Although they frequently include some pretty epic crowns, crown jewels are not necessarily just crowns—they can also include scepters, jewels, necklaces, tiaras, and enormous gemstones. A nation’s crown jewels are used during a coronation ceremony, with the regalia often being used to represent the transfer of power to the new monarch. Over the years, the crown jewels of many nations have been lost or destroyed—sometimes in very mysterious circumstances.
1. THE HAWAIIAN CROWN JEWELS // REPLACED WITH PASTE
Hawaiian king Kalakaua and his queen Kapiolani decided to hold a lavish coronation eight years into their reign, after witnessing many foreign royals performing such ceremonies. They had two solid gold crowns designed and made in London by Hoffnung and Co., for which they paid £1000. One crown was said to contain 521 diamonds, 54 pearls, 20 rubies, 20 opals, and eight emeralds, among other jewels.
The coronation went ahead on February 12, 1883 and the impressive crown was ceremonially placed upon Kalakaua’s head—the only occasion on which the crown was ever used. Kalakaua died of kidney disease in 1891 and his sister Liliuokalani inherited the throne, but already much of her constitutional powers had been eroded, and by 1893 she was deposed by an American-led military coup. The custodian who took over the provisional government ordered an inventory of royal possessions, but when staff fetched the satin-lined box in Iolani Palace in which crown had been stored, all they found was its twisted and bent remains. Every single jewel had been pried from its moulding and stolen.
Detectives immediately set to work to try and find the lost jewels, and before long one of the guardsmen, George Ryan, was found to have some of the smallest diamonds in his jacket pocket. Ryan was jailed for the theft for three years but no other jewels were recovered. Kalakaua’s crown was restored with glass and paste jewels costing $350 in 1925 and is today displayed alongside Queen Kapiolani’s crown (which had been stored elsewhere and thus remained intact) in Iolani Palace.
2. IRISH CROWN JEWELS // LOST WITHOUT A TRACE
The Irish crown jewels included no crown, but a diamond brooch, five gold collars, and a diamond, ruby, and emerald encrusted star of the Order of St. Patrick, an honor created in 1783 as an equivalent to the illustrious British Order of the Garter. In 1903 the jewels were moved to a special safe in Dublin Castle which was supposed to be kept in a newly re-enforced strong room. However when staff came to move the safe into its new position, they realized, a little late, that the safe would not fit through the door. Instead, the Officer of Arms, Arthur Vicars, allowed it to be stashed outside the strongroom in a library.
In 1907 King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra were due to visit Dublin Castle, intending to use the jewels to bestow the Order of St Patrick on a local Lord, but when the custodians came to check on the jewels the found the safe empty. Panic and suspicion swept the castle—the crime was clearly an inside job, because keys had been used to unlock the safe. All fingers pointed to Arthur Vicars, the person in charge of the keys, but he vehemently protested his innocence and instead accused his assistant, Francis Shackleton—brother of the famous Arctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and later a convicted fraudster. Both men were investigated by a Royal Commission which cleared them of the theft but admonished Vicars for not exercising due vigilance. Vicars became a bitter recluse, blaming King Edward VII for making him a scapegoat and continuing to accuse Shackleton of the crime, even using a statement in his will to take another swipe at his former colleague. Modern historians largely agree that Shackleton appears to have been the most likely culprit, but the jewels have never been tracked down and their disappearance remains a great mystery to this day.
3. ENGLISH CROWN JEWELS // LOST IN THE FENS
King John of England (known as King John the Bad) had a huge cache of crown jewels. In October 1216, just a year after the famous Magna Carta was signed, King John was trying to suppress a rebellion and made a trip through the boggy Fens of eastern England. He and his large entourage travelled with many carts laden down with supplies, including one holding all of King John’s crown jewels. It's thought that John had fallen ill, and so was in a hurry to get across The Wash, a tidal area criss-crossed with creeks, streams, and treacherous patches of quicksand. The riders got across safely, but contemporary chronicles tell us that the baggage carts laden with jewels sunk forever into the silt. To cap a really terrible week, just a few days later King John the Bad died of dysentery. The legend of the lost jewels has grown over time and archaeologists have sought the treasure in vain—the huge, boggy Fens seem unlikely to ever reveal their resting place.
