Epic Diamonds

Priceless and Sweet: Here is the Story of the World-Famous Granny’s Chips Diamonds

Discover the sweet and regal story of a diamond heirloom like no other: Queen Elizabeth’s 158-carat Granny’s Chips.

Priceless and Sweet: Here is the Story of  the World-Famous Granny’s Chips Diamonds© Yousuf Karsh
© Yousuf Karsh

Some of us fondly recall our Granny’s French fries. But the treasure known as Granny’s Chips carries memories of a very different nature. Featuring two diamonds cut from the legendary Cullinan diamond, Granny’s Chips is among Great Britain’s most iconic brooches. It’s also the most spectacular heirloom Queen Mary handed down to her granddaughter, Elizabeth—a.k.a. Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second. 

Elizabeth II in 1962 © Ray Bellisario/Popperfoto via Getty image
Queen Mary and granddaughter Elizabeth © Universal History Archive via Getty image

Even for a Queen, a Diamond is a Token of Love

When Queen Mary bequeathed her diamond clip to Elizabeth, her 27-year-old granddaughter was about to become the Queen. Queen Mary passed away only ten weeks before Elizabeth’s coronation on June 2, 1953. Though the offering of jewelry is very much a queenly tradition, the diamond heirloom was a gift of love.

Queen Elizabeth II at her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 © Matt Cardy / Stringer via Getty image

Elizabeth II is the longest-reigning monarch of all time. Yet, as we are reminded via the hit series, The Crown, Elizabeth is also a daughter and a granddaughter. Granny’s Chips, the humorous nickname Elizabeth II bestowed on the clip, is a testament to the affectionate bond between her and Queen Mary. 

In tribute to her beloved Granny, Queen Elizabeth wore Queen Mary’s breathtaking gift for her Diamond Jubilee in 2012. The presence of Granny’s Chips no doubt uplifted Gan-Gan—the nickname only the royal great-grandchildren may use for Elizabeth II—in her journey down memory lane.  

The Royal Family on the day of King George VI Coronation © Fox Photos / Stringer via Getty image

Remembering Queen Mary

The mother of six and grandmother of nine, Queen Mary had the reputation of being very warm. During World War I, she frequently visited wounded soldiers with her husband, King George V. Also, to show solidarity with her people, she instituted food rationing at the palace during the war. 

After her second son, George VI, became King, Queen Mary spent a lot of time with his two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret. In true granny fashion, she took them on various excursions in London, to art galleries and museums.

This is where the real value of Granny’s Chips resides—affection. Regardless of color, cut, clarity, and carat, natural diamonds carry cherished memories. They allow love to shine beyond life or death. Whether the jewelry is modernized or, like Elizabeth’s, left untouched, natural diamonds are among the most precious objects to inherit. A diamond heirloom may be sellable in pounds or dollars, but its emotional worth is priceless.

A Diamond 1.18 Billion Years in the Making

The nickname Granny’s Chips illustrates two facts. First, the Queen’s grandma was Great Britain’s eternal Granny—just as the Queen Mother was the kingdom’s Mom. Second, though they are magnificent, these diamonds are nothing compared to the earth’s wonder they come from—the Cullinan.

With a total of 3,106 carats (a staggering 621.35 grams), the Cullinan is the largest clear-cut diamond to date. On top of its size and extreme clarity, its blue-white color is unmatched. The diamond bears the name of the then Chairman of the Premier Mine (since renamed the Cullinan Mine) in South Africa, where the rock was unearthed in 1905. Amazingly, the Cullinan Mine is still in operation. It continues to produce some of the most spectacular diamonds on earth, including the 507-carat Cullinan Heritage, which was sold to Chinese jeweler Chow Tai Fook for $35 million in 2010.

Scientists estimate that the Cullinan was formed at a depth of 410–660 kilometers and reached the surface 1.18 billion years ago, preceding the time dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

At that scale, a diamond’s value is almost that of a country. King Edward VII received the Cullinan as a badge of loyalty from the South African British Colony of the Transvaal. Legend has it that the diamond was sent to England as an ordinary parcel, while a heavily guarded replica traveled on a steamboat. Another legendary yet true story is that the man assigned to cut the diamond, Joseph Asscher, fainted when he cleaved it. It was on February 10, 1908, in Amsterdam. A few days prior, he tried to cut the diamond, but it was so hard, his tool broke. 

Queen Elizabeth II wearing her Granny’s Chips while visiting Louis Asscher in Amsterdam © Royal Asscher

“The Lesser Stars of Africa”

It took 18 months for three artisans working 14 hours a day to cut and polish nine large stones from the Cullinan. Each stone was given a numeral from  I to IX. The largest is the 530.20-carat Cullinan I, also known as the Great Star of Africa. Together, Cullinan I and the 317.40-carat Cullinan II diamonds are part of the British crown jewels. They adorn the British Royal Sceptre and the Imperial Crown of Great Britain, respectively.

The Cullinan III and Cullinan IV “only” weigh 158 carats (31.6 g) total. That is why the two diamonds are called the Lesser Stars of Africa. With a very British sense of humor, one could call them “chips,” compared to the first two. The King gave them to the Asscher Brothers as their prize for cutting the original stone. After South Africa purchased them back, the country gifted the gems to the future Queen Consort. In 1911, she wore the two-diamond clip at her coronation in Westminster Abbey.

The Granny’s Chips brooch © Peter Macdiarmid via Getty image

Queen Mary wore her diamonds in several ways. Yet, her favorite setting was simply hooked together as a pendant brooch. There is an unspoken rule for major high-end jewelry:  the more spectacular the diamond, the simpler the setting. The design of Granny’s Chips is minimalist, both modern and timeless. The harmony between the pear-shaped Cullinan III and the square-cut Cullinan IV is otherworldly.

Who will inherit the Lesser Stars of Africa next? Difficult to say. But this descendant will always hold Queen Elizabeth to heart. She or he will inherit the most expensive diamond clip in the world. The current estimated price for Granny’s Chips is over £50 million ($61.4 million).

Animation Credits ©Peter Macdiarmid; Matt Cardy / Stringer; Ray Bellisario / Paul Popper / Popperfoto; Terry Disney / Matt Cardy / Stringer; Mirrorpix; Bettman; Keystone; Fox Photos / Stringer; Universal History Archive via Getty Images © David Cooper; Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix; World History Archive; Keystone Press; Classic Image; World History Archive /Alamy©Yousuf Karsh ©National Portrait Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY Musc Credit & Rights: Gardner Chamber Orchestra, Live at the Gardner Museum’s Tapestry Room (April 11, 2011), Antonio Vivaldi: Concerto for Orchestra in C Major FXI No25.