The Windsor Collection: The Mystery of Queen Alexandra’s Emeralds

The Windsors

Of the many loves attributed to the Duchess of Windsor during her lifetime, one is beyond doubt the most obvious. Whilst she clearly adored both her Prince and her pugs, jewels were a huge part of the Windsor story. When Wallis died in 1986, ravenous collectors could hardly contain their excitement as it was confirmed that the Duchess’ treasure trove was to come up for public auction at Sotheby’s. It had been her intention (with the full agreement of the Duke before his death in 1972), that her jewels should only be sold once broken up. She disliked the notion of another woman wearing pieces that had been designed especially for her, but she also believed that jewels should constantly be reset (where possible) so as to remain permanently fashionable. Wallis did not get her way and the pieces were sold exactly as they had been set for her by Cartier, Garrard’s and Van Cleef and Arpels among others.

But Wallis’ jewellery collection proved to be a fascination for the British public in a more sinister way in the immediate aftermath of the abdication in 1936. Whilst society gossips such as Sybil Colefax and Emerald Cunard had admired Wallis’ newly acquired gems (simultaneously expressing alarm at the King’s generosity behind Wallis’ back), others were less complimentary. There was a rumour that in addition to the plethora of bracelets, brooches, necklaces, earrings and hair clips which David had lavished upon her since the start of their romance, a right royal theft had taken place which had greatly angered Queen Mary and her daughter-in-law, the new Queen Elizabeth.

It was alleged that just before the abdication on the 10th December 1936, the Duke had stolen down to the royal vaults and purloined a collection of emeralds belonging to his grandmother, the late Queen Alexandra. These emeralds had been dropped in a hessian bag, placed in his pocket and were about to be set into a new piece to be presented to Wallis on their day of their wedding. A second version of the story suggests that Wallis had already received the emeralds (loose stones, for her to do with as she saw fit) by the time of the abdication, whilst a third version (and the most fanciful), suggested that Wallis had physically stolen them herself from Queen Mary’s safe at Marlborough House.

Queen Alexandra
A bejeweled Queen Alexandra, the consort of King Edward VII.

One of the most ardent supporters of the rumour was none other than Mary Raffray (née Kirk), a childhood friend of Wallis who had served as bridesmaid at Wallis’ first wedding to Earl Winfield Spencer Jr in 1927. Mary also played another important role in Wallis’s life. She was “the other woman” cited by Wallis in her divorce case against Ernest Simpson (Wallis’ second husband) and would later marry Ernest (Mary’s third husband) in 1937. The abdication broke Wallis and Mary’s friendship and in the immediate months that followed, Mary seems to have told anybody who would listen that the rumour that Wallis had taken possession of jewels belonging to Queen Alexandra was absolutely true. Word got back to a furious Wallis awaiting her reunion with David at the Château de Candé who tried to scotch the rumour in her pre-wedding interview with the journalist and feminist pioneer, Helena Normanton.

But this interview did little to halt the rumour mill. For decades, Wallis was chased by the accusation and it seemed that (with people being prepared to think the worst of her) there was nothing she could do to bring the matter to a close. Her protestations that “Queen Alexandra’s collection of jewels was – for a queen – none too remarkable” were heard in vain and even members of the British Royal Family who knew better were happy to push the story of the missing gemstones.  In 1946 during a rare visit to England, disaster struck and gave those determined to prove the emeralds rumour to be true a useful (and somewhat believable) conclusion to the tale.

The Duke and Duchess at Ednam Lodge, 1946.
David and Wallis greet the press upon their arrival at Ednam Lodge, Sunningdale in 1946.

A year after the end of the Second World War, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were given permission to visit England. David had hoped to be allowed to stay at his beloved Fort Belvedere in Windsor Great Park but King George VI refused permission. The Earl and Countess of Dudley came to the couple’s rescue, taking a temporary suite at Claridges Hotel and allowing David and Wallis the full use of their Sunningdale home, Ednam Lodge. One night, a cat burglar broke into the Lodge and helped themselves to Wallis’ jewels. The story was shocking, coming as it did during a spate of particularly greedy robberies which seemed to target wealthy women and their jewellery collections. But the story also came whilst Britain was still gripped by post-war austerity and very few had any sympathy for those now weeping in the dailies over their lost treasures.

The value of the stolen jewels was said to be £250,000, a figure the Duke quickly corrected; “There is absolutely no truth in the published statement that the value of the jewellery was £250,000”, he said, “Its value was not more than £20,000 and you can say that I said so. I can understand that the quarter of a million figure makes better reading than £20,000 but £20,000 was the value”. A full list of the stolen jewels was published in the newspapers in an attempt to recover them. The list was as follows:-

  • One diamond bird clip
  • One diamond and aquamarine brooch
  • one platinum and diamond bracelet with six large aquamarines
  • one aquamarine ring with solitaire aquamarine, stone-weight 58.2 carats
  • One gold ring with golden sapphire, stone weight 41.4 carats
  • One solitaire square cut emerald ring, stone weight, 7.8 carats
  • One pair of diamond and sapphire earrings
  • One pair of diamond ball earrings
  • One pair of shell shaped earrings with blue and yellow sapphires
  • One double gold chain necklace with blue and yellow sapphires

Whilst none of these jewels were ever seen again, those eager to uphold the allegation that either the Duke or Duchess had helped themselves to Queen Alexandra’s emeralds seized upon the opportunity to add them to the “missing list”. Suddenly, the original items on the list were joined by emerald brooches, emerald rings, emerald bangles – anything to give credence to a rumour that Wallis had spent nearly a decade trying to refute. So what exactly were Queen Alexandra’s emeralds and who really received them after her death in 1925?

