Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, wrote Shakespeare, and at this point, Claire Foy might tend to agree. Two seasons into the smash hit Netflix historical drama The Crown, Miss Foy’s cranium has had to shoulder the weight of quite a few royal reproductions.
The real heavy lifting in creating these identical costume jewels has been done for two seasons by Juliette Designs, a London based company that specializes in recreating, down to the finest detail, the British Crown Jewels out of base metals, Swarovski crystals, and cubic zirconia, the most widely used diamond substitute.
Juliette Designs has been in business since 1980, owned and operated by the same family since its inception making rhinestone and bridal jewelry for wholesale. Owners Teresa and Marek Tomas say, “It started when we were asked, many years ago, to repair a particularly bad crown and we decided that perhaps there was a calling for these specialised type of jewels to be made.”
Juliette Designs has spent the last three decades answering that calling by providing exacting replicas of the British Crown Jewels for film, television, and the theater, including the 2013 movie Jack the Giant Slayer, and the BBC hit series, Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville. Clearly their reputation preceded them, and through “the glory of the internet,” they were approached for The Crown on Netflix by costume supervisor Kate O'Farrell.
Aside from entertainment industry props and loans, Juliette Designs’ business consists of creating replica British Crown Jewels for traveling exhibitions. Teresa told The Daily Beast that “For the wedding of William and Kate, I was invited to the Cayman Islands where the wedding was shown on huge screens throughout the island and our replicas were exhibited. The Crown Jewels cannot ever leave the shores of England by Act of Parliament, and exhibiting our jewels around the world is the only way that these splendid jewels can be seen in other countries.”
But now, the vast array of their workmanship can be seen by anyone with a Netflix account and a penchant for plucky aristocratic melodrama. The Crown takes its historic reproductions seriously. The temporal precision of the sets, costumes, and accents is what gives the show its addictive and voyeuristic qualities . A tremendously historic plot point in the first season is Queen Elizabeth’s televised Coronation. The most significant piece of regalia for this most holy of ceremonies is St. Edward’s Crown, dormant after originally being made in 1661 for King Charles II, and only revived in 1911 for coronation ceremonies thereafter by George V. In the first season of the The Crown, we see Claire Foy tottering around Buckingham Palace with the impeccable replica, practicing bearing the weight of her mantle.
The reproduction of St. Edward’s Crown is an extraordinary piece, and has taken many years to perfect. While each faux aquamarine, topaz, tourmaline, ruby, amethyst, sapphire, and garnet has been faceted precisely to period standards and set within the base metal before being plated with gold, there remained elements that eluded Juliette Designs’ expertise for a time. Surprisingly, the most difficult feature to get exactly right was the ermine fur trimming along the bottom. First, many experiments were made with rabbit fur, but it never looked quite right. Ermine fur was found in America, but exporting the material to the UK would have been illegal. Finally, a provider in the UK was found, and the white and black ermine fur was then stitched together by a special machine to achieve the right period look.
In order to get each crystal gemstone set in just the right way, Juliette Designs is lucky to be in possession of a very rare book (number 227 out of 500) on The Crown Jewels, published by The Stationary Office. This book closely details the construction and materials of each piece as if they were technical schematics.
In season two, Margaret storms the bedchambers of her fiancé to-be, Billy Wallace, and confronts him to call off the engagement, just before the official announcement. She’s dressed dazzlingly, and her wrath is surmounted with a delicate replica diamond tiara from Juliette Designs that took three weeks to make. The actual tiara is known as the Cartier Halo Tiara, or formerly, the Scroll Tiara. Princess Margaret was frequently photographed wearing this particular tiara, as it was one of her favorites from the Royal stockpile. It was made in 1936 for the Duke of York to give to the Duchess of York, just before they became King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who is better known as the Queen Mother. Due to wartime restrictions on lavish expenditures, the tiara was re-gifted to Queen Elizabeth II in 1944 on her 18th birthday. Queen Elizabeth II often lent it to her sister Margaret, and later, her daughter, Princess Anne. Most recently, this tiara was seen floating on the veil of Kate Middleton on her wedding day in 2011.
