The Kentucky Derby has always loomed large in Todd Merkley’s life. The jewelry designer and Louisville, Ky., native grew up attending the famous horse race, and the two fine jewelry stores owned by his family—both long shuttered—were regular sponsors of the “the fastest two minutes in sports.”
So when the event’s organizers put out a call in 2000 to the town’s jewelers to create a crown fit for the Queen of the Kentucky Derby, Merkley submitted a watercolor sketch of a headpiece that incorporates iconic imagery from the event.
The Kentucky Derby Queen’s Crown, created by Todd Merkley, courtesy of Todd Merkley
Merkley’s playful design won, and the jeweler handcrafted the intricate piece, which took “several hundred hours” to make, himself. “I was tickled to death that they picked me,” says Merkley, who now lives and works in Phoenix, Ariz. “It’s really a great honor.”
The piece will top the 13th Derby Queen at this year’s race on May 4. Every year, the queen is chosen from the Royal Court, which is comprised of women from local universities.
The crown is a hodgepodge of gemstones and various metals. Sterling silver makes up the crown’s base and major supports; white gold was also used in the supports. The wings, head, and mane of the crown’s stately yellow-gold Pegasus was pavé-set with diamond-cut CZs, and its eye is a sparkling cabochon-cut emerald.
There is also a hot air balloon in homage to the Derby’s balloon event, a fleur-de-lis (a symbol of Kentucky) embedded with CZs, sterling silver roses set with CZs (the winning horse is decorated in 554 roses every year), jockey helmuts, and horse shoes, and two trumpets set with baguette CZs that flare out into a ‘v’ shape behind the mythical beast. “Trumpets are used all over the Kentucky Derby,” notes Merkley. “They play ‘To the Post,’ the song that calls the jockeys to their places.”
Muses Merkley: “I hope they use the crown forever.” But in the event that they do replace the bejeweled headpiece, event organizers have told Merkley that it will be retired to the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs. Giddyup!