Alexandra's Collier
Queen Alexandra’s Collier Résille necklace.

Queen Alexandra was the Danish born consort of King Edward VII, the eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. She married Bertie (as Edward VII was known within the Royal Family) in 1863 and quickly became the most popular and beloved Princess of Wales the country had ever known. Everything from her fashions to her mannerisms were slavishly copied by admirers. Women even affected a limp, Alexandra having been left with one following a bout of rheumatic fever, or deafness, a hereditary condition which grew worse as Alexandra grew older. But there were very few women who could afford to imitate Alexandra’s taste in jewels.

Grand diamond tiaras, ropes of pearl necklaces, ruby brooches and sapphire stomachers worn three or four at a time; Alexandra was a walking Christmas tree, constantly glittering and unabashed in her extravagant tastes. Wallis was incorrect in suggesting that Queen Alexandra’s collection of jewels was “none too remarkable”. For her Silver Wedding anniversary in 1888, Alexandra received a cross of rubies and diamonds from her husband (the Prince of Wales), a silver orange blossom brooch from her mother in law (Queen Victoria), a sapphire and diamond necklace from her brother-in-law (Tsar Alexander III) and a sapphire and diamond brooch from her brother and sister in law (the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh).

But what about emeralds? It is true that Queen Alexandra had some substantial emerald pieces in her collection, including an Indian necklace gifted to her by the Viceroy and his wife, Lady Curzon, in 1901. This necklace was composed of rubies, emeralds and pearls and was made by Cartier. She also possessed emeralds in the form of a brooch given to her on her wedding day by the Duchess of Cambridge (Augusta of Hesse-Kassel) and a similar gift which came from the “Ladies of North Wales” and depicted the Prince of Wales feathers in diamonds and emeralds – 36 emeralds to be precise. A second brooch gifted by the ladies depicted a leek (yes, a leek) in diamonds and emeralds and came with matching earrings.

The Duchess of Cornwall
The Duchess of Cornwall wearing the Prince of Wales Feathers Brooch with emerald drop.

When Queen Alexandra died in 1925, she left no will and no instructions on how her jewels should be dispersed between the members of her family. By far the worst possible person she could have left in charge of this royal free for all was her daughter in law, Queen Mary. Queen Mary was a well-known jewel-a-holic and alleged kleptomaniac. She often insisted on being given pieces of furniture or objets d’art from the homes of friends she visited simply because she felt they should be added to her collection. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Queen Mary wasted no time in acquiring jewels put up for sale by her struggling Romanov relations and in 1910, she fought tooth and nail (parting with a large financial sum) to recover emeralds belonging to the Teck family left by her brother Prince Francis to his mistress.

Queen Mary had a keen eye for design as well as acquisition and over the years she had several pieces remodelled, reset or destroyed entirely to accommodate new stones she had been gifted or had purchased. This is key to the story of Queen Alexandra’s emeralds. Whilst it is possible that Queen Mary may have set aside pieces from Alexandra’s collection she wished to gift to the Prince of Wales’ future fiancé, Queen Mary would undoubtedly have placed these pieces in reserve when Queen Alexandra died in 1925. As the Prince did not marry Wallis until 1937, there was simply no opportunity for David (even as King) to acquire any jewels from his grandmother’s collection. And there was certainly no way Queen Mary would have parted with any gem destined to be worn by the daughter in law she refused to mention by her Christian name.

The idea that Wallis acquired the emeralds and had them reset might be believable when one considers that she firmly believed that jewels should evolve with their wearer. Mary Raffray was among those who believed that Wallis had the emeralds reset thereby obscuring their royal provenance. However, it appears that only two items from Queen Alexandra’s jewellery case containing emeralds went missing following her death. These were the Indian Necklace and a necklace commissioned by Queen Alexandra from Cartier in 1904. This Collier Résille with detachable emerald and ruby pendants was formed of gems taken from existing jewels belonging to the Queen (said to be yet more gifts from India).

Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester
Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester wearing emeralds formerly belonging to Queen Alexandra.

In the case of the Indian Necklace, this was inherited by Queen Mary and broken up to create a staggering emerald and pearl demi-parure for her daughter in law, Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas Scott, who married Mary’s son Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester in 1935. In the case of the Collier, once again, the necklace was inherited by Queen Mary who had it altered in 1926. According to Hugh Roberts’ book “The Queen’s Diamonds”, the piece is now in the collection of Alexandra’s great-granddaughter, the present Queen Elizabeth II. The Ladies of the North Wales items (the feathers and that famous leek) made their way to David’s successor as Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, and have been worn by both his first wife, Diana, Princess of Wales and his second wife, the Duchess of Cornwall.

The mystery of Queen Alexandra’s emeralds kept the tongues of the chattering classes of London society clacking for decades. They even suggested that the Windsors had staged the Sunningdale cat burglary to cover up their heist. They were wrong. The Duchess of Windsor possessed some truly remarkable gems which were admired and desired by millions. These included a 48.95-carat emerald pendant once owned by King Alfonso XIII of Spain as well as an emerald and diamond necklace said to have been made from stones re-purposed from a pair of anklets worn by the Maharani of Baroda. What her collection never included however, were Queen Alexandra’s emeralds.

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