14 April 2012

The Queen's Top 10 Diamonds: #9. The South African Diamonds

Knowing as we do the tremendous size of Queen Elizabeth's jewel collection today, it's a little hard to imagine a time when she didn't have many jewels to pick from...but the next entry on our countdown dates from just such an era. Number nine belongs to some of the first major diamonds to join the queen's collection.
The South African Necklace and Bracelet
In 1947, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth took their daughters Elizabeth and Margaret on a tour to Africa. Elizabeth celebrated her 21st birthday while abroad, and her presents included some of her first large pieces of jewelry. In Rhodesia, she received a wonderful diamond flame lily brooch; in South Africa, a large and impressive diamond necklace.
The original long necklace, with all 21 large diamonds
The gift from the South African government included 21 sizeable diamonds, the largest of which was 10 carats. The larger diamonds were separated by groups of a baguette diamond with a small brilliant on either side to form a long necklace. Princess Elizabeth was presented with the gift at a Young People's Ball, where a nearby microphone picked up her gasp of delight as she opened her new treasure. From then on, she has referred to the South African set as "my best diamonds".
Wearing the set in her younger years
In 1952, she shortened the necklace from 21 to 15 large diamonds and created a bracelet with the remainders. To the bracelet, she added another treasure from the 1947 tour: a 6 carat diamond given to her by De Beers.
Little Mary Oppenheimer presented the De Beers diamond to Princess Elizabeth (Princess Margaret got one too)
This set is still in use today, and even plays the diplomatic jewelry role from time to time, as when she wore it during the most recent state visit from South Africa. She is said, even today, to still refer to these as her best diamonds. For owning that title, and for being one of the first major additions to her jewelry collection - before wedding presents, before becoming queen, and before inheriting Queen Mary's jewels - this set owns a place on my countdown.
At the South African state banquet, 2010
(And P.S.: this is also part of this summer's diamond exhibition at Buckingham Palace.)

Photos: Queen Elizabeth II/The Royal Collection/Corbis/Suzy Menkes/Daylife