charles II commissioned new coronation regalia, including a crown bearing the name of the saint king. 

Eleven new pieces were entrusted to Robert Vyner, who oversaw the workmanship of various jewellers and goldsmiths. This was an exceptionally expensive undertaking: rebuilding the regalia was said to cost the monarchy the equivalent of three fully fitted warships. In order to create a breathtaking display of gems, Charles II had no option but to ‘rent’ the gems at a price of £550. Vyner provided the stones, and six days after the coronation, they were stripped from the crown and returned. Not unlike the borrowed bling of today’s Academy Awards.

The crown is a weighty 2.23 kg adorned with the distinctive flared arms of crosses pattée alternating with fleurs de lys. Arches meet in the centre of the crown under a ‘monde’ or round orb symbolizing the world and topped by another cross pattée. A curious 444 gems bedeck the crown.

Despite its historical and symbolic significance, the crown is worn only for a brief moment of coronation then switched out for the State Imperial Crown. And, it was not always worn. When George II was crowned in 1727, he used a new State Crown with a pavé of over 12,000 brilliant cut diamonds and one large rose cut replacing the coloured gems previously in the crown. Saint Edward’s crown was simply carried in the procession. Diamonds were much coveted but exceptionally rare, at that time coming only from the legendary Golconda mine of India. A major discovery of diamonds in Brazil in 1725 provided another diamond-loving king, George IV, with all the bling he desired for his coronation crown of 1821. But, once again, hired diamonds only at a cost of £24,425.

At the end of the 19th century, Saint Edward’s crown, indeed much of the English regalia, was unused. Queen Victoria was in mourning and eschewed regalia; apparently, she even had to be convinced to wear the very understated four-inch crown for which she came to be known. 

Edward VII understood the importance of pomp and circumstance, of the symbols of tradition – dare it be said: ‘branding’ – to impress upon your citizens and the world that yours is a longstanding reign that intends to be around for a while.

At his coronation in 1902, he revived the use of Saint Edward’s crown – or at least intended to do so. Appendicitis delayed the coronation by two months, but still, he was too weak to wear the crown and used the lighter Imperial State Crown instead. But his wish that the crown be used for coronations was realized by his successors and will be again this Saturday with the crowing of King Charles III.


The Imperial State Crown

I wrote about this crown when the funeral for Queen Elizabeth II was held last September (link here). The iconic Imperial State Crown rested on her coffin during the service and procession. It is this crown that really underscores the reach and power of British monarchy over the centuries: nowhere is there a more spectacular display of the world’s finest gems than in this crown. Indeed, since the 15th century, English monarchs chose Imperial State Crown designs closed by arches above the head to impress that England was not subject to any other earthly power. They certainly weren’t when it came to gems.

An Imperial State Crown was among the commissions Robert Vyner was given after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Since then, numerous new crowns have been made, with the current one based on that made for Queen Victoria in 1838. At the State Opening of Parliament in 1845, that crown, being carried on a cushion to the Queen, went for a tumble and the arches collapsed. Oops. 

In 1937, the crown was remodelled for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, and slightly altered again for her coronation in 1953 to reduce the head size and lower the height to make it more feminine. Last fall, it was removed from the Tower of London for modifications in preparation for this week’s coronation. The frame, made of gold, silver, and platinum, is resplendent with an astounding 2,868 diamonds, 273 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, and 5 rubies.

But it is not the number of gems – although very impressive – it is the inclusion of some of the earth’s most important gemological creations that man has yet to discover.

Front and centre is the Cullinan II, the second largest diamond (at 317.4 carats or 63.48 grams) of the nine large gems (and numerous smaller ones) cut from the largest piece of diamond rough ever unearthed. Discovered in 1905 at the Premier Mine near Pretoria (now in South Africa), the rough weighed an incredible 3,106 carats, about the size of a human heart, and is of exceptionally rare quality. So large was it that some miners themselves didn’t believe it to be a diamond; it was dismissively tossed out the window when first brought to the mine office. It remains the largest colourless diamond ever to be found.

The Cullinan was presented to Edward VII in 1907 as a token of loyalty by the government of the Transvaal Colony over which the monarch reigned. From it, the legendary gem cutter Joseph Asscher cut nine major gems (three of which will be seen in Camilla’s crown) and 96 small brilliants.

Cullinan I, or the Great Star of Africa, is a pendeloque-cut (pear-shaped) brilliant, weighing 530.2 carats (106.04 g) with 74 facets. This is the largest of the Cullinans, and it too will be seen Saturday in the Sovereign's Sceptre with Cross.

Above the Cullinan II shines the Black Prince’s Ruby. In fact, not a ruby, but an irregularly shaped cabochon of red spinel, with a drill hole at the top, originally in which to stick a plume but now capped by a ruby. This gem’s history goes back at least to 14th century Spain when it was owned by a succession of Moorish and Spanish kings and then given as payment to Edward, Prince of Wales, the Black Prince. Once again, underlining the reach and history of British reign.

Not finished yet. Two other gems of note are included in this crown: the Stuart Sapphire and Saint Edward’s Sapphire. Both of these blue gems date back centuries. The Stuart, a 104 ct oval cabochon, is referenced as far back as the 17th century. Previously in the front of the crown, it got bumped to the back with the arrival of the Cullinan. Legend has it that Saint Edward’s sapphire was that worn by King Edward the Confessor, who ascended the throne in 1042 A.D. This is the vivid blue rose cut gem set in the centre of a cross pattée.

The Queen Consort's Crown adorned the coffin at the Queen Mother's state funeral in 2002(PHOTO: BBC)


Queen Consort’s Crown

What won’t be seen at this coronation is the Koh-i-Noor diamond. This spectacular 105.6 ct gem had made the rounds of rulers going back to the 15th century. The first written record of it was in 1628 when Shah Jahan commissioned a gem-encrusted throne completely bejewelled by rubies (including the also-famous Timur Ruby), garnets, emeralds, pearls, and at the top, in the head of a gemstone peacock, the Koh-i-Noor diamond. The throne cost four times that of the Taj Mahal, which the Shah also commissioned, so ladened was it with precious stones.

The Koh-i-Noor then passed to various rulers outside of India – such are the spoils of war – and then back to India among more rulers, including Queen Victoria, with the signing of the Treaty of Lahore.

It was subsequently re-cut to bring out its beauty. As is typical in gem cutting, it lost about half its size in the process, a necessary evil to bring out what diamond does best: refract light. Subsequently, it was worn by many queens, including Victoria, Alexandra, Mary, and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in their respective coronation crowns. Its last appearance was in 2002 atop the Queen Mom’s coffin at her funeral.

But it will not be worn this Saturday. Instead, Camilla will wear Queen Mary’s crown, four of the eight arches being removed, and refitted with three Cullinan diamonds, III, IV, V. Jokingly referred to as ‘Granny’s Chips’, as they were of Queen Elizabeth II’s personal collection.

Camilla’s use of Queen Mary’s crown makes her the first Queen Consort to re-use a crown since the 18th century. The usual practice is the commissioning of a new crown. According to the Palace, “The choice [in the use of] Queen Mary’s crown is … in the interests of sustainability and efficiency.” That, perhaps, is a stretch. This is, after all, a coronation. Majestic? Yes. Full of pomp and circumstance? You bet. Sustainable and efficient? That might be hard to see, even with binoculars. 

Photos: St. Edward’s Crown and the Imperial State Crown, iStock

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