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 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!

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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.

Jewelry Through the Ages @ the V&A

A visit to the jewelry collection at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum should be on the bucket list of any antique and vintage jewelry lover. The 3,000+ piece collection is a veritable trip back in time, offering the opportunity to see jewelry history from 1500BC to today, and the designs and trends that influenced our favorite pieces from the Georgian, Victorian, and Art Deco periods.

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The museum’s collection is a testament to both craftsmanship and care. Most pieces are in excellent condition and several were donated from what must have been spectacular personal collections. It’s easy to be entranced as you learn about the evolution of design and gemstone cutting, and the expansion of materials available to craftsmen through the ages – as shown by the pieces themselves.

Curators did not scrimp on the details: each case provides information on notable historical and cultural events that steered trends, such as why iron jewelry was created during the Napoleonic Wars, and brief biographies of influential craftsmen and designers. For those who crave item specifics, each case has a binder with a complete listing for each piece.

 Etruscan gold rosette made in Tuscany c. 500-400 BC. 

Etruscan gold rosette made in Tuscany c. 500-400 BC. 

 Gold earrings made by Castellani's student Carlo Giuliano c. 1865.

Gold earrings made by Castellani's student Carlo Giuliano c. 1865.

To first see original Etruscan gold granulated wire work c.300 BC, and Castellani’s 19th century Etruscan Revival cannatile jewelry later on, is a real treat. Other collection highlights include incredibly detailed ancient gold chains, the Canning Jewel (a merman brooch with a large natural pearl torso), Art Nouveau enamel designed by René Lalique, and floral diamond tiaras with moving parts (en tremblant) for extra sparkle.

 The Canning Jewel, most likely of European origin c. 1800-1865, with enameled gold, natural pearls, table cut diamonds and Indian rubies.

The Canning Jewel, most likely of European origin c. 1800-1865, with enameled gold, natural pearls, table cut diamonds and Indian rubies.

 Lalique enamel, opal and horn bodice ornament c. 1903

Lalique enamel, opal and horn bodice ornament c. 1903

 Western European diamond tiara c. 1835

Western European diamond tiara c. 1835

Smaller exhibits are organized around different themes, bringing the jewelry’s symbolism and personal significance to life. “Cradle to the Grave” highlights materials and designs believed to be integral to different stages of life: from shell fertility amulets to protective figa pendants to jet and onyx mourning jewelry.

For those wanting to test their gemstone knowledge, a 154 piece collection donated to the museum in 1869 by Rev. Chauncy Hare Townshend displays a range of precious and semiprecious stones mounted in gorgeous rings. The swirling, colorful display of sapphires, tourmalines, garnets and more is a spectacular reminder that certain gemstones can surprise you in their range of naturally occurring colors.

 The Townshend gemstone collection was supplemented by a donation from A. H. Church in 1913. Church also compiled the first catalog of the museum's collection.

The Townshend gemstone collection was supplemented by a donation from A. H. Church in 1913. Church also compiled the first catalog of the museum's collection.

It’s also worth it to watch the intermittent video demonstrations, showing how artisans craft items such as enamel jewelry and pocket watch casings. Sadly, museum staff strictly enforce a no photography policy, so while you can’t take any pictures of your favorite pieces, an afternoon learning about them in this temple to personal adornment is a truly wondrous experience.

Orange Blossoms Explained

In the Victorian era, orange blossoms were worn by fashionable brides as symbols of innocence and fertility. 

 Artificial orange blossoms worn by Henrietta Woodcock at her wedding in 1848. Victoria & Albert Museum. 

Artificial orange blossoms worn by Henrietta Woodcock at her wedding in 1848. Victoria & Albert Museum. 

Perhaps the most famous bride to opt for orange blossoms was Queen Victoria herself, who wore a wreath of them in her hair at her 1840 wedding. 

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The Queen's husband noticed Victoria's affinity for orange blossoms, and gifted her jewels of porcelain, enamel and gold that were beautiful representations of the real thing. 

 Suite of porcelain, enamel and gold orange blossom jewelry. Gifted to Queen Victoria by Prince Albert between 1839 and 1846. 

Suite of porcelain, enamel and gold orange blossom jewelry. Gifted to Queen Victoria by Prince Albert between 1839 and 1846. 

The fashion for faux orange blossoms faded by the twentieth century, but the sentiment behind the buds had become wedding tradition. If you look closely at Art Deco bridal jewels, you are likely to come across tiny orange blossoms incorporated into the design:

All of these pieces date to the 1920s and 1930s, and though the orange blossom motif is very subtle, the sentiment remains the same. 

Virgo Nouveau

We’re smack in the middle of the House of Virgo, the 6th house of the zodiac that rules from August 23rd to September 22nd. Virgo is Latin for Virgin, so naturally the constellation is represented as a maiden with flowing hair. 

 The Constellation  Virgo   painted by Sidney Hall in 1825. 

The Constellation Virgo  painted by Sidney Hall in 1825. 

We couldn’t help but see a similarity between Ms. Virgo and the languid ladies depicted by Art Nouveau artists:

  The Precious Stones :  Topaz, Ruby, Amethyst & Emerald.  By Alphonse Mucha, 1900. 

The Precious StonesTopaz, Ruby, Amethyst & Emerald. By Alphonse Mucha, 1900. 

The above series depicts four maidens representing topaz, ruby, amethyst and emerald. We they'd look equally lovely rendered in gold and diamonds:

 Art Nouveau Lady Locket in 14k gold and diamond, c. 1900. Currently available at Gray & Davis. 

Art Nouveau Lady Locket in 14k gold and diamond, c. 1900. Currently available at Gray & Davis.