Jewels of Royal provenance have always held a special attraction in the human psyche. Across cultures, jewels have been an essential element of the majesty of monarchy; symbols of courtly splendour and power. Whilst the gemstones in noble collections are defined as the rarest of the rare, the jewels invariably are of exceptional design and superb workmanship.
At another level, what is deeply moving about royal jewels is their intimate personal connections to significant events; they provide us with the opportunity to touch history.
No queen is more famous for her love of jewels than Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France. Eventually, it was diamonds (and not cake) that prompted her and her family’s tragic downfall. Even though the ill-fated Queen was innocent of conspiracy, it was the infamous affair of the diamond necklace, stoked by the scandal-mongering pamphleteers in 1785, that lit the fuse of revolution, making her story inextricably entwined with gems and jewels.
Antoine was born in Vienna in 1755 to the Holy Roman Emperor Francis I and Maria Theresa. On May 16, 1770,
at age 14, Marie Antoinette was married to Louis Auguste de Bourbon, cementing the union of the Hapsburgs and Bourbons—bitter rivals since the 16th Century. Four years later, she was crowned Queen of France. Her husband
The late 1700s were turbulent times in France. Winds of change were blowing through the corridors of power, challenging the existing political and ideological order. Beset by severe food shortages triggered by crop failures, weighed down by taxes, resentful of royal absolutism, and inspired by the egalitarian example of an independent United States, French citizens were growing increasingly vocal in their demands for self-government. Cloistered in the luxury of Versailles, the royal couple were oblivious to their subjects’ demands. Court life was overwhelming for the teen Queen, and Marie Antoinette shunned politics and statecraft. Instead, she sought escape in masked balls, opera, theatre, reckless gambling, and shopping for clothes and jewellery. She immersed herself in redecorating her private domain at Versailles, the Petit Trianon, at a cost of more than two million francs.
The public discontent soon tipped over into a populist uprising beginning with the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789. Subsequently in 1791, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were held captive in the old Tuileries palace in Paris. Marie Antoinette, as an ardent monarchist, was unable to comprehend the French people’s thirst for democracy. Whilst in confinement she took the lead role in plotting with French Royalists and European sovereigns to overturn the Revolution and reclaim the French throne.
In early 1791 as they prepared their escape from Paris to Montmédy, near the Austrian-controlled Netherlands, the Queen meticulously wrapped her personal jewels – pearls, diamonds, and rubies – in cotton, placed them in a wooden chest, and covertly shipped them to Comte Florimond Mercy d’Argenteau, the Austrian Ambassador in Brussels. The foiled escape and eventual discovery of the Royal plotting coupled with the dynamics of revolutionary politics saw first King Louis XVI and then his Queen tried and executed by guillotine in 1793.
Following Marie Antoinette’s death, in February 1794 the jewels were transported to the Imperial Treasury in Vienna for safekeeping. Freed under a prisoner exchange, the 17 year old sole surviving child, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, known as “Madame Royale”, on arrival in Vienna in 1796, reclaimed her mother’s jewels. Dying childless at age 72 she willed that the entirety of her jewellery collection – including Marie Antoinette’s jewels – were to be split into three lots of equal value amongst her nieces and nephews: the Count of Chambord, the Countess of Chambord, and the Duchess of Parma. In the 1852 inventory of Madame Royale’s property, the total estimated value of the jewels was 430,930 florins.
HAMISH SHARMA / Head of Important Jewels
Banner Image: Marie Antoinette of France and two of her children walking in the park of Trianon, 1785. Artist: Wertmüller, Adolf Ulrik (1751-1811) / Alamy