The Imperial State Crown is the money shot (in so many ways).
I had the pleasure last week of visiting, shamefully for the first time, the Tower of London, to see the restaged display of the Crown Jewels. The most common question asked is whether they're real, and having learnt a little about diamonds in Antwerp recently, no cubic zirconia or highly-polished glass could sparkle like these. Just to be sure, I got out my jewellers' loupe and asked them to crack open the display case.
Some time after I had been released from the dungeon, I got to looking properly round the exhibition. The curator at a press conference had talked about removing as much text as was superfluous, so it is a remarkably wordless show. Or rather, it lacks the written word, because the spoken (and sung) word is omnipresent.
As you walk into an early room, three video screens show an abbreviated history of the Crown Jewels. The ancient words of the Coronation ceremony spoken by Archbishop Fisher in 1953 are heard above a close-up on the 12th-century Coronation Spoon and other details of the regalia. 'Zadok the Priest' blares from several rooms away and is stirring and oddly emotional. (Mind you, I found the whole thing emotional when I considered the look on the Queen's face in restored Coronation footage playing – not of pleasure but of one about to take on a massive burden.)
Watch footage of the Queen's Coronation from 1953
There is a winding path through several reasonably empty rooms before you get to any of the Crown Jewels themselves, a collection which does not just include crowns, orbs and sceptres but also trumpets, plate and maces. Many of them date from Charles II and William & Mary, because Cromwell had had the original Crown Jewels and accoutrements broken up after Charles I's execution.
This break in the monarchy is given heavy emphasis and represented rather well by three small panels, which look like Saul Bass-designed stained glass windows: angular, yellow and pink sharply against black, with a deliberately muddle plane of vision. The loyal message of republican horror is not subtle, but nor is it distastefully done.
The most recognisable parts of the Crown Jewels are in several separate cases along a travelator, which was mercifully stationary when I went round. The first case has the Sovereign's Sceptre with Cross (1661, pictured left), to which was added the Cullinan Diamond (530 carats) in 1910. It transfixed me.
The way it refracted the light into every colour along the spectrum, changing with each move of your head, is the best example of why people care so much for diamonds. Anyone forced to glide past it on the travelator is really missing a treat.
There are other crowns, including the Queen Mother's Crown with the Koh-i-Nur and Queen Victoria's cute 10cm-high Small Diamond Crown (to go on her widow's veil, pictured left), but you feel like you're being teased until the main event, around the corner.
The Imperial State Crown is the money shot (in so many ways). Once the monarch has been crowned with St Edward's Crown (which only rented its stones for coronations until 1911 and is a relatively unbejewelled affair), she receives the Imperial State Crown (pictured below), the one we're most familiar with from occasions including the State Opening of Parliament. It gets a case to itself because it is the symbol of the monarchy, the proper metonym.
It has the Cullinan II Diamond (a mere 317 carats), the Stuart Sapphire (which was moved from the front of the crown to the back to make way for Cullinan II – take that Stuarts!), what is allegedly St Edward's Sapphire, four of Elizabeth I's pearls (demonstrably not all hers) and the Black Prince's Ruby (not in fact a ruby).
What all of this means, of course, is that despite the many different incarnations of crowns which have weighed down our monarchs' heads, despite Cromwell's smelting festival, the transcendence of their rule is reflected in the persistence of these jewels.