Yank Leslie Field Traces the Rich History of the Queen's Jewels

updated 01/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Ever since Elizabeth II became Queen of England in 1952, she has received hundreds of proposals from British journalists eager to write about her legendary private collection of jewelry—from the most dazzling tiara down to the most trivial baubles, bangles and brooches. No, said the Queen, she thought not. Then four years ago writer Leslie Field, a transplanted American, decided to test the royal resolve one more time.

Field's notion was to do a book using the private collection (not to be confused with the Crown Jewels, worn by the Queen only on ceremonial occasions) to trace the historical continuity of the monarchy. "I knew from day one that this book would be Her Majesty's scrapbook, saying, 'Here's Granny, here's Mummy, here's me—all wearing the same brooch,' " she says. After sending her proposal to the palace, Field, 43, was told by a baffled press secretary, "I don't know how, and I don't know why, but the answer is yes."

The project consumed four difficult years of Field's life, and the result is the recently published The Queen's Jewels (The Personal Collection of Elizabeth II), a lavishly illustrated book about the history behind the Queen's private collection, which now includes more than 300 pieces. Of these, some 50 pieces—including the most valuable item in the collection, the Cullinan Lesser Stars of Africa diamond brooch—are worn by the Queen herself. She is free to do as she pleases with the entire collection, including lending pieces or giving them to friends or family such as Princess Anne or her tag-team daughters-in-law, Fergie and Di. So how much is all this sparkle worth? Field won't hazard a guess. "The collection is irreplaceable and unique," she says.

That kind of discretion may be one reason Field got the assignment to do the book. She believes she got the royal nod mostly because of her family-scrapbook premise, but it helped that she promised to do her own pictures and research. Her only stipulation was that the palace agree to make the corrections. Even so, the task proved daunting. For the first two years she buried herself in picture libraries and archives in London, totally neglecting her personal life. She sifted through 450,000 photographs, tracing rubies, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds.

Later Field worked out of Buckingham Palace. Royal etiquette forbids her from revealing whether she worked with the Queen herself. Corrections, she was told by the palace, would be made "by someone who knows." The comments of that knowing someone were usually terse and unrevealing. Entire sections of the book were returned to Field with only the word "no" scribbled in the margin. Her account of one brooch came back marked "no" nine times until Field figured out that her mistake was in saying the Queen had "borrowed" it from the Queen Mother. "They did not think it appropriate that Her Majesty would borrow something," she explains.

Other royal family members were more forthcoming. Field says Princess Diana was "wonderful and punctilious; she had her corrections done in one day." Field does admit to having met Queen Elizabeth and describes her as a woman who "loves to laugh. When you tell her something funny, she throws her head back and just roars with laughter."

The Queen's approach to jewelry, says Field, is "very sentimental. She usually wears the same 30 pieces." Her favorites include her diamond engagement ring, designed by Prince Philip, and the Kensington bow brooch, Field's personal favorite.

Although she grew up in New York City, Field claims she was always an Anglophile. She graduated from the tony Dalton School, skipped college and worked her way up to fashion editor at Glamour before emigrating to England in 1971. Field, who retains her American citizenship, is also a naturalized British citizen. "I thought God had made a mistake that I wasn't born there and I had to fix it," she explains.

In London, Field eventually became the fashion editor of the Sunday Times. Then, in 1978, she began a 2-year reign as the first woman, as well as the first foreigner, to head the 279-year-old Tatler magazine. More British perhaps than most natives, Field has over the years become a fixture on the British society circuit. She has interviewed Prince Philip four times and has been an occasional guest at Buckingham Palace events.

Since its publication, The Queen's Jewels has received reviews almost as dazzling as the gems themselves. Nevertheless, Field isn't sure that the ordeal was worth it. "I feel that I've thrown my life away. I have a lot of time to make up," she says. The project was not easy. "Writing a royal book is like being a jockey in a horse race. They keep putting hurdles up, hoping I'd fall down and give up. But," says Field, "I'm very stubborn."

The palace would seem to agree. "Afterward I got a note from the Queen's office complimenting me for my very 'terrierlike' tenacity. So that is my reward," she jokes, "to be called a dog by Buckingham Palace."

As for her diligent Anglophilia, it seems to have earned Field a title of her own. The Queen, she knows, refers to her as "the American." "It means," translates the proudly persistent Field, "that I've been a bother."

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