Why do British royals wear mourning jewellery? The historical significance of pearls

Both the Princess of Wales and Queen Consort Camilla have worn pearl jewellery in the days following the death of Queen Elizabeth

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As the mourning for Queen Elizabeth II continues, members of the British royal family, politicians and diplomats have been seen wearing strings of pearls with their sombre, all-black looks.

The decision is not a coincidence. It is commonly known that wearing black is seen as a mark of respect, as too is the wearing of pearls, in a tradition that dates back to Queen Victoria.

Four pieces of mourning jewellery worn by Queen Victoria. Made to commemorate her husband, Prince Albert, who died in 1861, and daughter Princess Alice, who died in 1878. Photo Sotheby's

When Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert died in 1861, she was so overwhelmed by grief, she wore all black for the rest of her life, a period that spanned almost 40 years. Her head-to-toe black ensembles were broken only by the occasional piece of jewellery. Most of it was black, or colourless, but Queen Victoria also wore white pearls, as they were considered to denote purity and tears.

To mourn the loss of both her daughter Princess Alice in 1878, as well as Prince Albert, Queen Victoria wore brooches made with their initials, and a jet-black pendant set with a single, white pearl, establishing a tradition that has lasted until the present day.

Following the recent death of Queen Elizabeth, the tradition is being continued. When the new Queen Consort Camilla attended the Accession Council ceremony, where her husband was formally declared King Charles III, she wore a necklace with four rows of white pearls, with a round diamond clasp.

Immediately following the announcement of the death of the queen, Catherine, Princess of Wales, was seen collecting her children from school wearing pearls by Annoushka, attached to Kiki McDonough diamond hoop earrings.

Meanwhile, to attend the Accession Council ceremony, former prime minister Theresa May and Patricia Scotland, Baroness Scotland of Asthal, both chose to wear pearl necklaces.

As well as being a classic item of jewellery, the decision to wear pearl necklaces not only follows with tradition, but can perhaps be seen as a nod to Queen Elizabeth in a touching gesture.

Queen Elizabeth II (L) and Queen Mother arrive at Westminster Abbey in London to attend the funeral ceremony of Princess of Wales 06 September. (Photo by JOEL ROBINE / AFP/WPA POOL / AFP)

As a monarch, Queen Elizabeth followed court protocol rigidly. Following the tradition set by Queen Victoria, she wore pearls to attend the funeral of her uncle, the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII in 1972. His abdication forced his brother, the queen's father, onto the throne as King George VI. At the Duke of Windsor's funeral, both Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother wore pearls.

Princess Diana wore a necklace with a single pearl to the funeral of Princess Grace of Monaco in 1982, and when the queen attended Princess Diana's funeral in 1997, she wore a triple strand of pearls with her black dress.

More recently, when Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh died in 2021, the Princess of Wales, then known as the Duchess of Cambridge, attended his funeral wearing a four-strand pearl necklace.

In addition to being a royal mourning tradition, however, Queen Elizabeth clearly treasured wearing pearls and was seen wearing them on a regular basis. Therefore, the fact that royal women are now choosing to wear pearls is perhaps a tilt to the great regard in which they held her.

Updated: October 13, 2022, 11:41 AM
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