Speaking of the Queen Mother, in season two of The Crown, she (played by Victoria Hamilton) can be seen wearing a reproduction of the the Greville Tiara. The tiara—also known as the Boucheron Honeycomb tiara after the Place Vendôme jeweler that crafted it— was originally made in the 1920s for Dame Margaret Greville. She was a close friend to Queen Mary, and upon Greville’s death in 1942, she left her jewels, including this tiara, to Queen Elizabeth, the future Queen Mother. The geometric Honeycomb structure of the Art Deco tiara melds perfectly with Hamilton’s portrayal of the Queen Mother as a rigid protocol-obsessed busy-body, just like an aloof queen bee. After the real Queen Mother’s death in 2002, ownership of the tiara passed to Queen Elizabeth II, but she has never worn this tiara herself publicly. It has currently been loaned to (or dumped upon) Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, who wears it quite frequently.
So, what’s the point of being so minutely interested in period detail when it comes to royal jewelry and tiaras? Sets, costumes, accents, all these make sense to be perfect, but if anything else is to sneak past the noses of a general audience, it’s historically accurate jewelry, right?
Andrew Prince, a London based jeweler and historical jewelry consultant for that other smash-hit British period phenomenon, Downton Abbey, would disagree. He was brought in on Downton to tune up the costume jewelry worn by the trans-generational women on the country estate. He says, “There is nothing more maddening than to watch a ‘Victorian’ scene, where the people are wearing modern jewelry or clothes that are sometimes 50 or 100 years out of date! ...Downton was very concerned about getting the details correct, and I feel this added to its success. What still baffles me though, is that it is not difficult to see and study period pictures or photographs, to see what they actually wore.”
When asked about the role jewelry plays in telling the story of the British royals on The Crown, Prince replied, “Apart from the Crown Jewels held in the Tower of London, which are only worn on State occasions, the Royal collection is symbolically very important, not just in portraying wealth and status, but also giving a sense of aristocratic continuity and power that is above everyday politics.”
This sense of aristocratic power functioning above and outside of politics is the dynamic battle that Claire Foy grapples with as Queen in nearly every episode of The Crown. In season one, she struggles with her government's mishandling of the hazardous smog situation, and questions whether she should have intervened as Queen on behalf of the people. Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s grandmother, tells her that the most difficult but important thing she must ever do, is to do nothing and remain neutral, as that is the expected role of the sovereign.
In season two, we see how jewelry symbolically asserts itself into situations that toe the line of politics. Queen Elizabeth II famously defied advisors and traveled to Ghana in 1961 and danced with Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah, which The Crown depicts as the act that eased tensions in the region. The heavily documented moment included an important suite of emerald jewels worn as the Queen swept across the dance floor that were dutifully reproduced by Juliette Designs, of course.
Andrew Prince details the jewelry’s backstory for us here: “The Queen often wears a diamond and pearl Russian diadem of interlocking rings, that once belonged to Grand Duchess Vladimir. It was smuggled out of Russia after the 1917 revolution, and purchased by Queen Mary (Queen Elizabeth’s Grandmother) in 1921. The drop pearls are removable and later Queen Mary suspended large drop emeralds that she inherited from her mother, and in a way linking all the various Royal families together in one glittering piece.”
The jewels Queen Elizabeth II chose for this political act in Ghana come with heavy familial associations handed down from one powerful woman to the next. The backstory of this tiara could be a mini series in itself. Made and gifted in 1874 to the Grand Duchess Vladimir, also known as the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, and later hidden away in a Russian palace to avoid the violence and looting of the Revolution, it was smuggled out of the country in the 1920s by a British spy. It was sold in 1921 to support the lives of her children living in exile. This tiara has been through trying times, which is inherently a ridiculous thought. Naturally, this particularly resilient tiara is a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II, and is often still worn to this day.
The fact that these real jewels have played just as much a part in the drama of the British monarchy as anything else, be it Buckingham Palace, corgi dogs, crisp accents, or newspaper headlines, proves that they should indeed be reproduced as faithfully as possible by experts. They carry real significance throughout the royal family, and are acknowledged as symbolic and powerful objects. The opening metallurgical credit sequence of The Crown dramatically depicts floating gemstones and fountains of liquid gold fusing into the lattice of the Imperial State Crown, the crown that represents the sovereignty of the monarch. It’s the perfect image to constantly reiterate the authoritative aura these jewels hold within as each new episode autoplays during your historical drama binge.
Levi Higgs is a decorative arts historian and jewelry archivist at David Webb based in New York City. He has recently lectured on jewelry used in film and literature at the Rijksmuseum’s Jewellery Matters Symposium, and his glittering day-to-day can be found on Instagram at @levi_higgs.