When we think of Marie Antoinette we think of her dedication to hedonism, her doomed flight from Paris in the dead of night, her execution by Guillotine and, of course – “let them eat cake.”
However, as a Queen of France, centre of the fashion universe and renowned for her love of spending money, perhaps we should also think of her jewellery collection. It was surely splendid, yes? Oh yes, it was indeed – as can be seen when you look at surviving portraits painted of her; strings of natural pearls, sapphires, rubies and diamonds in many colours – all these graced her famous (prematurely shortened) neck.
Royal escape attempt
Marie Antoinette, her husband – Louis XVI, King of France – and their children attempted to escape from Paris in June 1791. They were captured 250km away, after they were recognised at their previous carriage stop. Their escape was doomed to failure from the start. Louis kept changing the details and postponing the date. Rather than throw the family into two light carriages and racing away (as they were recommended to do) they chose a single heavy travelling coach and six horses, which was not only a great deal slower, but really rather conspicuous. Additionally, Louis believed that outside of Paris and the revolutionary fervour, he and the royal family were still very popular. He was mistaken.
Louis XVI was beheaded in January 1793 and his wife, Marie Antoinette, the following October. Their son Louis XVII died while imprisoned, aged just 10, and their daughter Marie-Thérèse, known as Madame Royale, was kept in solitary confinement until December 1795. Upon her release, she was sent to Austria.
The royal jewels survive
And what of Marie Antoinette’s jewels? Well, their escape plan was far better designed and executed. It was in March 1791 that the royal family first began to prepare for their escape from France (I told you Louis had dithered about!) and part of their plans involved the family jewels. According to the memoirs of one of Marie Antoinette’s ladies in waiting the French queen personally wrapped all of her jewellery in cotton and placed them in a wooden chest. This was then sent to her sister, the Archduchess Marie-Christine, ruler of Brussels. From here they were sent to Vienna, to the Emperor of Austria, Marie Antoinette’s nephew. In 1795 they were passed to Madame Royale. As she had no children of her own, Madame Royale, in her will she split the collection of her mother’s jewels into three parts, leaving one third – ten magnificent pieces – to her niece, Louise of France, Duchess of Parma and grand-daughter of Charles X, King of France, who in turn left them to her son, Robert I, the last ruling Duke of Parma.
The ten pieces left to the Bourbon-Parma family were sent to auction at Sotheby’s in Geneva in November 2018, giving us a unique opportunity to glimpse the very pieces that dressed the person of one of the most famous women in history.
One of the most show-stopper-y of pieces in the collection was Marie-Antoinette’s Pearl and Diamond Bow pendant. A vast natural pearl, in a baroque tear-drop shape, suspended from a diamond set bow, which is in turn suspended from an oval white diamond. In life, Marie-Antoinette wore this pendant suspended from a three strand pearl necklace.
Pearls were one of the queen’s preferred jewels, and in this period were more valuable than diamonds, as they were so rare. This pendant was purchased for approximately £28m at auction, against an estimate of £756,000 – £1.5m. A record price for a pearl at auction, it seems that even Sotheby’s underestimated the pull of a pearl owned by a doomed queen.