Would you wear Marie-Antoinette’s jewellery?

Would you wear Marie-Antoinette’s jewellery?

Queenly adornment

Text: Milena Lazazzera


Unseen for over 200 years, the pearls and diamonds that made the guillotined Queen Marie-Antoinette's fame and fate are certainly the most awe-inspiring jewellery that will go under the hammer at Sotheby's sale on the 12 of November in Geneva.

Titled "Royal Jewels from the Bourbon-Parma family", the sale abounds in pieces laden with centuries of history, as the Bourbon-Parma family descended from the Holy Roman Emperors and is linked by blood to the most important ruling families in France, Spain and the Habsburg of Austria and Pope Paul III.

During his exile in St Helena, Napoleon pondered that the infamous Queen's death was decided since the time of the "affair of the diamond necklace", a scam organised by Marie-Antoinette's courtiers at the expenses of Parisian jewellers. Although the Queen was innocent, the subsequent trial exposed the minutiae of the extravagant costs of her sybarite lifestyle.

Preparing to escape her fate in March 1971, Marie-Antoinette spent an entire night in the Tuileries Palace wrapping all of her jewellery in cotton and placing them in a wooden chest. Sent to Brussels under the reign of Archduchess Marie-Christine (sister of Marie-Antoinette), the jewellery was received by Count Mercy Argentau, a former Austrian Ambassador to Paris, with the instructions to deliver them to Vienna for the Austrian Emperor who was Marie-Antoinette's nephew.

But Marie-Antoinette never saw her jewellery again. She was imprisoned in 1792 in the Temple tower with King Louis XVI and executed in 1973. Her only surviving child, Marie-Thérèse de France (1778-1851), also known as "Madame Royale", upon her release in December 1795 was sent to Austria where she received her mother's jewellery. Childless, she bequeathed part of her jewellery collection to her niece and adopted daughter, Louise of France (1819-1864), Duchess of Parma and grand-daughter of Charles X, King of France (1757-1836), who in turn left them to her son, Robert I (1848-1907), the last ruling Duke of Parma.

Marie-Antoinette's jewellery

A symbol of wealth and power, her pearls are featured as the most interesting pieces of the collection. There's a diamond pendant, supporting a natural pearl of exceptional size (measuring 26mm by 18mm and estimated at $1 - 2 million), a pair of natural pearl drops (estimated at $30,000 - $50,000), and a triple-strand necklace made with 331 natural pearls (estimated at $200,000 - $300,000).

Some of the jewels combine multiple royal provenances. Made for Louise of France (1819-1864), granddaughter of Charles X, King of France and mother of Robert I, Duke of Parma, a diamond parure composed of 95 diamonds (estimated at $300,000 - $500,000) includes five solitaire diamonds that belonged to Marie-Antoinette, a large number of stones which adorned the sword of the Duke of Berry, son of Charles X and father of Louise (who was assassinated by an anti-royal Bonapartist in 1820) and a large pear-shaped diamond from the collection of the Archduchess Isabella of Austria, Princess of Croÿ (1856 -1931).

Some jewels at the auction are linked to the storied Habsburg house, to which Marie-Antoinette herself belonged, that reigned over the Austro-Hungarian empire until 1918.

A highlight of this group is a diamond tiara of foliate scroll designed by the prestigious Viennese jeweller Köchert and offered by Emperor Franz Joseph (1830-1916) to his great-niece, Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria (1882-1940) for her wedding to Elias of Bourbon, Duke of Parma (1880-1959) in 1902 (estimated at $80,000 - $120,000).

Marie-Antoinette's jewellery

Sharing the same prestigious provenance are a diamond bow brooch, adorned with a 6.89-carat Burmese ruby (estimated at $200,000 - $300,000) and a diamond ring set with an impressive, fancy orangey-pink diamond of 2.44 carats (estimated at $120,000 - $180,000) which were given to Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria by her father to mark the births of her two sons.

A diamond brooch adorned with an impressive 30.70-carat sapphire from Ceylon (estimated at $150,000 - $250,000) was a gift from her mother on the occasion of her marriage. Most of the jewels in the collection were given to Robert I (1848-1907), the last sovereign Duke of Parma and Piacenza, by his mother, Louise of France (1819-1864), grand-daughter of King Charles X of France and great-niece of Marie Antoinette. Robert I also received exceptional jewels from his paternal grand-mother, Maria-Teresa of Savoy, Duchess of Parma (1803-1879), including a pair of diamond girandole earrings (estimated at $150,000 - $250,000). For her wedding to Robert I, Princess Maria Pia of Bourbon-Two Sicilies (1849-1882) received from her husband's grand-father, Charles II of Parma a large diamond pendeloque brooch (estimated at $25,000 - $35,000).

Truly rare are these jewels that dazzle bystanders not only with the brilliance of their stones but also with the richness of their stories. 

The jewels from the Bourbon Parma family collection will on go auction at Sotheby's on 12 November.