Alright, chickens, I am delighted to post an interview with the divine bloggery Ella Kay! I first crossed paths with her around the time of the royal wedding in 2011 when she was still running Mad Hattery, a blog devoted to the bizarre and beautiful headgear of the royals. In 2013, she created A Tiara a Day, a blog that spent an entire year celebrating the glory of the tiara–including photos and provenance. For 2014, she is embarking on a new adventure with The Court Jeweller, an extravaganza of royal jewels throughout history. Her posts are always a delight, full of actual events and the delicious gossipy bits that make them all the more interesting. She graciously agreed to answer some questions for us, and without further ado, Ella Kay:
Your blogs have been so inventive and informative—and your latest venture, The Court Jeweller, is perhaps the most ambitious yet! You’ve gone from hattery to tiaras to jewels. Have you always been interested in jewels or were they a natural progression from royal hats?
I’ve always been a bit of a magpie, but I really got interested in jewels, especially tiaras, while writing Mad Hattery. It was fun to talk about the zany hats, but royal jewels had a historical aspect to them that was really intriguing to me. Tracing the jewels back over the generations helped me learn a lot about historical connections between the families, sometimes links I’d never even imagined could exist. I mean, who ever would have dreamed that the beautiful suite of rubies worn today by Crown Princess Mary of Denmark was also worn by Napoléon’s former fiancée at his coronation two centuries ago? The stories are so fascinating, and the objects are so beautiful – it’s hard not to be drawn to them.
Royal jewels in particular are loaded with history, both the happy occasions like wedding and christenings and coronations, and the tragic—wars, revolutions, executions. What is the most interesting story you’ve found connected to a jewel?
Hands down, it’s the story of the turquoise and moonstone tiara that now belongs to Lord and Lady Geddes. It didn’t start out in England at all – it was a gift from the Grand Duke Ernst of Hesse to his wife, Grand Duchess Eleonore, in 1906. The piece was made in Russia, which makes sense when you realize that Ernst’s sister was Tsarina Alexandra. In 1937, Eleonore decided to give the tiara to her new daughter-in-law, Margaret, as a wedding present, so she packed it in her luggage for the flight to the wedding, which was being held in Britain. But Eleonore’s other daughter-in-law – Princess Cecilie, one of the sisters of the Duke of Edinburgh – suddenly went into labor during the flight. The pilot tried to make an emergency landing, but the plane crashed, killing everyone on board. The one thing they found intact in the wreckage? The tiara, which was safe in the strongbox that Eleonore had packed it in. It’s still worn today by members of Margaret’s family – you can see it occasionally at the State Opening of Parliament in the UK.
Some jewels—like the Hope Diamond, once the possession of Marie Antoinette—are believed to be cursed. Do you believe some jewels have a malevolent influence on their owners?
I think that people like to project their own feelings and anxieties on to their jewels – they’re such personal items, and so often we associate jewelry with major events and milestones in our lives. But I don’t believe objects, even beautiful, valuable ones, can be cursed. If people think their jewels are bad luck, though, they should loan or donate them to museums so we can all ogle them instead. Win, win!
Kings used to wear their jewels to display their wealth and power, but since the 19th century, the splashy gems have been reserved for queens. Which king in history was the best at peacocking? Which current royal male does the best job of showcasing his collection?
George IV never met a bauble he didn’t like, for sure. But I think the winner might be one of the last Maharajas of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh. His jewels were completely bananas – giant necklaces of diamonds and pearls, bejeweled turbans, jeweled chains and belts and pins. It’s insane and amazing, especially for a male royal who lived into the twentieth century. He was one of Cartier’s best customers – they designed a diamond necklace for him that weighed almost a thousand carats!
As far as contemporary royal men go, that’s a bit harder, because their jewelry is generally limited to insignia from various orders of chivalry. But I think that the sheer amount of precious metal worn by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden for major occasions (like royal weddings) has to rate highly. And when King Charles III is crowned in Britain one day, the crown he wears will definitely be one of the most glittering in the world (especially because the Brits are some of the only monarchs who still actually wear their crowns!).
Monarchies of long-standing have centuries to amass their jewel collections. Which country/dynasty in history had the most significant collection? Who has the most impressive collection now?
At the height of their power, it’s pretty hard to top the Romanovs. If you’ve ever seen the photographic inventory of their jewels taken by the Soviets after the revolution, you have an idea of the sheer splendor of their royal court – and you have to remember that the inventory doesn’t even represent their complete collection. Some pieces were smuggled out of Russia – like the Vladimir tiara worn today by Queen Elizabeth II – and some pieces with Romanov connections had already traveled with Russian grand duchesses and princesses to other royal families. The former royal family of Greece still owns lots of Romanov jewelry, as do some members of the extended Danish royal family.
Today, there’s a lot of attention paid to the British royal jewels, and Elizabeth II does have some truly impressive pieces. But in terms of the best collection, I think it’s a tie between the Bernadottes in Sweden, who have an impressive number of jewels that came from the French imperial period along with more contemporary pieces, and the Orange-Nassaus in the Netherlands, who have built up a fascinating assortment of jewels over the past four or five generations. Both royal families have a major thing in common: the big, important pieces of jewelry belong not to individual people but to a family jewel foundation. The foundations keep the pieces in the country (because once pieces are given or bequeathed to the foundation, they can’t be sold or dispersed), and they give the members of the family the chance to wear a greater variety of jewels. I wish all royal families had foundations – it’s always disappointing when heirloom pieces leave a collection, because often they’re not seen in public again.
Just like clothing—and hats!—jewels have trends. What trend in jewels do you miss? Are there pieces you wish were still fashionable?
It’s a shame that there’s not really a way for royal women today to wear the big jeweled stomachers worn by queens in the past – they’re marvelous, elaborate pieces, but modern clothing really can’t accommodate them. I wish younger royal ladies would find more opportunities to wear the brooches from royal collections. Brooches tend to be small, and sometimes they’re seen as frumpy or old-fashioned, but you can wear them in lots of innovative ways. Princess Eugenie recently showed up for church on Christmas morning with a brooch pinned to her hat, so perhaps there’s hope!
Which single piece do you covet the most? It doesn’t have to be currently in existence!
The Swedish processional jewels, no question. It’s a necklace that Gustav V of Sweden gave to his new bride, Victoria of Baden, to mark her procession into Stockholm after their wedding in 1881. The piece is still in existence, and Princess Madeleine wore it to her sister’s wedding a few years ago. Gorgeous Ceylon sapphires, diamonds, and baroque pearls set in gold – it’s absolutely beautiful, and if I owned it, I would wear it everywhere.
Finally, how much jewelry do you wear on a daily basis?
Surprisingly little for a blogger who focuses on jewels! For everyday wear, I usually only put on a simple necklace (my favorites are the delicate gold necklaces made by a company called Dogeared) and a watch – right now I’m wearing a tiny silver and gold one. Occasionally I’ll go a bit bigger and wear a statement necklace with a T-shirt – I like that juxtaposition. If I’m out in the evening, I like to wear big chunky bracelets to add a little interest.
I also have a little vintage jewelry collection – I love ‘50s and ‘60s costume pieces from companies like Coro, stuff that’s bright and fun and easy to find on eBay. And I often buy jewelry as souvenirs from various places that I visit around the world. I’ve got a lapis lazuli necklace that will always remind me of a vacation I took to California, and a little gold and garnet ring that commemorates my last pilgrimage to the jewelry holy land – AKA the jewelry rooms at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Huge bouquets of thanks to Ella Kay for dropping by! If you’d like to follow her, links are below, and be aware–she gives good tweet, particularly when there’s a big royal event afoot.