The family story behind the Queen’s favourite royal hand-me-down

Pieces from Boucheron's Like a Queen collection/The late Queen's final portrait from summer 2022
Pieces from Boucheron's Like a Queen collection/The late Queen's final portrait from summer 2022

Each year, the French jewellery maison Boucheron launches two high jewellery collections. In July, creative director Claire Choisne is given carte blanche to go wherever the mood takes her - be it somewhere fantastical and otherworldly, like 2022's Ailleurs with its scaffolds of rattan and diamonds, burnt wood and tourmalines, or wildly innovative, like 2020's Contemplation and its use of a stardust-capturing, Nasa-verified space gel encased in rock crystal to represent the sky.

The January collection, however, is always based on the house's histoire de style, a new take on an icon from the archives, be it the famed Question Mark necklace from 1879, rendered anew as a curling fern frond, or an ode to the Maharaja of Patiala's mammoth order of 149 designs placed in 1928, incorporating thousands of emeralds, rubies, diamonds and pearls transported in iron safes from the Indian prince's 35 suites at the Ritz in Paris to the maison's headquarters across Place Vendôme.

That collection took ideas from the most monumental jewels - the Maharaja himself was a towering 6ft 5in and could carry off a necklace consisting of 13 rows of pearls and two rows of gigantic diamonds - and made them wearable for even the most waif-like modern ingénue.

This year's histoire de style collection is based on a less flamboyant, but equally gorgeously storied royal hand-me-down. Boucheron's immaculate archives show that a pair of art-deco aquamarine and diamond brooches were purchased on 31 July 1937 from the London store by the young Princess Elizabeth's uncle Prince George, the Duke of Kent, before being gifted to her by her beloved father on her 18th birthday in April 1944, two years after the Duke died in a military air crash in 1942.

Queen Elizabeth II visiting Jamestown, Virginia, with the Duke of Edinburgh in 1957 - Getty
Queen Elizabeth II visiting Jamestown, Virginia, with the Duke of Edinburgh in 1957 - Getty

It is not known who the Duke originally bought the clips for, however they were just two of nearly a dozen trinkets he bought from Boucheron that day, including ruby ear clips, amethyst brooches and a gold powder compact set with sapphires. The Duke was renowned for his generosity and extravagance, frequently snapping up jewellery and objets from antique dealers to give to friends and hosts.

Boucheron has long featured in the Royal family's collections. The house, founded in Paris in 1858 by Frédéric Boucheron, was a favourite with royalty from its earliest days, and the Duchess of Edinburgh (the former Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of the Romanov dynasty, who married Prince Alfred of Great Britain in 1873) visited the Boucheron boutique in 1883 to buy two exceptional natural pearls and have some diamond rivière necklaces reset.

Not to be outdone, Queen Mary commissioned the brand to make a large crown out of 675 diamonds De Beers - then just a mining company rather than a jewellery house - had given her. Edward VIII, as the dashing young Prince of Wales, was also a valued client, his name appearing in Boucheron's order books 75 times between 1918 and 1935. His last recorded purchase was a ruby and diamond clip for a certain Wallis Simpson.

It can't have been lost on the Queen's father, George VI, that an 18th birthday gift should be a special one - a milestone for the kingdom as well as for the young princess herself. But in 1944, Britain had already suffered through nearly five years of war, and flashy jewellery shops were not just scarce but unseemly given the climate. A pair of hand-me-down brooches from her late uncle's stockpile was fitting.

The late Queen wearing the original brooches mirroring each other on the lapel of her coat in 1957
The late Queen wearing the original brooches mirroring each other on the lapel of her coat in 1957

The future Queen was just about to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service as a mechanic working in Aldershot, close enough to Windsor Castle to allow her to return there each night. She had already met and was corresponding with the handsome young Prince Philip of Greece by this point. It is thought that he proposed to her just two years later, in June 1946.

They married the following year, and for their fifth wedding anniversary in 1952, the Duke of Edinburgh paid a visit to Boucheron's London boutique to order a bracelet he designed himself, featuring ruby roses to represent the Queen's first title of Princess Elizabeth of York, sapphire crosses for the Greek flag and a diamond anchor and crown from his military insignia, all linked by the couple's entwined initials. That bracelet adorned the Queen's wrist at Royal Ascot in 1954, and at her diamond wedding anniversary celebrations in 2007.

The 18th birthday brooches, however, were seen far more frequently - at least 50 times, according to Boucheron's research. They featured prominently during her address to the United Nations in 2010, on her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, at the 75th anniversary of the speech by her father King George VI announcing the end of WWII, for her Platinum Jubilee in 2022 and, of course, for her last official portrait last year.

No wonder, then, that Choisne says, 'I am a fan of the Queen and always have been. My grandmother was from Liverpool - and I'm probably the shame of my family because I'm so French, but I always watched the Queen's speech at Christmas on the BBC since I was a child - the French commentary would never do.'

