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

Silver Jewelry & the Aesthetic Movement

During the nineteenth century jewelry designers (and all the other sorts of designers, for that matter) were obsessed with historical revival styles. Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, Egyptian, you name it the Victorians revived it. While we love finding these revival pieces today (Etruscan Revival, anyone?), some Victorians started to get sick of re-hashing old styles and longed for design that was fresh, new and original. These people became followers of what came to be called the Aesthetic Movement, which celebrated ‘art for art’s sake,’ separate of any historic motifs or meanings. 

 Aesthetic style wallpaper design by Bruce James Talbert, c. 1878. Victoria & Albert Museum

Aesthetic style wallpaper design by Bruce James Talbert, c. 1878. Victoria & Albert Museum

In 1854, around the same time the Aesthetic Movement was becoming a big deal, Commodore Perry and the US navy bullied Japan into a trading agreement with the United States. 

 A Japanese woodblock portrait of Commodore Perry c. 1854 ... he wasn't necessarily Japan's favorite guy...

A Japanese woodblock portrait of Commodore Perry c. 1854 ... he wasn't necessarily Japan's favorite guy...

Beautiful Japanese artwork that had rarely been seen in the West was suddenly available at boutiques and world fairs across Europe and America.

 'Evening Snow at Kambara' by Utagawa Hiroshige, woodblock c. 1834. 

'Evening Snow at Kambara' by Utagawa Hiroshige, woodblock c. 1834. 

Those inclined towards the Aesthetic aesthetic were enamored, and Western takes on Japanese art appeared on everything from teapots to jewelry. Many striking aesthetic-style jewels were fabricated in silver, and feature japanesque motifs like fans, flowers, bamboo and birds engraved on bold, geometric silver pieces. Oftentimes colored gold details were applied on top of the silver in imitation of Japanese shakudo work. 

This aesthetic chain and locket are currently in our cases at Gray & Davis.

The addition of delicate engraving on such large-and-in-charge pieces makes for quite a statement, even today. 

With a little bit of luck

With St. Patrick's Day right around the corner, we decided to learn a little bit about our favorite vintage lucky charms. Here is what we found. 

One in 10,000 clovers will have the coveted, lucky fourth leaf. The leaves symbolize faith, love, hope and luck.

14k gold, diamond and seed pearl clover necklace in our online shop.

 

 

Iron horseshoes were thought to ward off malevolent imps and spirits in the Middle Ages, and the shape has endured as a lucky charm.

Victorian 15k gold and pearl horseshoe bracelet in our online shop.

Catching the "lucky break" from a bird's breastbone, or "wishbone," may date back to the Middle Ages, according to folklore. We do know that some cultures "read" a goose's wishbone to determine the severity of the approaching winter up until the 19th century.

Vintage 14k and pearl wishbone necklace in our online shop

Also, because the NYC St. Patrick's Day parade is literally around the corner, we will be closed on Tuesday, March 17. We will return to our regular hours on Wednesday, March 18. 

A tale of tassels

Tasseled pieces pop up several times throughout jewelry design history. It's hard to say what inspired each one: some were based on archaeological styles, others seem like they were simply meant to express joyful movement. For use in personal adornment, the tassel dates back to ancient times and is even referenced in the Bible. 

 Mid-19th century 14k gold tassel with floral, hand engraved detail. Featured on a 14k gold 25" rope chain. Both available at Gray & Davis.. 

Mid-19th century 14k gold tassel with floral, hand engraved detail. Featured on a 14k gold 25" rope chain. Both available at Gray & Davis.. 

We see some fabulous examples of tassel jewelry from the mid-19th century and early 20th century; some are flirty, some are fun, all are fabulous. We have seen them made of beads and fabric, but the whispery softness of gold has to be our favorite.

 Late Victorian 10k gold tassel necklace with black enamel and stippled detail. Available at Gray & Davis. 

Late Victorian 10k gold tassel necklace with black enamel and stippled detail. Available at Gray & Davis. 

Panthere de Cartier, a feline inspired line by the infamous French jewelry house, features tasseled necklaces and earrings, once again reviving the style seen in these kinds of antique pieces. 

 

Right: 14k gold Victorian tassel necklace, available at Gray & Davis; Panthere de Cartier print advertisement.

January Birthstone: Garnets!

Garnets are a quite versatile gemstone. They occur in almost every color of the rainbow - from electric green to golden orange - though of course the varieties most are familiar with are a rich, purplish red in hue. 

 Victorian gold and garnet festoon necklace. Available at Gray & Davis. 

Victorian gold and garnet festoon necklace. Available at Gray & Davis. 

Besides their alluring appearance, garnets have traditionally been ascribed with a number of apotropaic powers. Garnets help to ward off nightmares, wounds and diseases of the skin. If danger is present, a garnet will lose its luster. One who wears a garnet will be the recipient of love and loyalty, which is a warming thought for a cold winter month.