Jewels (Literally) Fit for a Queen

You don’t have to tell us that jewelry is important, but it’s rare to encounter pieces that are helped-start-a-revolution important. Last week, for that very reason, the Gray & Davis team joined the many New Yorkers flocking to the Sotheby’s showroom to see jewels once belonging to Marie Antoinette. Although the “Royal Jewels of the Bourbon Parma Family” auction is in Geneva on November 12th, Sotheby’s took the unusual step of sending the pieces on an extensive international viewing tour to give the public the once in a lifetime chance to get up close and personal with history. And, reader, it was pretty magical.

 Some of the “Royal Jewels” on display at Sotheby’s New York showroom.

Some of the “Royal Jewels” on display at Sotheby’s New York showroom.

The extreme rarity of Marie Antoinette jewelry might seem a little paradoxical, considering her enduring association with opulence, and the fact that her profligate personal spending was a major factor in the lead up to the French Revolution. As extensive as her collection was, however, most of it was lost during the conflict, and much of what survived was broken up and cannot be traced.

What is perhaps the most famous single piece of jewelry associated with Marie Antoinette, and certainly the most consequential, not only no longer exists but was never actually in her possession: the titular piece from the notorious “Affair of the Necklace,” which cemented her bad reputation. Her husband’s predecessor, Louis XV, had originally commissioned it for his famous last mistress Madame du Barry; he died before its completion, Louis XVI ascended the throne, and new queen Marie Antoinette refused to buy the massive necklace (28,000 carats of diamonds!). But in 1785, it was procured in her name, without her knowledge, by con artists who promptly disappeared with the loot. When the jewelers contacted the confused queen for payment, the ruse was revealed. Many falsely blamed Marie Antoinette of trying to defraud the treasury and, even though the perpetrators were eventually tried and found guilty, the story aligned with the unpopular queen’s notorious excess and it stuck. Many historians point to this scandal as a turning point for the angry French populace on the road to anti-monarchical violence.

 The Necklace, by Parisian jewelers Charles Auguste Boehmer and Paul Bassange.

The Necklace, by Parisian jewelers Charles Auguste Boehmer and Paul Bassange.

Despite the queen’s innocence in that particular case, of course, her overall reputation was most certainly earned. The queen loved luxury, gambling, and, most famously, fashion; she spent enormously, even as her people faced serious economic hardship. The jewelry showcased at Sotheby’s is incredibly impressive, and would have been incredibly expensive. Pearls, for example, were unfathomably rare and precious at the time; in the pre-culture era, qualities like size and similarity for matching could only be found, not created. The auction pieces include a necklace made with 331 pearls and pendant featuring a pearl so large it really must be seen to be believed.

And yet, financial judgment issues aside, Marie Antoinette wasn’t the historical villain she is sometimes made out to be. She was vivacious and free-spirited, sent to a foreign country at age fifteen to marry someone she’d never met, and only eighteen when she ascended the throne. The Sotheby’s jewels tell a story of a desperate woman trying to provision for her family’s future in a time of fear and instability. We only have them today because, as the Revolution was kicking into gear, the Queen packed them up and sent them through family to her native Austria, where her nephew was emperor and where the royal family planned to escape. While Marie Antoinette was instead imprisoned and ultimately executed in 1793, her daughter was eventually released and made her way to Vienna, where she was reunited with her mother’s jewels. She left them to relatives in the House of Parma, and they have remained in the family ever since. Now they’re about to change hands for the first time, and perhaps disappear again from public view. But, in the meantime, they’ve given us new proof of the iconic French queen’s extravagance, taste, and enduring icon status.

 Marie Antoinette, painted by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Marie Antoinette, painted by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

The Star in the Sapphire

Ever wondered how star sapphires get their stars? It's created by an optic feat called asterism, from the Latin astrum meaning star. For a star sapphire to appear, the stone must have spindly, needle-like inclusions of a mineral called rutile that grow and intersect each other within corundum, the mineral we know as sapphire and ruby (yes, star rubies are also possible!)

To cut a perfect star is no easy feat. After determining that a star is even possible, due to a sheen on the rough gemstone, a lapidary must find the gemstone’s optic axis, and then begin to fashion the stone into a rounded cabochon shape. High quality star sapphires are cut to center the stone’s asterism as perfectly as possible in the middle of the cabochon, and keep the points of the star of similar length. The higher the dome of the cabochon, the less the star will ‘move’ under a light source or when rotating the gemstone at different angles.

Snug in a platinum, diamond accented mounting, our Art Deco star sapphire ring was most likely designed for the stone set into it. The underside of the cabochon is rough and uneven to keep the rutile inclusions needed for a lovely, strongly visible star.

And, for a little gemstone bling, take a look at some of the most famous star sapphires, one of which is on display here in New York!:

 The Star of India, which lives in New York's American Museum of Natural History, is 563 cts.

The Star of India, which lives in New York's American Museum of Natural History, is 563 cts.

 The Black Star of Queensland, no longer on public display, is 733 cts.

The Black Star of Queensland, no longer on public display, is 733 cts.

 The Star of Asia, currently housed in the Smithsonian, is 330 cts.

The Star of Asia, currently housed in the Smithsonian, is 330 cts.

