A The 94.4-carat pear-cut diamond will have an unexpected starring role in the coronation of King Charles III. The stone will sit in the centrepiece of the crown worn by Camilla, the Queen Consort, replacing the Koh-i-noor, the better known but controversial jewel that was plundered from India.
Unlike the Koh-i-noor, the replacement diamond is not part of the state-owned crown jewels. In fact, the Cullinan III is one of two large diamonds known as the Lesser Stars of Africa – the second being the Cullinan IV – that were privately owned by the late queen. They usually sit in what is probably the most valuable brooch in the world; one that, with its royal connections, could be worth well over £180m. They are also now the stars of what is likely to be the king’s own treasure chest of gems.
Opening the monarch’s jewelery box
Separating Queen Elizabeth’s private jewels from those that are state-owned is not easy: they are often worn alongside each other. But through careful analysis, the Guardian has identified more than 90 pieces made up by the queen’s personal collection. They are some of the most valuable adornments in the world, including diamonds, emeralds, rubies, amethysts, aquamarines and strings of pearls, all of which shine from parores of some of the finest necklaces, earrings, bracelets, brooches, watches and, of of course, tiaras ever made.
A perk afforded to monarchs means their wills are kept secret, so it is difficult to know what the queen passed on to the new king. But a preferential deal was struck in 1993 with the then prime minister, John Major, guaranteed private bequests from one monarch to another would be immune to inheritance tax.
The extraordinary generosity of this deal becomes clear when viewed through the lens of the queen’s jewelery collection and almost certainly means every gem will have been passed on to Charles.
Each piece has a deep connection to the monarchy and it is this interplay between private and crown that makes them so valuable.
The Lesser Stars of Africa, for example, were cut from the largest rough diamond ever discovered, the Cullinan. Two larger stones cut from that rock are part of the crown jewels. The largest, the Cullinan I, is the main stone in the sovereign’s sceptre and will also be on display at the coronation, and the Cullinan II is in the state crown.
But seven smaller stones, including the Lesser Stars of Africa, which are sometimes referred to as “Granny’s chips”, and 96 other cleavages were given to Queen Mary as private gifts from the South African government, and were passed on to her granddaughter Elizabeth.
This unique provenance and royal association makes the Lesser Stars of Africa brooch almost impossible to value. The quality of the stones alone would put a value of £18m on the brooch, but how much someone would pay to own a gem with such royal provenance is simply unknown.
In 2006, an auction of the jewelery of the late Princess Margaret gave a glimpse of the level of excitement a sale of regalia could garner. Margaret’s items were small trinkets compared to the sparklers in her sister’s jewelery box, yet they sold for an average of 18 times the auction house’s top-end estimate. One item, a gilt pendant shaped like an orchid, went for £3,600 – 120 times its £30 estimate.
Even taking a more conservative estimate used in the past, the queen’s jewels are likely to fetch at least 10 times their basic value. Using this methodology 54 of the private pieces valued by the Guardian and now owned by the king would have an overall value of £533m.
A spokesperson for Buckingham Palace said: “We would not comment on private property owned by members of the royal family.”
From India to Russia: Queen Mary’s acquisitions
The queen’s collection included several other pieces that have become near-legendary, and so almost priceless, on account of their history and royal connections. They range from the Russian kokoshnik-style fringe tiara worn by Elizabeth on her wedding day, through to a necklace of 14 large oblong sapphires interspersed with diamonds given to her by her father, King George VI.
A sizeable proportion of the Windsor family’s private collection, including the Cullinan cleavage, were acquired by Queen Mary. .
In the 1920s she acquired jewels from the dispossessed Russian tsarist dynasty, the Romanovs, including a diamond and pearl tiara crafted by the imperial court jeweler for the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, or Grand Duchess Vladimir, and bought by Mary off her daughter, Elena, who wasPrincess Nicholas of Greece.
Supposedly the favorite tiara of the late queen, who wore it on several occasions, the Vladimir tiara is worth up to £30m. Elizabeth occasionally removed the 15 pendant pearls that hung between the arches of diamonds, replacing them with large emeralds. She wore the tiara this way at a banquet in 2014 to mark the first state visit of an Irish president to the UK, that of Michael D Higgins.
A less expensive but no less storied acquisition followed in 1929. Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, the mother of the last tsar, Nicholas II, had fled Russia after her son and his family were murdered by triumphant Bolshevik revolutionaries. She was accompanied by two daughters and a leather case of family jewelery. Ten years later and after Maria’s death, one of the daughters, needing to make ends meet, sold her share of the inheritance at reduced prices and Mary snapped them up.
Her purchases included a choker of 164 pearls, interspersed with studded diamond bars, and a large sapphire clasp. With such royal connections, the necklace, which has been worn by Princess Anne several times including during a visit to Canada in 1974, could be worth as much as £2m.
The £50m brooch
One of the collection’s most valuable pieces is another diamond brooch. Shaped like a flower, the Williamson brooch contains what is widely regarded as the finest pink diamond ever discovered, unearthed in the British colony of Tanganyika, now Tanzania, in 1947.
The mine’s owner, the eccentric and reclusive John Williamson, gave the uncut stone to Elizabeth as a wedding present. She commissioned Cartier to set it in a platinum brooch alongside more than 200 small diamonds, also given to her by Williamson. Its value today could be £50m.
The queen wore the brooch to numerous official occasions, including the weddings of her children Charles and Edward and her nephew, David Armstrong-Jones, Earl of Snowdon. She wore the same brooch during her 2009 meeting with the then US president, Barack Obama, during which his wife, Michelle, broke protocol by giving the queen a hug.
But the jewels cut from the Cullinan diamond remained the queen’s most valuable private jewelery. And now, with one of them about to play such a central and prominent role in the coronation, a historic moment in which it will be reunited with the Cullinan I, the most valuable diamond in the world, the new king’s crowning could see his private diamonds become worth even more.