7 Queens from History & their Royal Jewellery
19th July 2021
by Harshani Shetye
Insta-Queens: 7 Powerful Women From History & Their Queens Jewels
What makes a powerful woman? Some are pioneers of art or science, some are amazing mothers, some are leading activists and some are notorious rulebreakers. While powerful doesn’t always mean ‘good’ or well-liked, their influence over society and work can still be admired.
We have re-imagined the portraits of 7 powerful women in history, thinking about what their Instagram profiles may have looked like if they lived in the time of social media.
As icons of their time, many of these women had significant influence over the fashion, beauty and jewellery trends we see today. James Harris, Diamond Jewellery Consultant at Diamonds Factory has identified these trends and been able to share the estimated value of the gems adorned in these portraits at today’s prices.
1. Cleopatra (69 - 30 BC)
Cleopatra assumed control of Egypt in 51 BC and was the last reigning pharaoh of Egypt. Although she was renowned for her fabled beauty, sources contradict that her intelligence and social skills were what made her so mesmerising. Many writers and researchers outside of Europe remembered her primarily as a scholar.
Cleopatra controlled the way she was portrayed - often changing her presentation according to political needs. Sometimes, she would choose to be shown as a Goddess, while on Egyptian coins she chose to be shown with her father’s strong jawline to remind people of her inherited power. Smart and calculated, Cleopatra was also recognised as a fashion icon during her time. She was well-known for her eccentric makeup style and luxurious jewellery. In fact, she was so fond of her jewels that it’s rumoured she even bathed in them.
James Harris, Diamond Jewellery Consultant at Diamonds Factory estimates that in today’s currency, Cleopatra’s jewelled collar would be worth approximately £1.3 million. Collars of this size and quality in this period were crafted from individual elements of faience, metal, or semi-precious stone.
Cleopatra’s solid gold serpentine cuff (worth approximately £120,000 today) and ring (£18,000) were fashion statements at the time which have had lasting impact on jewellery fashion today.
After ruling for 20 years, Cleopatra decided to take her own life (in a pact with her lover, Mark Anthony) in order to avoid being humiliated by being paraded as a prisoner of the Romans. While there’s no concrete evidence, the most popular theory is that she allowed an Egyptian cobra to bite her. Her death ended the Egyptian empire.
2. Marie Antoinette (1755 - 1793)
Marie Antoniette is known for flaunting her lavish lifestyle in front of France’s starving peasants and for betraying the French monarchy to protect her Austrian family. Her life was rife with scandal and intrigue. Nowadays, her name is associated with the decline in the moral authority of the French monarchy and she is often used as a symbol of wealth and greed.
Born a princess in Vienna, Austria, in 1755, Antoinette was married off to French King Louis XVI at just 14 years old. Louis was seen as a weak political figure, but, during her time as queen, Antoinette attempted to restore her husband’s political authority in the ways she could. As a teenager, she was hugely popular and well-loved by the public with her presence summoning masses of crowds. But, her later out of touch behaviours quickly diminished her good reputation.
While her people suffered tremendously from famine, Antoinette commissioned her own fairytale garden (Petit Hameau) and wore gowns and jewels that were worth millions - much the envy of everyone. She was also involved in the scandal which sparked the French Revolution, known as ‘The Affair of the Diamond Necklace’. Louis XV commissioned a necklace for his wife worth two million livres (see the necklace held in Antoinette’s left hand) (around £15-19 million today) which was stolen in 1785. Those involved used the name of Marie Antoinette to facilitate the scandal, though the Queen actually had no involvement. Despite this, Antoinette suffered gossip and ridicule as a result of the scandal which contributed to her terrible reputation.
Harris estimates the worth of the pearl necklace around Antoinette’s neck would be worth £30,000.
3. Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603)
Queen Elizabeth I, famously known as the ‘Virgin Queen’, was the last Tudor monarch. In 1566 she defied parliament’s attempts to force her to marry, declaring that she was married to her country. As the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boelyn, Elizabeth had a very lonely and troubled childhood. It’s even alleged that her distant father’s frequent beheading of his wives prompted her solemn promise to never marry.
Elizabeth was highly intelligent and fluent in English, French, Latin and Italian and was educated in arts, music and calligraphy. She was also an inspiring speaker and roused her men in a pre-battle speech to defeat the Spanish Armada (one of the greatest army powers at the time) in 1588.
However, despite her well-educated position and her family entitlement, English Roman Catholics rebelled against her reign and instead supported her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scotland, in the hopes of making England Catholic once more. To defend her position, Elizabeth placed Mary under an 18-year house arrest before sentencing her to death as she feared Mary would be a threat to her crown.
Elizabeth’s gold ring (known as the Chequers ring) is adorned with white diamonds, mother-of-pearl and table-cut rubies. The letters ‘E’ and ‘R’ found on the bezel stand for Elizabeth and Regina (meaning queen), while the back of the bezel is decorated with an enamel phoenix. This would cost around £150,000 to purchase today.
4. Catherine the Great (1729 – 1796)
Catherine the Great considered herself to be one of the most enlightened rulers in Europe during her reign. And, even today, many historians agree. Although she wasn’t actually Russian, she was the longest-ruling female leader Russia ever had. Catherine was born to an impoverished Prussian prince in 1729, her name at birth was actually Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst. Known for being well-educated, well-mannered and eager to please, she had a bright future ahead of her.
She was chosen to marry Karl Peter Ulrich, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, grandson of Peter the Great and heir to the throne of Russia at age 14. They got married in August 1745 and Sophie adopted the name Catherine and Karl changed his to Peter to follow tradition. Catherine and Peter had an unstable marriage and 8 years passed before she bore an heir to the throne. Although, it’s rumoured that her eldest son was illegitimate along with her other children too.
