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

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.

Egyptian Revival Plique Bracelet

The Bracelet-

Some pieces are amazing because they are comprised of incredible materials, some because they are  difficult to create, and some because they can tell a story about a minute in history. This is one of those pieces.

A little back story- Discoveries of ancient artifacts have strongly influenced jewel making and there were two great periods of Egyptian revival. In the 1860’s the French were excavating for the Suez Canal and discovered Egyptian jewelry. It was so wonderfully exotic and unique it quickly became a popular trend and was reproduced in all shapes and sizes. In 1922 King Tut’s tomb was discovered and again brought the Egyptian style to the spotlight.

This bracelet dates to this later period of Egyptian Revival. It is silver, and has hallmarks indicating it was made in Cairo, Egypt and was imported into Nice, France in the early part of the 20th century, presumably the 1920’s. The Pliqué a Jour enamel and the imagery is just spectacular and even better we know what it means!

All the imagery of this bracelet actually depicts King Tutankhamun and findings within his tomb.

Starting on the Left- A painted alabaster unguent jar with a crouching lion on the lid. This jar would have been used to hold cosmetics and was found in King Tut’s tomb.

 Bracelet; close up of cosmetic jar

Bracelet; close up of cosmetic jar

 Actual cosmetic jar found in Tut's tomb

Actual cosmetic jar found in Tut's tomb

The next; Tutankhamun & Ankhesenamun, wife of King Tutankhamun, she anoints her young husband in this image which forms the back of a gilded chair. She is the half-sister of Tutankhamun, daughter of Nefertiti and Akhenaten. The chair with this scene was discovered in his tomb.

 Bracelet; close up of Tut and his lady

Bracelet; close up of Tut and his lady

 Actual image painted on guilded chair in King Tut's tomb

Actual image painted on guilded chair in King Tut's tomb

The central plaque is of King Tut himself! He is holding a crook and a flail. They were originally the attributes of the deity Osiris that became insignia of pharaonic authority. The shepherd's crook stood for kingship and the flail for the fertility of the land.

 Bracelet; close up of Tut's sarcophagus

Bracelet; close up of Tut's sarcophagus

 Tut's actual sarcophagus

Tut's actual sarcophagus

Moving right along is a war scene showing Tut vanquishing Nubians and Syrians. Tutankhamun is in a chariot leading the Egyptian forces. This was painted on a wooden box also found in his tomb.

 Bracelet; Close up of war scene

Bracelet; Close up of war scene

 Actual wooden box in King Tut's tomb

Actual wooden box in King Tut's tomb

Lastly  a lovely Unguent vase. . Elongated vase flanked with floral openwork ornamentation, cut from a single block of alabaster. Presumably used as a perfume bottle which was also found in the tomb.

 Bracelet; Close up of perfume bottle 

Bracelet; Close up of perfume bottle 

 Actual object in King Tut's Tomb

Actual object in King Tut's Tomb

The story and the work make this just a wonderful piece of wearable history and we are lucky to have it in our shop. 

Easter Eggs at the Fabergé Museum

From 1885 to 1916, the last two tsars of Russia commissioned fifty jeweled eggs as Easter gifts for their wives and mothers. Made in the workshops of  Peter Carl Fabergé, these fabulous objects have become world famous as both masterful examples of the jeweler's art and symbols of over-the-top opulence. After the execution of the Russian royal family in 1918, the eggs were dispersed all over the globe. Today, the largest collection of eggs is housed in the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg. Here they are in all their glory:

 Imperial Coronation Easter Egg, 1897

Imperial Coronation Easter Egg, 1897

 Bay Tree Easter Egg, 1911

Bay Tree Easter Egg, 1911

 Rosebud Easter Egg, 1895. 

Rosebud Easter Egg, 1895. 

 Order of St. George Easter Egg, 1916. 

Order of St. George Easter Egg, 1916. 

 Hen Easter Egg, 1895. 

Hen Easter Egg, 1895. 

 Resurrection Easter Egg, 1886 - 1898. 

Resurrection Easter Egg, 1886 - 1898. 

 Cockerel Easter Egg, 1900. 

Cockerel Easter Egg, 1900. 

 Fifteenth Anniversary Easter Egg, 1911. 

Fifteenth Anniversary Easter Egg, 1911. 

 Lilies-of-the-Valley Easter Egg, 1898 

Lilies-of-the-Valley Easter Egg, 1898 

 Renaissance Easter Egg Jewelry Box, 1894.

Renaissance Easter Egg Jewelry Box, 1894.

If St. Petersburg, Russia seems like a bit of a trek, we recommend at least visiting the museum's website, where you can read the individual stories of these infamous eggs. 

Posey, Posie, Poesy, Posy Rings!

However you choose to spell it, its hard not to be charmed by the secret messages hidden inside posy rings. 

 English posy ring c. 1700 in the collections of the British museum. The inscription reads "Love is the bond of peace."

English posy ring c. 1700 in the collections of the British museum. The inscription reads "Love is the bond of peace."

Often exchanged as wedding rings and always as a token of affection, posy rings have been around for a very long time. How long? An ancient Greek ring dating to the 4th century BCE was inscribed "To her who excels not only in virtue and prudence, but also in wisdom." 

By the late Renaissance, publishers were printing books of verses (a "posy" is simply a short poem) to be used as inspiration for lovers who needed a bit of help expressing their feelings inside gold rings. 

Here are a few of our favorite posies from 17th-century England:

 

The sight of this deserves a kiss.

In thee a flame in me the same.

To me till death as dear as breath.

We strangely met, and so do many. Now as true as ever, any.

Love him who gave thee this ring of gold ‘Tis he must kiss thee when thou art old

If I think my wife is fair, what need other people care?

This hath no end, my sweetest friend.

Thou art my star, be not irregular.

In thee I find content of mind

The love is true that I.O.U.

My love is fixed I will not range. I like my choice too much to change.

To love entyre is my desyre.

Silence ends strife with man and wife