Author Jeffrey Archer tasked jeweler Alan Gard with recreating the Imperial State Crown in connection with his new book about stealing the royal family's Crown Jewels
When famed author Jeffrey Archer finished an early draft of his latest thriller, he felt there was a key element missing: How would readers believe a fake crown could be created to mimic the historic one that the late Queen Elizabeth wore?
His novel, Traitors Gate, features an audacious raid on the Crown Jewels held at the Tower of London. But, without ruining the story for readers, suffice it to say his plan rested on a copy of the Imperial State Crown being crucial to the heist.
Archer turned to someone he knew to see if a close likeness could be created: jeweler Alan Gard, 87. “It was quite a challenge, even for one of the greatest craftsmen on Earth,” Archer, 83, says with a storyteller’s hyperbole.
It certainly would be a tall order even for the best craftsman to build something like the magnificent crown that has the Cullinan II diamond as its centerpiece and is set with more than 2,800 diamonds. Above the Cullinan II sits the Black Prince’s Ruby and, on the back of the central band, is another huge stone, the Stuart Sapphire. That crown was a copy, of sorts, too. Created in 1937 for the coronation of King Charles’ grandfather George VI, the Imperial State Crown was modeled on one designed for Queen Victoria in 1838. Since then, it has been worn at two more coronations (Queen Elizabeth's in 1953 and King Charles' in 2023) and at dozens of state openings of Parliament.
It is one of the main draws for visitors wanting to see the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. While tourists come in through the front door, Archer comes up with a storyline where thieves use an audacious alternative.
The storyteller, whose early book Kane and Abel is on its 132nd reprint while his novels have been translated into 47 languages, was inspired to write Traitors Gate following a conversation with a former member of the royal household who hinted at how it could be pulled off.
He then set about researching the elaborate route with the help of a London cab driver and was almost rumbled by wardens at the Tower as he made notes at one of the gates.
But Archer’s request to his friend Gard, who has made bespoke jewelry for Archer's wife Dame Mary, began on Christmas Eve 2021 with a furtive, secretive voicemail. It's still on Gard’s phone (and played to PEOPLE recently) and went: “I’m trying to get in touch with you...I need to seek your advice on something concerning the next book. I’m desperate to speak to you.”
The two met up to discuss the project, and Gard took a couple of weeks to think about it and assess whether he could successfully turn it in. “I was asked to make it good enough so that when you’re five feet away from it, it would be good enough to fool people — or members of the House of Lords,” Gard tells PEOPLE.
Lifting the crown out of a bright red box (made by the same company which supplies the palace and decorated with the late Queen Elizabeth’s cypher), Gard shows the crown to PEOPLE at his basement studio and workshop in the heart of London’s jewelry district, Hatton Garden.
It was there the frame of base metal alloy, glass stones, cultured pearls and synthetic stones were intricately put in place. There were around 30 separate sections of the crown to construct, and Gard believes it would have been easier to work on the real thing, as he would have been able to use a soldering iron to set in the stones. But this had to be done with nuts and bolts. “It was more difficult for me to make than the real one. When you’re working with real gold and diamonds you can put some heat on,” he says.
The centerpiece – that flawless 317-carat Cullinan diamond (real value around $400 million) — was recreated for around $300, Gard estimates, taking in the purchase of the glass, cutting and setting it into the crown. For the orb that sits on the top, Gard had to drill dozens of holes to set in the tiny glass pieces that would mimic the diamonds of the real thing.
The story is set more than two decades ago, so it is the late Queen who is giving the speech at the State Opening of Parliament that comes towards the climax of the novel.
Gard worked on the piece for around 500 hours over 18 months. Amazingly, on the day Queen Elizabeth died on Sept 8, 2022, he had spent a few hours drilling holes for the small glass "stones" on the orb that sits atop the crown.
"It was odd working on one of the most important parts of the crown and hadn’t known what had happened, until I was on the way home and we heard,” Gard recalls.
In the book, the Queen notices something is wrong but — being stoical and dutiful — she continues with the job in hand and questions her aides about it later in her own understated but firm way.
For Archer, chatting in his penthouse apartment above the River Thames, fooling her wasn’t the point. It was so that onlookers didn’t notice for long enough. “I'm really convinced if she's sitting on the throne and you're where the nearest Lord is over there” — he motions to a military drum (that was used in the Queen’s funeral) is displayed — “you would have no idea, especially if she was wearing it. Absolutely no idea at all.”
Over at the studio, like many people, Gard is intrigued if anyone could have pulled off a similar heist. With a glint in his eye, he mischievously asks Archer: “Do you think it could work?”
Traitors Gate, published by HarperCollins, is available on Sept. 26.
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