4. THE SCOTTISH CROWN JEWELS // LOST THEN REDISCOVERED
The Scottish crown jewels are known as the Honours of Scotland and consist of a crown that was remodeled by James V in 1540, a scepter given to James IV in 1494, and the sword of state, which was given to James IV in 1507. The jewels were first used all together at the coronation of all Scottish monarchs starting in 1543, but during the English Civil War, when Oliver Cromwell had Charles I executed, the Scottish crown jewels were spirited away and hidden to prevent Cromwell from destroying them.
The monarchy was restored in 1660, and in 1707 Scotland officially became unified with England under James I. At that point, the historical pieces were placed in storage in Edinburgh Castle for safekeeping. Largely forgotten, they were thought lost until 1818, when the celebrated novelist (and ardent Scot) Sir Walter Scott led a search party through the storerooms of Edinburgh Castle in search of the jewels. Scott stumbled upon a locked oak chest, and there, hidden underneath piles of linen, were the Scottish crown jewels, exactly where they had been left in 1707. Since then the rediscovered jewels have been on display at Edinburgh Castle for all to admire.
5. RUSSIAN CROWN JEWELS // LOST TREASURES OF THE ROMANOVS
The Romanov family ruled Russia for over 300 years: from 1613 until they were overthrown during the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Russian tsars had amassed an amazing collection of crown jewels, and in the chaos following their departure it would not have been surprising had the jewels gone missing. However, despite some revolutionaries arguing that the jewels should be sold as they represented the oppression of the people, historians were able to preserve the collection due to their national importance—or so it was thought. In 2012 researchers uncovered a large photographic record of the jewels from 1922 in the U.S. Geological Survey Library in Reston, Virginia. When they compared this record to the official inventory of the crown jewels from 1925 they discovered at least four pieces were missing, including a sapphire brooch that they later found had been sold at auction in London in 1927. The other three pieces—identified as a diadem, a bracelet, and a necklace—have so far not been traced and their whereabouts remain a mystery. As for the rest of the still extremely impressive Romanov crown jewels, they are on display at the Kremlin in Moscow.
6. FRENCH CROWN JEWELS // SOLD OFF
The incredible French crown jewels were last used at the coronation of Louis XVI in 1775 and were thereafter on display in the treasury. They included the priceless Charlemagne Crown, Charles V’s medieval gold scepter, and the coronation sword, as well as an enormous collection of gemstones collected over hundreds of years by the French monarchs.
After the French Revolution it was agreed that the crown jewels should be sold, because keeping them might encourage attempts to restore the monarchy. It took many years for the plan to be put into action, but in 1887 many of the crown jewels were put up for sale (fortunately some of the most historically interesting pieces were preserved for the nation and some can still be seen on display in the Louvre). The auction caused quite a sensation and jewelry fans from all over the world flocked to try and secure a piece of history. The gross proceeds of the sale were put into government bonds for the benefit of the nation.
In 2008 one of the jewels sold at the 1887 auction again came up for sale. The stunning diamond brooch [PDF] had been made for Empress Eugenie in 1855 and was bought by jeweler Emile Schlesinger for Mrs. Caroline Astor at the 1887 auction. When the jewel came up for sale in 2008, it was quickly snapped up by the Louvre so that it might join their collection of surviving crown jewels.
7. ENGLISH CROWN JEWELS // MELTED DOWN
After the Civil War in England, when Parliamentary forces under Oliver Cromwell defeated the Royalist forces of Charles I, all emblems of the monarchy were ordered destroyed. Charles I was executed in 1649 and the Parliamentarians agreed that the ancient English crown jewels must be melted down, preventing them from being used as a symbol of the lost monarchy. It is unclear exactly what items were in the crown jewels at this time, but they are thought to have included the diadem of St. Edward the Confessor, used at his coronation in 1043, as well as many other crowns, jewels, and plate. Details of the historical vandalism are scant, but it is thought that the golden crowns were melted down and made into coins.
However, one item survived: the golden Ampulla and spoon used to anoint the monarch with holy oil during the coronation ceremony. Today the English crown jewels—created after the Restoration for the coronation of Charles II in 1661—are kept on display at the Tower of London. The Imperial Crown of State includes a sapphire that once belonged to St. Edward the Confessor and was buried with him in 1066. It's said, somewhat gruesomely, that the stone was retrieved from the king’s casket in 1101 and set into a crown for Henry I. It is unclear how the jewel managed to survive the destruction of the crown jewels but it thankfully reappeared at the Restoration and now represents the oldest surviving jewel in the current royal regalia.