For Queen Victoria, jewelry was charged with emotion and association. As a child, her mother, the Duchess of Kent, had given her a locket containing a lock of her deceased father’s hair affording the self-styled little orphan a physical link to the late Duke. Twenty years later, just days after her engagement to Prince Albert she begged a lock of her betrothed’s hair too. He dutifully obliged and she mounted it in a glass, heart-shaped pendant which she would wear almost constantly for the rest of her life.
Victoria was surprisingly un-snobbish in her approach to jewelry. Its sentimental value invariably outweighed its monetary worth. A commonplace trinket, if carefully selected and given with love, held as much weight in her affections as the most dazzling suite of diamonds and pearls. Much of the fascination of Queen Victoria’s jewelry collection lies its very ‘high-low’ nature. Pebbles from the Balmoral estate, polished and set in silver, existed alongside magnificent royal jewels inherited from her predecessors. She documented each meticulously; her inventories ranged from the prosaic to the priceless and the attention to detail was applied with an egalitarian hand.
Hopes that the Queen would be a catalyst for fashionable innovation at the onset of her reign were quickly dashed. In her dress, she remained resolutely a follower and not a leader of fashion and after her husband’s tragically premature death at the age of just 42, she abandoned all but the most cursory of nods to contemporary trends, shrouding herself in perpetual black and establishing the image of the widow of Windsor best known today. Yet, without doubt, Victoria’s jewelry collection was an exception to this rule.
As a young woman yet to pass many of the conventional milestones of adult life at the time of her accession in 1837, she seemed innately relatable. She and Albert would mark so many of those ubiquitous human moments that endeared her to the public with jewelry commissions that were widely publicised in the popular press and subsequently emulated by her subjects. Victoria’s romantic tastes had been formed from a childhood love of the opera, theatre and ballet. Her penchant for strong colours and elaborate trimmings, often disparaged in her clothes, was more successfully manifested in her jewelry. As she grew older, she learnt that jewelry held a symbolic power. She simplified her dress, adopting white or pastel-coloured silks and ivory lace as a demure backdrop for the spectacular jewels she was rapidly amassing.
Her beloved consort, Prince Albert, was perhaps the closest thing the nineteenth century had to a Renaissance man. Literate in topics ranging from engineering and chemistry to architecture and botany, he was also a passionate and proficient designer of fine jewelry. Unsurprisingly, it was the pieces designed and commissioned by the Prince Consort for his wife, that Victoria treasured most highly. Her ardent passion for her husband is well known and throughout their marriage, she received these tokens of love with emphatic appreciation and admiration. ‘My beloved husband has such wonderful taste’ and ‘Albert has such taste and arranges everything for me about my jewels’ are just two of the rapturous testaments to her husband’s jewelry design that litter her journals. After his death, each stone, lovingly selected and arranged by her ‘angel’, carried a piece of him within it and allowed her the same physical proximity to him that the little locket containing her father’s hair had permitted her as a child.
Throughout the course of their marriage, Albert designed and commissioned numerous gifts of jewelry for his wife. Significant amongst these was an emerald and diamond parure – or matching suite of jewels – consisting of a diadem, necklace, earrings and a brooch. This spectacular suite, now on display at Kensington Palace, showcases Prince Albert’s flair for design as well as the exquisite workmanship of nineteenth century goldsmiths.
Created by the Queen’s Jeweller, Joseph Kitching, the tiara was presented to Victoria in 1845 as a centrepiece to an existing emerald suite designed for her two years previously. Gem-lore was a subject of increasing popular fascination in the mid-nineteenth century and Albert’s design is characteristically rich with symbolism. In a tradition which dates back to the 5th century AD, emeralds were - and still are - considered the birthstone for those born in May, no doubt a nod to the Queen’s own birthday on 24th May. In addition, they have historically been seen as a stone associated with royalty. Cleopatra was said to have lavished herself and her palaces with emeralds and would present them as gifts to visiting dignitaries, possibly a gentle reminder of her wealth and power. Perhaps the connotation which would have resonated most with Victoria’s romantic sensibilities, however, was the notion that emeralds could expose spells or illusions and reveal the truth or falsity of a lover’s vows. Acutely aware of associations as she was, there is little doubt that Victoria would have well understood the sentiments expressed it this lavish gift.
Sure enough, the occasions on which Victoria wore this particular suite reflect the declaration of true love encapsulated within it. Invariably, she chose it at moments which celebrated Prince Albert. One such occasion was a banquet held at Trinity College Cambridge to mark the Prince’s inauguration as Chancellor in 1847. Similarly, she eschewed the traditional trappings of Queenship in favour of her emerald parure for Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s mangificiant portrait of the royal family painted the same year. Aware that the image was very much for public consumption, it’s styling and composition sent a potent message about the couple behind the crown. Seated next to him and surrounded by her five eldest children, Victoria is symbolised as both benign monarch and the ideal wife and mother. Robes of state are replaced with an elegant evening gown emphasising her beauty and femininity and the crown, traditionally in royal portraiture either worn or placed on a table to the side of the monarch, is replaced by the emerald tiara designed for her by her husband and the little, inexpensive, glass locket containing a cutting of his hair. Only the ribbon and insignia of the order of the garter denote her and her husband’s status.
This careful blending of dress, jewelry and insignia exposes both the public and private faces of the royal family. The moving portrayal of a strong family bond, central to Victorian ideals, appears to be founded on a genuinely loving relationship between Victoria and Albert. Indeed, the point at which their hands very nearly meet in a strikingly intimate gesture seems both literally and metaphorically central to this image. It is a royal portrait but it is also very much a family portrait. Tender and yet political, it is an overt demonstration both of the secure continuation of the royal line and of the centrality of Albert to the public image of the crown.
Jewelry held a limitless fascination for Queen Victoria. Utterly obsessed with associations, it was imbued with a new life, possessing something of the giver and the occasion for which it was given. Victoria and Albert commissioned a number of tiaras during her reign and you sense that her attachment to them might have lain in the height and regal presence they afforded her, self-conscious as she always was about her diminutive size. The fact that she gave one to each of her daughters when they married suggests that for Victoria, the tiara represented a coming of age, of womanhood and the status that came with marriage. But much like Albert’s own commissions for her, it also seems to have been a tangible expression of the love between parent and child as each daughter was, at least symbolically, parted from her. However we chose to interpret these remarkable gifts, one thing remains certain: it was not in the monetary value of the stones that the Queen’s jewelry found its worth. Rather it was as a highly symbolic material narrative of the most significant moments in her life. From polished stones and hair-filled lockets to jaw-dropping emeralds the quality of which few jewellers have seen today, Victoria’s jewelry collection is laden with meaning. Once you know how to interpret it, you’ll find it tells just as rich a tale of her life and loves as the 122 volumes of her journals.
The tiara is part of a group of jewels from the collection of the Duke of Fife that has been loaned thanks to arrangements negotiated by Sotheby's Tax, Heritage & UK Museums department.