Sparkling piece of history: Marie Antoinette’s jewellery on display in Dubai

Sparkling piece of history: Marie Antoinette’s jewellery on display in Dubai

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Diamond parure

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The year is 1773 and France’s Louis XV has commissioned a diamond necklace. However, the piece is so opulent that the monarch dies long before it is completed, and Parisian jewellery-­makers Boehmer and Bassenge are left stranded with the 647-­diamond sautoir.

In 1778, the hapless ­jewellers are granted a meeting with Louis XVI, whose wife, Marie Antoinette, subsequently views and approves the ­necklace, but decides at the last minute to buy battleships instead. The queen’s ­connection with the piece would have ended there, were it not for a conwoman called Jeanne de la Motte.

In 1784, de la Motte began ­communicating with a ­Cardinal de Rohan, who was keen to get into Antoinette’s good books. De la Motte told him she was the queen’s agent, managed to convince him that the queen was half in love with him and asked him to procure the necklace on the royal’s behalf. De Rohan did so and passed on the jewel to a third party, upon which the piece promptly disappeared.

Many historians believe that Antoinette was completely oblivious to the whole affair, but so renowned was the ill-­fated queen’s love for jewellery that many citizens, disgruntled by the lavishness of the royal family, believed she was involved in the scam. Even ­Napoleon remarked decades later that her “death must be dated from the diamond ­necklace trial”.

While that gold and diamond necklace has long thought to have been broken up and sold for parts, Antoinette’s jewels continue to spark interest among history buffs and jewellery collectors. Many of these pieces, which will be up for auction through ­Sotheby’s Geneva on November 14, arrived in Dubai this morning, where they will be on display at the Sotheby’s showroom in DIFC until Thursday.

“As a jewellery historian and an archaeologist, I have a special passion for jewels that have a lot of soul, as it were, and have a story to tell. It is a very special thing to have been entrusted with this collection, and we are thrilled to be able to share it with jewellery lovers all over the world. The [Dubai] exhibition offers the ­opportunity to glimpse these ­never-seen-before jewels up close before they move out of the public spotlight,” says Daniela ­Mascetti, senior ­international jewellery specialist at Sotheby’s.

The much-touted highlight of the collection is Antoinette’s Pearl, “an exceptional and highly important natural pearl and diamond pendant” that is estimated to sell for up to US$2 million (Dh7.35m). Other pieces that are known to have graced Antoinette’s person include a pair of pearl drops and a necklace featuring 119 natural pearls.

Queen Marie Antoinette's Pearl, an exceptional and highly important natural pearl and diamond pendant
Queen Marie Antoinette’s Pearl, an exceptional and highly important natural pearl and diamond pendant

Interestingly, while the auction has several ­million-dirham pieces, it also offers five diamond brooches from the 19th ­century that are valued at between Dh10,000 and Dh30,000, for those looking to buy a piece of history without breaking the bank.

The sale also includes several important jewels that belonged to various members of the house of Bourbon-Parma – who descended from King Louis XIV, the Holy Roman Emperors and Pope Paul III – such as King Charles X, the archdukes of Austria and the dukes of Parma. In fact, the 100-plus lots span more than 200 years of history, offering insight into the splendour of one of Europe’s most aristocratic families.

The collection also features a number of jewels that combine multiple royal provenances, showing how the stones in the family collection were set in different designs throughout the centuries, according to the tastes of each successive ­generation. For example, a parure composed of 95 ­diamonds, made for Charles X’s daughter Louise of France, includes: five solitaire diamonds that belonged to Antoinette’s daughter; a number of stones that adorned the sword of the Duke of Berry; and a pear-shaped diamond from the collection of the Archduchess Isabella of Austria, Princess of Croy.

Diamond parure
Diamond parure

The Bourbon-Parmas were also connected to the House of Habsburg, the royal dynasty that reigned over the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. Some of the jewels bear witness to these links, most notably a diamond tiara of foliate scroll design, created by Viennese jeweller Köchert. This was given by Emperor Franz Joseph to his great-niece Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria for her wedding to Elias of Bourbon, Duke of Parma (1880–1959) in 1902.

“This collection of jewels from the Bourbon-Parma family is certainly one of the most important royal jewellery collections ever to be offered at auction. In my time at Sotheby’s, there have only been a few pieces that combine important historic provenance with outstanding quality. This group of jewels offers a captivating insight into the lives of its owners going back hundreds of years. However, these pieces are also very special in their own right, thanks to the quality of the materials, gemstones and diamonds, as well as the incredibly workmanship – even before you consider their huge historical importance,” notes Mascetti.

Five of our favourite pieces from the Royal Jewels from the Bourbon-Parma Family auction

The Bourbon-Parmas were also connected to the House of Habsburg, the royal dynasty that reigned over the ­Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918. Some of the jewels bear witness to these links, most notably a diamond tiara of foliate scroll design, created by Viennese jeweller Kochert. This was given by Emperor Franz Joseph to his great-niece Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria for her wedding to Elias of Bourbon, Duke of Parma in 1902.

“This collection of jewels from the Bourbon-Parma family is certainly one of the most important royal jewellery collections ever to be offered at auction. In my time at Sotheby’s, there have only been a few pieces that combine important historic provenance with outstanding quality.

“This group of jewels offers a captivating insight into the lives of its owners going back hundreds of years. However, these pieces are also very special in their own right, thanks to the quality of the materials, gemstones and diamonds, as well as the incredible workmanship – even before you consider their huge historical importance,” Mascetti says.

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