The Crown Jewels and the ping pong ball

Sandra Westbrooke discovers the truth behind the bling

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When plans were being made for the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales, some 50 years ago, there was a problem. The coronet he should have worn, originally made for Prince George (later George V) for his father’s coronation in 1902, was no longer in the royal collection. Edward VIII wore it before he became king, but took it with him when he abdicated in 1938 and went into exile. Demanding its return might have caused a diplomatic incident so it was decided to have a new one made. And this is where the ping pong ball joins the story.

The designer chosen, goldsmith Louis Osman, pleased everyone by deciding to save money with a crown that used the relatively uncommon method of electroplating, which meant less of the precious metal would be needed. A wax mould was made and covered with a thin layer of gold. But when it was removed from the mould, the orb at the top was so fragile it collapsed when it went to be hallmarked, just weeks before the ceremony in Caernarfon Castle. David Mason, the retired chemical research manager who had been charged with making the creation, was at his wits’ end.

With just days to go I was watching a table tennis match on TV, when it suddenly came to me – a ping pong ball. We’ll electroform a ping pong ball,” he recalled in a later interview.

Incredibly, the process worked, but as there was no way of removing the ball – we just had to leave it inside.” So when the Queen placed the precious coronet on her son’s head, a humble white ping pong ball was at its core.

The coronet itself now sits in a new display in the Jewel House at the Tower of London, after many years on show in Wales or in storage. Set with emeralds and diamonds, with a purple velvet cap lined with ermine, it’s a contemporary interpretation of the guidelines laid down hundreds of years ago. The orb at the top is surrounded by 13 diamonds arranged to represent Prince Charles’s star sign, Scorpio. The other diamonds, set horizontally, represent the seven Gifts of God and the seven Deadly Sins, while the green emeralds reflect the national colour of Wales. Beside it is the ceremonial rod used in the investiture, made of gold with a silver-gilt crown finial encasing a cabochon amethyst.

It joins the two other Prince of Wales coronets, displayed alongside the rest of the glittering Coronation regalia, which includes the famous Kohinoor and Cullinan diamonds. Many of the items were made for the 1661 coronation of Charles II as Oliver Cromwell had had the originals melted down or sold off. The collection has been refashioned and added to over the years. When in 1820 George IV commissioned a diadem for his coronation, a cash shortage meant he had to hire the precious stones for it. They were removed after the ceremony but there’s no evidence they were ever returned. However, the diadem sparkles once more – De Beers have lent the Tower diamonds valued at more than £2 million to represent those that were borrowed.

The Crown Jewels are seen by two and a half million visitors a year, and guarded by the Beefeaters, resplendent in their red and gold uniforms. So far, there has only ever been one attempt to steal them – by an Irish adventurer, Colonel Blood, in 1671. He was caught in the act, arrested, and brought before the King. Surprisingly, Charles II was so impressed with his audacity that he didn’t have him punished, but made him a member of his court with an annual pension.

People often ask how much is the insurance for this world-famous collection of 23,578 gemstones, powerful symbols of the British monarchy. The answer? They’re not insured – they are literally priceless.