CROWN JEWELS: Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but they proved to be the downfall of one queen — Marie-Antoinette.
A pair of diamond bracelets belonging to France‘s last queen, under the headline “Queen Marie-Antoinette’s Diamonds,” will be the highlight and opening lot at the “Magnificent Jewels” auction organized by Christie’s on Nov. 9 in Geneva.
Totaling 112 old-cut stones, ranging from one to 4.5 carats each, set in gold and silver, the bracelets are estimated to weigh between 140 and 170 carats. They are still in their original box, which carry handwritten labels and inventory references by the queen’s descendants.
Diamonds were a particular foible for Marie-Antoinette, a fact that led to the “Affair of the Diamond Necklace,” a scandal that contributed to the French Revolution and downfall of its monarchy by cementing her already-damaged reputation as an extravagant and wasteful queen.
But while her taste for jewelry is well-documented, few pieces survived through time.
“The million-dollar question is how many of Marie-Antoinette’s jewels [still] exist,” said Marie-Cécile Cisamolo, jewelry specialist for Christie’s. “These bracelets are very rare by the fact that their provenance can be traced back to the inventory [of the chest sent by Marie-Antoinette]. Others may well be floating around but none that can be traced so precisely,” thanks to historical records and family inventories kept by her descendants, including a 1907 photograph.
Purchased in 1776 from Parisian court jewelers Boehmer et Bassenge for 250,000 livres — a queen’s ransom even at the time — paid partly in gemstones and partly in funds received from Louis XVI as attested in the king’s personal papers, the bracelets were sent away for safekeeping to a former ambassador of the Austrian Empire, Marie-Antoinette’s birth country.
They appear in an inventory ordered by her nephew Emperor Francis II of Austria after the queen’s 1793 execution as “item no.6 — a pair of bracelets where three diamonds, with the biggest set in the middle, form two barrettes; the two barrettes serve as clasps, each comprising four diamonds and 96 collet-set diamonds.”
They were then passed to Madame Royale, Marie-Antoinette’s surviving daughter Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France, who wore them in an 1816 portrait. After she died childless in 1851, the bracelets were passed on to her nieces and nephews, then to the family of the Duke of Parma.
While the bracelets have been kept in the configuration initially ordered by Marie-Antoinette, Cisamolo explained that they were presented as “Marie-Antoinette’s diamonds,” due to the fact that Madame Royale, who was not as petite as her mother, had them lengthened by adding six diamonds on each bracelet and one additional gem on the clasp.
The bracelets are estimated to reach between $2 million and $4 million, but previous items belonging to France’s tragic last queen tend to go much higher. A pearl auctioned in November 2018 at Sotheby’s reached $36 million, from an estimate of $2 million, while a shoe sold for 43,750 euros, over four times the initial estimate last year.
“Having [them] in hand is like crossing into the past,” Cisamolo said, adding that such items were received with emotion, reverence and perhaps a touch of apprehension due to their historical nature and connection to a dark time of France’s history.
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