Meghan’s earrings: when diamonds aren’t always a girl’s best friend

The Duchess of Sussex is having quite a week of it. As the world awaits her Oprah interview, she came under criticism for wearing earrings reportedly given to her by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to a couple of royal events, while he was being condemned over the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Why she wore it has been the subject of much controversy – but as a rule, royals are exceedingly careful about how they adorn themselves. Royal sparkle falls into two camps: things they have bought themselves, such as Kate Middleton wearing Accessorize earrings, which are allowed, and that belonging to the Crown. All jewellery gifted from one royal to another – such as the earrings from bin Salman – becomes official property of the Queen. It is believed that these were gifted to Meghan from the Saudi royal and chosen for her royal tour – but everyone knew where they came from, and it is understood she was warned against wearing them as their provenance might raise concerns.

For royals and celebrities alike missteps of the glittering variety can provoke huge backlash – all the more for the former, for whom jewellery can not only turn heads but make powerful statements. This is something Her Majesty knows, deploying her diamonds to semaphore her allegiances where protocol demands she remain silent. Think of the Three Thistle Brooch she sallied forth in for Glasgow’s 2014 Commonwealth Games, or the True Lover’s Knot she bore for both her sister and grandson William’s weddings. T’was ever thus. The Queen’s namesake, Elizabeth I, was painted sporting a euphemistic pearl in the spot where her father had brandished his codpiece; her virginal void competing with his Tudor tumescence. 

During her parting of ways with the Firm Diana, Princess of Wales, wore the still much-talked about “revenge” dress, assumed for Prince Charles’s televised confession of adultery. However, she too used pearls to hammer home her point. Her little black number was accessorised by one of her favourite pieces: a seven-strand pearl choker with a huge sapphire and diamond centrepiece; part of a necklace gifted by the Queen Mother for Diana’s nuptials. Glistening at her naked throat, this ornament symbolised Diana’s marriage, rank and defiant blamelessness in the face of her husband’s infidelity.

It’s not just royalty that avails itself of the language of the lozenge. In 2019, the meaning behind Lady Hale’s spider brooch was much debated as she delivered the Supreme Court ruling that Boris Johnson’s advice to the Queen that parliament be prorogued had been unlawful.

However, at times, such coruscating communications have been deemed to misfire; statement rocks making that bit too much of a statement…

1. The Duchess of Windsor

Duchess of Windsor

The lavish cornucopia acquired by the former King Edward VIII to compensate the woman who would never be his queen became known as “the alternative Crown Jewels”. Auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1987, they ultimately brought in £30m. In their heyday, there were mutterings that the Duke wasn’t as good at coughing up for his trinkets as he was at commissioning them. Moreover, both parties were condemned for gaudy displays of wealth during the post-war era. The Duchess famously made a visit to New York’s Salvation Army headquarters festooned in sables, pearls, a diamond clip, and gigantic sapphire and aquamarine earrings. Some Sally Army stalwart Wallis wasn’t.

2. Princess Michael of Kent

Princess Michael

Princess Michael came under fire when she wore a “blackamoor” brooch to the Queen’s Christmas lunch in 2017. This giant bauble would have proved controversial at the best of times. However, the occasion was the first family event attended by biracial newcomer Meghan Markle. According to the biography, Finding Freedom, “in the back of Meghan’s mind, she wondered if there wasn’t a message being sent in the pin of the torso of an African man wearing a gold turban and ornate clothing.” 

3. Naomi Campbell

Naomi Campbell

The model famously succumbed to gemstone drama in the summer of 2010 when, giving testimony at The Hague, Campbell admitted accepting “blood” diamonds from the former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, who was on trial for using diamonds to fund a civil war in Sierra Leone, in addition to charges of murder, rape, sexual slavery and the use of child soldiers.

The model claimed not to have realised that the “dirty-looking pebbles” she had been presented with 13 years’ earlier had any value. She opined: “I’d never heard of him [Charles Taylor] before, never heard of Liberia before, never heard the term ‘blood diamonds’ before.” When asked why she had not inquired as to why two strange men were bringing her presents in the night, she said: “I get gifts all the time. Sometimes in the middle of the night and without knowing who they are from. It is quite normal for me to receive gifts.”

4. Elizabeth Taylor & Princess Margaret

Elizabeth Taylor

In 1967, Princess Margaret had the opportunity to examine Elizabeth Taylor’s staggering Krupp Diamond ring, an Asscher cut stone of 33.19 karats. According to Taylor biographers, the Princess remarked: “Is that the famous diamond? It’s so large! How very vulgar!” “Ain’t it great?” Taylor reportedly responded. The actress then asked whether the royal would like to try the piece on. Margaret did, preening rather. “Doesn’t look so vulgar now, does it?” observed the film legend.

5. Madonna

Sometimes it’s not so much the jewellery a woman wears as the context in which she wears it that sends a message. Witness Madonna filming herself at the beginning of lockdown in a rose-petal strewn bath, naked but for a necklace and sundry other trinkets. In this footage, she mused that Covid-19 was “the great equaliser,” while looking as removed from worldly concerns as if she were Cleopatra bathing in asses’ milk, or Marie Antoinette playing nymphs and shepherds in her faux rustic play village, the Hameau de la Reine. The pandemic-stricken world took one look at this reddish choker / “neck mess” rig-out and cried: “Off with her head!”

Read more:  The controversial origins of the Royals’ family jewels

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