Ever since the dawn of civilisation, and perhaps before, gemstones and rare metals have held an especial fascination for human beings. Mostly this was because of their rarity, and the difficulty involved in locating and cutting them from the ground.
However, another aspect of their unique appeal was simply their visual splendour; the blood red of rubies, the diaphanous blue of sapphires, the lush green of emerald, and so forth. Their allure was further enhanced with the development of means of cutting them such that their sheer surfaces sparkled in the light. To fresh eyes, this must have seemed like a magic trick, and must have bestowed the wearer with an other-worldly grandeur!
With the realisation that diamonds were the most fantastically glitzy stone, once cut – no easy task – they became the world’s most desirable gem. So it’s no surprise that the royal family of Great Britain has spent its entire thousand-year-plus history gathering together the most extraordinary collection of jewels that the world has ever seen.
The march of democracy
In recent times, many of the great monarchies of the past have either fallen or declined, replaced by more democratic governing systems. As the royal families have faded from their former power and glory, their once-proud collections of riches have also been confiscated or sold. The British royal family, however, has suffered no such indignity. If anything, their collection has only grown and improved!
Their Highnesses surely gloat a little to think that they are now the owners of the world’s greatest jewellery collection, and possess the fanciest regalia (ceremonial items worn at state events) of any existing monarchy; also that they are unique in Europe in enjoying full-on coronation ceremonies, rather than the lower-key investitures that have become the norm elsewhere.
Of course, it must be pointed out that the modern British royal family don’t quite ‘own’ all their regalia in the simplest sense. The Queen couldn’t just pop into the Tower of London, choose her least-favourite crown, and sell it on eBay to raise a few bucks. No: the gradual assumption of real power by Parliament in the UK means that the Crown Jewels in truth belong to the nation. On the other hand, it’s strictly the case that no-one is permitted to use the regalia other than the monarch. ‘Belonging to the nation’ unfortunately doesn’t mean that any old Brit can have a go wearing the Imperial State Crown. (If only!)
What the public can do, though, is visit the collection of regalia on display at the Tower of London. There, it’s all kept under careful lock-and-key, and protected by state-of-the-art security including bomb-proof glass and 100 concealed CCTV cameras. That’s beside the 22 gun-toting British Army Guards and the ancient regiment of the Yeomen of the Watch, better known as ‘Beefeaters’.
Ogling the Crown Jewels
So what can you expect from a visit to the Crown Jewels? Whilst the collection is so large that it can be difficult to know where to start, there are also some truly stand-out items. Perhaps the finest is the aforementioned Imperial State Crown. The most fabulous of all the crowns in the collection, this is interestingly one of the newest, having been made in 1937 for the coronation of King George VI.
It is an astonishing sight, iridescent with 2868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, and 269 pearls, and fitted with an inner cap of purple velvet and an ermine band around the base. However, the main reason for its pre-eminence is the extraordinarily large diamond set into the front. At 317.40 carats, it’s the second-largest clear-cut diamond in the world. It is known as ‘Cullinan II’ for the fact that it was cut from a larger stone, named the Cullinan, which was discovered in 1905 and is still the biggest gem-quality rough diamond ever found. ‘Cullinan I’ is the larger cutting, at 530.2 carats, and is set into the top of the monarch’s golden sceptre. Another outstanding feature of the Imperial State Crown is a huge ruby that first entered royal possession in the 14th century!
As if that wasn’t enough, there are numerous crowns in the collection other than the Imperial State. Technically the most important is the St. Edward’s Crown, which is used only at the moment of coronation. It is named after the 11th century ruler Edward the Confessor, who was the first to establish official regalia. The oldest of the crowns, it dates back ‘only’ to 1661; most of the items of regalia had to be remade after the anti-monarchical revolutionary Oliver Cromwell melted everything down! Most of the other crowns in the collection are known as ‘consort crowns’ and were custom-made for wives – or ‘queens consort’ – of kings.
Beyond the crowns
What sometimes surprises visitors to the Tower is that it isn’t all about fancy hats! The sceptre is one item that carries ancient symbolism; it is the stick-like object that the monarch holds in one hand at their coronation, and is believed to represent both the Christian shepherd’s crook and a weapon of war. At the same time as holding this, the monarch holds in their other hand a golden orb or ball, topped with a cross: this represents the Christian world. Besides these, there are also numerous ceremonial swords, including a blunt one known as the ‘Sword of Mercy’, symbolising – you guessed it – mercy. There are rings, robes, spurs, trumpets, even maces (modelled on ancient weapons but now just ceremonial). The oldest item in the collection, in fact, is a spoon dating from the 12th century!
The millions of members of the public who view these jewels every year associate splendour with royal and aristocratic lineages. Fortunately, it’s nowadays possible for anyone to purchase themselves a noble title, be it ‘Prince’ or ‘Baroness’. Just go to royaltitles.net to find out how!