'I was so touched that she wore something sentimental in her final portrait,' she continues of the brooches' final appearance, stacked one above the other on the left-hand side of the powder-blue dress created for the Queen by Angela Kelly, her friend and dresser. The image, taken by Ranald Mackechnie to mark Her Majesty's Platinum Jubilee, was released by the Royal family just before her funeral in September last year. 'It shows that it was emotion that won in the end, not a tiara or a crown. It was those two little brooches, the family present, that she chose to wear.'

Queen Elizabeth II wore the brooches on either side of her dress during a royal visit to Nigeria in February 1956 - Getty
Queen Elizabeth II wore the brooches on either side of her dress during a royal visit to Nigeria in February 1956 - Getty

Choisne, who has been creative director at Boucheron since 2015, chose the design for the brooches as the inspiration for this year's collection two years ago and has named it Like a Queen. 'That design became an obsession,' she says. 'It's in classic art deco style, sharp with symmetry and baguette-cut diamonds, but balanced and softened with the baby blue of the aquamarines. I wanted to find a way to modernise it, while focusing on that exact motif to create the whole collection.'

The result is seven sets of designs, comprising 18 pieces in all, that are replete with transformable elements in keeping with high jewellery tradition. Necklaces unravel to become brooches and hair jewels; pendant earrings shorten with the removal of Akoya pearl or pear-shaped emerald drops; chokers come with interchangeable leather straps in varying colours, from classic black to acid yellow, and cocktail rings shed their diamond surrounds to become classic solitaires.

With a few notable exceptions, the Queen almost always wore her birthday brooches below her left shoulder, one above the other, arching downwards. Occasionally she branched out, wearing them on either side of her dress during a state visit to Nigeria in 1956 or mirroring each other on the lapel of her coat - on a royal trip to Virginia in 1957, for example. But the variation stops there: a traditionalist to her marrow, she was nothing if not constant. Charmingly, given the Queen's love of colour-blocking, the brooches usually made their appearance on matching powder-blue dresses and coats.

In tune with the times, but also in keeping with Boucheron's own magnificent tradition of jewellery for all - if you can afford it - they have shot the collection on both women and men: maharaja and maharani, as it were. Men wear giant cocktail rings on their little fingers and drape a river of diamonds from collar to collar, suspended by two brooches, while women sport giant cuffs or single earrings.

And while those baby-blue aquamarines do appear, along with sapphires and blue lacquer, the collection takes on a range of colours as varied as, well, a queen's wardrobe. 'To me, Queen Elizabeth was an icon of style because of the way she played with colour,' Choisne says. 'My first mood board was a lot of pictures of the Queen in all the colours.' There were images of Her Majesty in a rainbow of colours throughout the years, from leaf green, citrus yellow, peach and fuchsia to lavender, navy and poppy red.

Wth Queen Juliana of the Netherlands greeting the Regimental Color of the Prins Hendrikkade in Amsterdam - Getty
Wth Queen Juliana of the Netherlands greeting the Regimental Color of the Prins Hendrikkade in Amsterdam - Getty

In the end, Choisne whittled things down. 'Colours are a real point of this collection,' she says. 'I wanted all along to have the colours of the Queen represented. I started working with all of them but narrowed it down to just a few outfits.'

There's Green Garden, with Zambian emeralds; Rolling Red with rubies; Hypnotic Blue with Ceylon sapphires; Lemon Slice with a bright yellow leather strap to hold a diamond clasp; Mega Pink with tourmalines and pink lacquer; and two whites - Frosty White with diamonds and Moon White with glossy Akoya pearls. Combine them and you have enough to adorn the late Queen for half a week of official engagements - just.

Despite all the variation, the brooches' design codes appear in every one of the 18 pieces. 'My obsession with the motif meant I had to find a way to modernise it, but always using it as inspiration,' explains Choisne. 'So I wanted to really play with the ways to wear it, from tiny ear clips to giant necklace clasps.' A trio of ear clips, designed to be worn high up the ear, are like miniature versions of the brooches, set with pink, blue and yellow sapphires, while a giant cuff sees two blown-up brooch motifs opposing each other on a blue-lacquered gold strap, set with baguette and cabochon aquamarines and white diamonds.

'The use of lacquer - in blue, pink and purple - was a way to make coloured stones super modern,' says Choisne, who has always imbued Boucheron's collections with modernity in unexpected ways - an unusual material here (real flowers, butterfly wings, sand), an unusual mechanism there (magnets, springs, puzzle-like joints).

It may be a modern collection but Like a Queen is still regally magnificent. Yes, there are chokers that would look as good worn on the dance floor of the most alternative club in Berlin, but there are also grand necklaces that sweep from brooch-motif anchors set from collarbone to collarbone, and shoulder-dusting earrings that dangle rubies and diamonds from earlobe to shoulder.

It's a jewellery feast fit for a queen, but it's also just right for her granddaughters, grandsons, pages and any member of her loving public too. And no one will ever forget who inspired it. Style, too, is constant.