Natural Pearls: Marie Antoinette's £27.8 million Precious Pendant

Famous for her ostentatious sense of style, 18th century French Queen Marie Antoinette was back as the centre of attention at Sotheby's in November thanks to the record-breaking sale of her natural pearl and diamond pendant. Here, Beth West FGA DGA EG considers the history behind this fascinating piece. 

Described as one of the most important royal jewellery collections ever to come to auction, the 'Royal Jewels from the Bourbon-Parma Family' includes treasures from the reign of Louis XVI up to the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The collection is named after the Bourbon-Parma dynasty - perhaps one of Europe's most notable family trees filled with illustrious Popes, Roman Emperors and members of the royal families of France and Spain.

However, it was a group of jewels that belonged to Queen Marie Antoinette, daughter of Holy Roman Empress Maria Teresa and wife of King Louis XVI, that got high-jewellery collectors excited. Many of the ill-fated queen's exceptional pieces had not been seen in public for more than 200 years.  

Marie Antoinette was famed as the Queen who over-indulged and (supposedly) proclaimed 'let them eat cake' amid a soaring famine. Her desire for the finer things in life ultimately led her to a number of exquisite jewels, including a stunning diamond and natural pearl pendant, a pair of natural pearl drop earrings, and a necklace featuring 119 natural pearls. 

Marie Antoinette.
Image Credit: Pixabay, Creative Commons.
 

As King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette prepared their escape from Paris in 1791, she carefully shrouded her jewels and placed them in a wooden chest, which was sent to Vienna to the care of Count Mercy Argentau - a loyalist who promised to keep them safe until she returned.

Just two year later, both the King and Queen were let to the guillotine. It was only Marie Antoinette's daughter, Marie-Thérèse, who survived to reclaim her mother's wares from the hands of the Austrian Emperor. 

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In November, Marie Antoinette's diamond and natural pearl pendant was sold by Sotheby’s Geneva for £27.8 million including premium.

It sold amongst the other jewels she had taken such care to protect before her death, and now with such a rare provenance, handed from her daughter to her great niece, the Duchess de Parme, and then remaining within the Bourbon-Parma family. Today, the pendant presents a rare opportunity to wear that which had once been treasured by famed royalty.

But the pearl itself adds to the auspice of this jewel. At 25 x 18mm, the drop-shaped gem is the largest and most expensive natural pearl yet to be sold at auction. 

Cultured Freshwater Pearls. Photo Credit: Pat Daly. 

This fascinating sale certainly helps to put pearls back in the spotlight. The word 'pearl' is thought to derive from the Latin ‘pilula’, meaning globule, which would seem apt. It is spherical or near spherical in form and grows in the living tissue of freshwater or seawater bivalve molluscs. It is the latter, however, that have inspired wonder and been considered gems worthy only of Kings and Queens throughout history.

READ MORE: The Fascinating History of Platinum

These natural seawater pearls are exceptionally rare and, historically, the majority were fished from the Persian Gulf. Up until the 1930s, which signalled the rise of the cultured pearl and the decline of pearl-bearing molluscs in the Gulf, divers would be forced some 100 feet deep in a single breath to gather the molluscs.

For every five thousand shells they collected, only three would contain a pearl and, of those three, only one would be of value. The natural saltwater pearl is formed within the marine bivalve mollusc of the Pteriidae family, (not, in fact, an oyster – although very similar).

Natural Pearl. Photo Credit: Pat Daly.

The growth of the pearl is triggered when a minute parasite or small lesion occurs in the living tissue (mantle) of the mollusc. To combat the irritant, the mollusc will form a pearl sac around the offending body.

This sac secretes a substance rich in crystalline calcium carbonate, known as nacre, which then coats the irritant. The pearl sac will continue to produce this nacreous cover over many years, until a cyst pearl, a perfect iridescent globule, is formed.

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It is a crude, biological process, but it represents the living tissue’s desire to protect itself - perhaps something that Marie Antoinette felt when she wrapped her jewels and sent them hundreds of miles across Europe, never to be seen by her eyes again. 

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Cover image: Marie Antoinette's natural pearl and diamond pendant. Image courtesy of Sotheby's YouTube.


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