Queen Mary, consort of King George V (reign: 1910-1936), didn't just wear her jewels; she delighted in her jewels. You look at the history of the British monarchy and you'd think that the present Queen's massive jewel collection comes because of that storied past; but in fact, much of it stems from Queen Mary. She had an enthusiasm - a mania, perhaps - for collecting precious objects, especially those with a family history. The vaults are said to be full of jewel cases containing Mary's notes, written in her own hand, of the provenance of the pieces along with records of the modifications she made. She kept meticulous records of which clothes and gems she wore for which occasions. And this practice we see now, hiding the riches and whatnot, was just not her game. A queen that actually played with her toys: this is my kind of woman.
"Dressing up" wasn't just a tiara, a necklace, earrings, maybe a single brooch or bracelet. Oh no. When Mary went fancy, she piled it on. She took her already beaded and patterned dresses and added a jeweled front with stomachers and brooches, and might then throw on as many necklaces as it took to create a dazzling turtleneck for herself.
Mary had a particular love for the Cullinan diamonds. We're talking about one of the most famous diamonds in the world, if you're not familiar. The story is far too long to recount here, but we can sum it up: in its rough form, it was a single diamond from a mine in South Africa weighing more than 3,000 carats. It was cleaved into nine large numbered gems as well as several smaller chips which now belong to the British royal family. The present Queen uses the smaller Cullinan brooches regularly, but we rarely see the largest ones in active use now. But Mary - she loved them so much that Queen Elizabeth is said to refer to them as "Granny's chips".
On the left: the Delhi Durbar Tiara sports Cullinans III and IV (plus additional Cullinans on her bodice). On the right, Cullinans III and IV are suspended from the bottom of her slew of diamond necklaces. And here's the big one: Cullinans I and II are pinned to her chest in magnificent brooch form. At 530.2 carats, Cullinan I is the largest colorless diamond in the world. It is also known as the First or Great Star of Africa, and makes its home in the Sceptre with the Cross used at coronations. Cullinan II is known as the Second or Lesser Star of Africa, weighs in at 317.4 carats, and resides normally in the front of the Imperial State Crown. It really is a sartorial feat of reinforcement and corsetry that she could display this kind of diamond power on the front of her dress. No wonder she looked so stern - she was in a constant battle to stay upright!
Since we're talking about famous diamonds, we might as well add in another one for good measure: the Koh-i-Noor. This 105.6 carat diamond comes from India, is said to bring tragic ends to any men that dare wear it, and still makes headlines from time to time when someone demands it be returned to its home country. In both of the above pictures, Mary is using it in the brooch setting created for Queen Victoria. On the left, it is pinned to the center of her sash, and has Cullinan I hanging from it (you can also see for this occasion, she has added a larger Cullinan pendant to the Delhi Durbar necklace). On the right, it is pinned to the center of her gown neckline. She also added it into the central cross of her crown, just as Queen Alexandra did before her and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) would do after.
Queen Mary clung to her ways of adornment long past the days when it was fashionable. She died in 1953, and I have to echo what many have said before: there will never be another like her. Her granddaughter Elizabeth II bears the family resemblance more and more with every passing year, but this sort of excess is just not in her character.
Among other current royal ladies, I might give the advantage to Queen Silvia or Princess Máxima in terms of the ability to recreate a bejeweled look like this, but they'd probably still end up looking like girls playing dress up. And even if they could do it...well, the days of this sort of majesty are dead too. Sigh. We'll always have the pictures...
Do you think anybody today could pull this off? Who?
Photos: Corbis/"The Queen's Jewels" by Leslie Field