Catherine’s coronation saw the commission of the imperial crown of Russia, though the crown she is wearing in the portrait resembles the lesser imperial crown. The imperial crown consists of 4,936 diamonds (32,800 carats), 74 pearls and 1 red spinel and is worth £150 million. The Lesser Imperial Crown was very similar in style and workmanship to the Great Imperial Crown, only smaller and entirely set with diamonds, made for Empress Maria Feodorovna, the consort of Paul I, that was used for the coronation of the Tsarina.
Eventually, Catherine overthrew her extremely unpopular husband’s rule in a coup. In 1762, Catherine quickly gathered the support of the country’s most powerful military forces and arranged for his arrest where he died in captivity. Catherine faced down more than a dozen uprisings during her reign and led the way in embracing the latest medical practices. She was even an early endorser of inoculations, receiving a dose of smallpox inoculation despite the controversy surrounding it. While she vastly expanded Russia’s territory, like her predecessors, she did little to prevent or stop her people suffering from extreme poverty.
Catherine was fond of diamonds. The Bow necklace around her neck consists of a silver band of 27 cushion cut diamonds and a ribbon shaped diamond encrusted clasp. It is believed to have been specifically commissioned by Catherine between 1760 and 1780. Harris estimates it to be worth approximately £3.2 million. The emerald necklace in Catherine’s hand was also part of her treasured collection of jewels and is worth around £4 million today.
5. Wu Zetian (624 - 705)
Wu Zetian was born into a wealthy family and was unusually well-educated for a woman of her era as she was encouraged to read and learn about governmental affairs, writing, literature and music.
At just 14 years old she was taken in to be an imperial concubine to Emperor Taizong between the years 598 and 649. Concubinage is an interpersonal and sexual relationship between a man and a woman where the couple either doesn’t want to or can’t enter into a full marriage. However, as she began life at court, her beauty and intelligence inspired the emperor to make her his secretary.
Wu began having an affair with the emperor’s son, Emperor Gaozong, and was summoned to be his zhaoyi (the highest-ranking concubine) after he married his wife. She fell pregnant but sadly lost her daughter shortly after birth. Some historians believe Wu may have actually killed her own baby to frame Empress Wang (Gaozong’s wife) as an act of jealously as she later accused Wang of the murder.
Later, after forcing her son to yield his throne, Empress Regnant Wu proclaimed herself ruler of the “Zhou dynasty”. Wu was a very popular and loved monarch, despite the fact that she organised a series of murders, including some within her own family. But, she made many popular public reforms, some of which were directly suggested by her people, and led through a positive economic period that saw the Chinese living standards drastically improve.
Wu Zeitan wears the Chinese Phoenix Crown (worth approximately £30 million). This type of crown was the traditional ceremonial headdress of female nobility in the Ming dynasty era and was decorated with figurines of phoenixes, dragons, clouds and flowers. The decadent headdress was made of gold, azure kingfisher feathers, pearls and other precious stones and weighed 2-3 kg.
6. Boudica (AD 30 - 60)
Boudica was a British queen who led a revolt against Roman rule in 60 CE. Her husband, Prasutagus, was the king of the Iceni which is now known as Norfolk. When he died, the Romans annexed his kingdom and humiliated his family.
Because of this, Boudica raised a huge rebellion throughout East Anglia. She and her daughters, who have remained unnamed, became figureheads for the aggressive rebellion. Boudica’s popularity and influence riled a massive, devoted army. But, despite her army vastly outnumbering the Romans they lost the battle.
It is thought by some historians that she committed suicide shortly after losing the war. However, some also think that she died from either shock, illness or battle wounds. Even today she is still considered a national heroine of England.
A celtic torc similar to the one adorned by Boudica sold by Christie’s auction house for £22,500 in 2012.
7. Mary, Queen of Scots (1542 - 1587)
As the only surviving legitimate child of King James V of Scotland, Mary became queen when she was just 6 days old after her father died of no discernible cause and reigned until her forced abdication in 1567. It is thought that she changed the spelling of her family name from Stewart to Stuart to make it easier for the French to pronounce before her marriage to Francis Dauphin in 1558.
Well-educated, Mary was fluent in Latin, French and the Scots dialect of the Lowlands as well as being proficient in Italian, Spanish and Greek. She was also known to be very beautiful and maintained her smooth complexion by washing her face with white wine which was a very fashionable, and expensive, beauty routine at the time. One of her favourite pastimes was golf and it is believed that she coined the term ‘caddie’ as the military cadets would carry the clubs for royal players. However, there are records of her being considered cold-blooded for playing her favourite game just days after her husband's death.
As a threat to the English throne, with many English Catholics supporting her, Mary was placed under an 18-year house arrest in England by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. Eventually, Mary was sentenced to death for conspiring to kill Elizabeth. Her execution was famously botched as it took the executioner a few times to successfully behead her. To add to the traumatic beheading, Mary’s pet terrier had been hidden under her gown and ran around wailing after her head fell to the floor before laying in the pool of her blood.
The crucifix in Mary’s hand was likely to have belonged to the queen as it was found in her bedroom. The religious cross was made from Silver, Ebony and Niello and is thought to be worth around £10,000 according to Harris. Mary’s pearl necklace and tiara are thought to be worth a cumulative £6 million. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558 - 1603), pearls were prized more than any other jewel as we were yet to be able to manufacture them artificially.
Looking to expand your own collection of beautiful jewellery? Browse through our selection of queen jewels such as diamond engagement rings for the perfect touch of sparkle. If you’re interested in something a little more unique and fit for a queen, vintage engagement rings have you covered. Whatever you choose will have you, or that special someone, feeling like royalty.