Brooches have undergone a renaissance in recent years, thanks to Michelle Obama’s fondness for wearing flamboyantly large costume pieces. Last year, Vogue declared “the brooch is making a surprisingly chic comeback,” used by designers from Céline to Chanel. While fashion tastes come and go, there is one person who has long worn brooches whether they are au courant or not—Queen Elizabeth II. For her 90th birthday walkabout in Windsor, she wore a diamond star given to her in 1981 by Lady Jardine.
That the sovereign wears one pinned on her left shoulder is a given. She’s rarely seen without one, and will even shift it from her coat to her dress when she takes off her coat. While her outfits are usually chosen by her dresser, Angela Kelly, the monarch reportedly decides which brooch to wear.
The brooches in her vast collection run the gamut from historic—a round diamond one made in the early 19th century for Queen Adelaide by her husband, William IV—to frivolous—a modern porcelain floral design that popped up in 2014. There’s even an old-fashioned diamond “stomacher,” so long that it extends from decollage to waist, explaining why it’s been seen only once, at a private pan-European royal dinner in 2002.
The exhaustive From Her Majesty’s Jewel Vault blog has tallied 108 brooches, including multiple versions of some designs, such as bows. In all, she has at least 41 with diamonds as well as 14 pearl, 10 ruby, nine gold, eight sapphire, seven each of emerald or multiple stones, four aquamarine and two each of amethyst and crystal.
Sometimes the choice is dictated by both symbolism and the colour of the Queen’s outfit. At the start of the state visit to Germany last June the Queen decorated her blue coat with the large oval sapphire surrounded by diamonds given to Queen Victoria by her German husband, Prince Albert of Saxe Cobourg and Gotha.
Often, as with her choice in Berlin, she’ll wear something that has emotional resonance. For Prince William and Kate’s wedding, she chose a ribbon of diamonds tied in a lover’s knot. In 2013, she wore the colourful flower basket brooch, given by her parents to mark the birth of her first child, Charles, in 1948, to the christening of his first grandson, George. (For Charlotte’s baptism last July, she wore a summery gold filagree brooch given to her in 2012 by Singapore.)
For historic events, she decides well in advance. For the church service commemorating the Diamond Jubilee, her sixtieth year on the throne, the Queen selected the Cullinan III and IV brooch. The two perfect diamonds in this monumental brooch weigh a staggering 158 carats. The brooch, which the Queen refers to as “Granny’s chips,” was a gift from South Africa to her grandmother Queen Mary. The brooch is so heavy that fabric on which it is pinned has to be reinforced.
Sometimes, years can pass before pieces are seen again. The spray of pink-and-green hued enamel maple leaves worn by the Queen during her 2010 Canadian tour is believed to be the brooch given to the future Queen Mary on a similar tour of Canada in 1901 and, as far as anyone can tell, had never been seen again before its 21st-century outing. According to the Court Jeweller blog, the Queen wore 10 brooches for the first time in 2014. One was a sapphire and diamond brooch bought by Queen Mary in 1934 that is said to have belonged to Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia (the present Queen’s great-great-aunt). She wore another five new ones in 2015.
Last year the list got a big boost when she premiered a large ruby and diamond brooch that her mother had often worn. The brooch was given by Victoria to the Crown in her will; it will be passed down to the next monarch.
The collection may be priceless and historic in its nature and scope, but it’s still evolving. Recent additions include a strikingly modern pink tourmaline piece presented by Saskatchewan’s lieutenant-governor in 2013, while last year, the Queen debuted a new pearl and diamond brooch in the form of two swans, created by her personal jeweller, G. Collins & Sons. And this year, it’s almost certain that another brooch or two will arrive at the palace on her 90th birthday.
Queen Victoria's ruby brooch
This brooch was given to the Crown by Queen Victoria and is passed from queen to queen. Previously worn by the Queen Mother, it was first worn by her daughter, the Queen, at this year's Ascot races.