Made of gold and set with 2,868 diamonds, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, 269 pearls and four rubies, the Imperial State Crown will be placed on King Charles’ head at the culmination of the coronation ceremony.
Originally used at the coronation of King George VI in 1937, the crown contains some of the most famous jewels in the royal collection, including the Black Prince’s Ruby, the Stuart Sapphire, and, at its heart, the famous Cullinan diamond.
Tense moments: Joseph Asscher working on the Cullinan diamond
The stone was unearthed in South Africa in 1905 and said to be the largest diamond ever discovered.
Joseph Asscher, a Dutch Jew, was the man chosen to carve the giant 3,106 carat diamond — reputedly the size of a human heart — to fit the crown.
It had been presented to King Edward VII, George VI’s grandfather, by the South African government, as a birthday gift and to mark five years of peace after the Boer War.
Asscher’s descendant Yael Loewenthal, who lives in Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel, said the family took great pride in the meticulous work carried out by her great-great-uncle.
“Joseph was one of 13 siblings in Amsterdam, observant Jews and very prominent in the Jewish community,” she said. Her grandfather, Louis Asscher, who died in Belsen towards the end of the Holocaust, was Joseph’s nephew, and her mother, Rachel, had been a childhood friend of Anne Frank.
A drawing of Joseph Asscher's diamond cutting tools
Cutting the Cullinan diamond was a tremendous undertaking, not least because Edward VII was initially keen on keeping it in its rough state.
However, Joseph, who founded what became the Royal Asscher Diamond Company, persuaded him it could be fashioned into astonishing jewels for the crown and the Imperial Sceptre, which will also play a key role in the ceremony at Westminster Abbey this week.
“Joseph was so afraid of doing something wrong when he came to cut the stone,” Yael said. “It took him two years of studying the Cullinan before deciding how to cut it. In order to do so, he developed not just new cutting tools but also a new cut, known today as the Asscher Cut, as a way of showing off a diamond to its greatest effect with numerous facets.”
At the time, the Cullinan stone attracted enormous international attention, with decoy armed soldiers employed to guard it when it was actually sent by parcel post to London.
Its route to the Asscher diamond headquarters in Amsterdam also required subterfuge.
The press were told it would travel in a sealed box from London to the Netherlands on a Royal Navy ship.
But there was nothing in the box. In fact, it was transported by Joseph’s brother Abraham who sailed from London to Amsterdam wearing a particularly heavy coat with the precious diamond secreted in his pocket.
In February 1908, Joseph began cutting the stone in front of an invited audience of the international press. But things did not go to plan.
As he hit his knife over a two-centimetre incision he had already made in the stone the tool broke and he was sent reeling backwards from the force of the failed blow.
Family legend suggests that he either fainted or had suffered a heart attack as a result of the massive tension he was facing. Four days later, witnessed by just one public notary, Asscher successfully cut the diamond.
It became nine separate jewels, including the Great Star of Africa, which sits on the Sovereign’s Sceptre, and the slightly smaller Second Star, which is positioned at the front of the Imperial State Crown.
Several of the smaller stones were reset in brooches worn by the late Queen Elizabeth II, while 96 “chips”, residue from the cutting, were given to the Asscher family and have been set in rings for their marriages — most recently last year at an descendant’s wedding in Tel Aviv.