Nova Scotia Archives (Photo: Michael Creagan)

Information about royal jewellery can be hard to find, especially historical gifts, which is why a rare letter from Queen Mary about the Maple Leaf Enamel Royal Brooch is raising the possibility that its usage may not be as infrequent as once believed.

In June 2010, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip arrived in Nova Scotia for what would be the monarch’s last trip to Canada. It’s there that she wore a mysterious gold and diamond brooch of enamelled maple leaves, anchored by a pearl. The old fashioned style suggested it was a heirloom. She wore the brooch again later on the tour in Waterloo, Ont. Then, the brooch went back into the royal jewellery vault.

Since then, some of its heritage has been pieced together. The assumption has always been that it hasn’t been seen in public for more than a century, perhaps since its original gifting in 1901. But a letter being auctioned on June 30 by Spink & Son raises the possibility that it may have returned to Canada, pinned to the outfit of perhaps the most famous queen consort of recent times, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

The brooch’s origins are relatively well known, thanks to an official record of the 1901 tour of Canada by the present Queen’s grandparents, then the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (copies of the book exist, including one at the Toronto Reference Library). Perhaps the most exhaustive research of the brooch has been published on the Royal Magazin site.

On May 18, 1901, the royal couple arrived in Montreal near the beginning of the tour and were staying at the home of Lord and Lady Strathcona. (He’d made a fortune with the Hudson’s Bay Company, Bank of Montreal and other business interests, then became a philanthropist and a famously generous host. At the time of the tour, he was Canada’s High Commissioner in London.)

The Tour of Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York Through the Dominion of Canada in the Year 1901, by Joseph Pope (Ottawa: S.E.Dawson, Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty)

But all the lavish entertaining was sharply curtailed as Canada was officially in mourning for the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley. So, after a relatively small private dinner at the Strathcona mansion, the royals were presented with the city’s official gifts by Lady Strathcona and Mrs. Drummond (wife of George Drummond, yet another fabulously wealthy businessman).

“A spray of maple leaves wrought in gold and enamel and set with diamonds and pearls,” is how Joseph Pope described it (and he was there, having been made a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George that same evening).

There was much more detail on a front-page story in The Quebec Chronicle the following day: “The gifts comprise a beautiful corsage ornament for Her Royal Highness. The jewel consists of a spray of maple leaves with six leaves. The leaves are enamel and set with diamonds, over 300 of which have been used, and at the base of the spray is a large pearl.” (Royal Magazin has another quote describing the brooch as having “leaves made from blended colors of enamel from green to pink.”)

Credit: Royal Canadian Mint

After those references from 1901 and the following year’s exhibition of presents from royal tours in London, all mentions of that Maple Leaf Enamel Royal Brooch cease until that 2010 tour when the brooch appears twice.

After that, the Royal Canadian Mint featured it on a commemorative $20 silver coin in 2018. As the Mint explained, “It is unknown how long the brooch had been hidden away in the royal vault, but one thing is certain, that spray of maple leaves evoked a sense of home so poignant that The Queen was inspired to wear them as an outward expression of the warmth she feels for her second home—the home of the maple leaf.”

Aside from the occasional retrospective royal jewellery post, the brooch slipped out of our collective memory.

Until now.

“Robin Hunt collected British royal and historical ephemera over a 55 year period and succeeded in assembling a wide range and highly specialised collection that we are offering by auction on 30 June,” explains Ian Shapiro, senior consultant for Spink, in an email. And among the treasures is item No. 2259, a two-page note about the Maple Leaf Enamel Royal Brooch from Queen Mary to her daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth less than a month before she and King George VI would undertake the first visit to Canada by a reigning monarch. (For the record, its estimate is 350-400 British pounds, plus a 20% VAT on buyer’s premium.)

For the auction, Ian Shapiro transcribed the note: “27 April 1939 / Darling Elizabeth. Here is the brooch of enamelled maple leaf given me by the Women of Montreal in Sept. 1901. Do wear it while you are there. Wednesday morning May 3rd will suit me for seeing your toilettes, you will need to tell me the hour later on. Ever yr. loving Mama, Mary”

A search of books, documents and newspaper articles related to the 1939 tour has turned up no images of Queen Elizabeth wearing her mother-in-law’s brooch, though there are many of her wearing the Canadian Maple Leaf Royal Brooch that her husband had made by Asprey for the tour. But it was a long tour and many of the photographs were taken from a distance. Still, hundreds of thousands of Canadians greeted the royal couple as they crossed the country. And personal photography was a popular hobby. Perhaps there’s a photo tucked away in a family photo album that showcases the Maple Leaf Enamel Royal Brooch.