The Tortoise and the Horn

Gleaning the styles of the day from Victorian portraiture and photography, it seems like the order of the day was swirling rolls and curls laboriously piled atop the head in any number of different ways! When sitting for these images, women would have worn their most flattering styles, adorned with their most fabulous accessories, giving us a window into the world of antique hair styling. Here, we take a quick look back at two of our favorite Victorian accouterments: hair combs and antique barrettes.  

 Victorian tortoiseshell and hand-engraved 14K gold hair combs, made c. mid-late 19th century.

Victorian tortoiseshell and hand-engraved 14K gold hair combs, made c. mid-late 19th century.

 Hand carved Victorian tortoiseshell comb, made c. mid-late 19th century.

Hand carved Victorian tortoiseshell comb, made c. mid-late 19th century.

Some of the loveliest and most popular material we find them in are tortoiseshell and horn. The ‘Tortoise’ name is misleading, as these pieces were actually made from sea turtle shells, a source of material beauty since ancient times. Imported tortoiseshell could fetch high prices, so horn was painted to achieve a similar mottled effect. Both were popular until toward the end of the 19th century, when Art Nouveau jewelers began favoring lighter colors.

 Art Nouveau horn barrette c.1880 - the rose cut diamond-set 10K gold frontspiece is delicately riveted to the horn. The horn would most likely have been bleached with hydrogen peroxide to achieve the pale yellow hue.

Art Nouveau horn barrette c.1880 - the rose cut diamond-set 10K gold frontspiece is delicately riveted to the horn. The horn would most likely have been bleached with hydrogen peroxide to achieve the pale yellow hue.

Barrettes, an evolution of the hairpin, were developed in the mid to late-19th century to help hold hair in place. They were decorated so that they did not have to be hidden within the hairstyle, a combination of form and function that we still appreciate today!

Vintage comb 2.jpg
Antique combs ad 1894.jpg
Antique barrette 1.jpg

Across the 19th century, the tortoiseshell hair comb remained a hairdressing staple to both hold hair in place and provide support as styles oscillated between opulent and austere. While the decorative comb has waned in popularity since, the beauty of tortoiseshell endures today in any item inspired by its coloration.

The Secrets That Antique Jewelry Keep

We’re always pleased when jewelry reveals some of it secrets through hallmarks, maker’s marks and engraved details. However, some jewelry are meant to keep secrets; artisans have built compartments to protect the wearer’s valuables and tokens of significance, and encase them in some seriously fabulous materials.

 19th Century Etruscan Revival coach covers, from the Gray & Davis archives.

19th Century Etruscan Revival coach covers, from the Gray & Davis archives.

 Coach cover with the old mine cut diamond earring it encased, from the Gray & Davis archives.

Coach cover with the old mine cut diamond earring it encased, from the Gray & Davis archives.

Fashionable and functional in the 19th century, “Coach covers” are attachable orbs that cloaked valuable earrings to protect the wearer in transit (we assume from villainous highwaymen). Once the wearer arrived at her destination, she could remove the covers and let her diamonds out.

 A 15K gold brooch pendant with its original pin and catch made c. 1860.

A 15K gold brooch pendant with its original pin and catch made c. 1860.

 The brooch pendant's secret locket compartment, now fitted with a piece of brocade. 

The brooch pendant's secret locket compartment, now fitted with a piece of brocade. 

Jewelry that incorporated a loved one’s hair became popular in the seventeenth century and remained in fashion until the end of the nineteenth century. Pieces could be given as both a sentimental gesture (Queen Victoria gave hair jewelry throughout her life) or included as part of mourning jewelry to further personalize the token of remembrance. Jewelry with a glass plate built in, as well as some daintier antique lockets, most likely held beautifully woven hair; period jewelers were skilled at braiding and working it into compartments of brooches, pendants and rings.

 A 15K rosy gold locket ring with a buckle design and hand engraving, made c.1830.

A 15K rosy gold locket ring with a buckle design and hand engraving, made c.1830.

 Buckle ring hides woven hair around the band's center.

Buckle ring hides woven hair around the band's center.

Small ring compartments may have held other secrets besides hair. Rings crafted with a small lidded compartment for herbs, or something more sinister, are mentioned in ancient texts. Famous locket ring wearers included Elizabeth I and members of the powerful Borgia family. The ring’s use in fictional and real life drama buoyed their popularity in the 16th through 19th centuries.

 Victorian 15K gold and banded agate men's intaglio ring with locket compartment.

Victorian 15K gold and banded agate men's intaglio ring with locket compartment.

Larger locket pendants became fashionable c. 1860-1880, coinciding with increasing availability of portrait photography – for the first time, images could be created and mounted into jewelry that didn’t require the skill of a miniature portrait painter. Today, with the help of image resizing, we can put pictures into those small jewelry compartments so they may once again hold treasured mementos.

 French 18K gold Georgian locket with carved Garnet and scalloped edge of rose cut diamonds, c.1800. Rock crystal locket backing.

French 18K gold Georgian locket with carved Garnet and scalloped edge of rose cut diamonds, c.1800. Rock crystal locket backing.

 Early 20th Century 14K gold locket watch fob with black enamel and a spider design set with an old mine cut diamond.

Early 20th Century 14K gold locket watch fob with black enamel and a spider design set with an old mine cut diamond.

 Victorian 18K rose gold watch chain is hung with a shield-shaped locket containing a hinged disk of rock crystal. French Import mark c. 1838 - 1864. 

Victorian 18K rose gold watch chain is hung with a shield-shaped locket containing a hinged disk of rock crystal. French Import mark c. 1838 - 1864.