This month, major royal jewelry news broke in Switzerland: Christie’s will soon offer a pair of incredible diamond bracelets for sale that belonged to none other than Marie Antoinette. We’ve got all the details today on the history of the pieces and the upcoming auction in Geneva!
Royal jewelry historian Vincent Meylan helped the staff at Christie’s establish the provenance of the bracelets. Meylan sourced records from the papers of King Louis XVI of France, proving that Marie Antoinette purchased a pair of diamond bracelets in 1776 for the sum of 250,000 livres. The enormous price was paid “partly in gemstones from the Queen’s collection and partly with funds the Queen received from King Louis XVI.” According to Meylan, Marie Antoinette purchased the bracelets from Charles Auguste Böhmer, a German-born jeweler better known as half of Böhmer et Bassenge, court jewelers to Louis XV.
Ironically, many of you may recognize Böhmer et Bassenge from the most famous jewelry scandal of the 18th century. In 1772, during the reign of Louis XV, they were commissioned by the king to create a grand diamond necklace for his necklace, Madame du Barry. Before the necklace could be completed, Louis XV died. The jewelers were already in the midst of the expensive process of constructing the necklace, and they tried to recoup their investment by selling the necklace to King Louis XVI in 1778, two years after Marie Antoinette had bought the diamond bracelets.
Marie Antoinette wasn’t interested in the necklace, turning down more than one opportunity to secure it. In 1783, Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, mistress of Cardinal de Rohan, convinced the jewelers that she was a confidant of the Queen. She duped the Cardinal and the jewelers, convincing them that the Queen wanted to buy the necklace using Jeanne as her secret intermediary. Jeanne got away with the jewels, and when Charles Auguste Böhmer approached the Queen to try to secure payment, Marie Antoinette was stunned, having had no clue about any part of the scheme. Though the Queen really had no role in the “Affair of the Diamond Necklace,” the resulting fallout caused a major scandal that significantly damaged the royal family’s reputation, helping to lead to the downfall of the entire monarchy.
Marie Antoinette may not have been involved in the spurious purchase of Madame du Barry’s diamond necklace, but she was certainly the purchaser of these spectacular diamond bracelets. The press release from the upcoming Christie’s sale notes that the Queen “could not resist jewellery – especially diamonds.” These bracelets feature three glittering rows of evenly-matched diamond brilliants, with three larger diamonds in the center of each piece. The bracelets have bar-shaped clasps set with five additional diamonds. The elegant setting of the pieces is timeless.
With revolution brewing, Marie Antoinette made the decision to send her jewelry out of the country. She sent a chest of jewels to the Count of Mercy-Argenteau, an Austrian diplomat who had been a powerful figure at the French court for many years, in Brussels. He kept the chest, undisturbed and unopened, until Marie Antoinette’s execution in Paris in 1793. Afterward, her nephew, the young Emperor Francis II of Austria, ordered that the chest should be opened in Belgium and the contents inventoried. Among the pieces in the chest were the pair of diamond bracelets, recorded as item number 6 on the inventory list: “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.”
The jewels were transported to Austria. There, in 1796 they were presented to Marie Antoinette’s only surviving child, Princess Marie-Thérèse of France, better known as Madame Royale. The bracelets today are essentially exactly as they were when Madame Royale received them more than two hundred years ago. The press release from Christie’s notes: “Of the pieces with a traceable provenance back to the Queen of France, these extraordinary bracelets are the only example to include diamonds belonging to her and to retain the exact design described in the Brussels inventory. While it is possible that the bracelets might have been remounted at a later stage, no changes were made to the overall composition and the number of diamonds, except for those on the clasp, were kept identical as per the inventory.”
Madame Royale became the Duchess of Angoulême when she married one of her royal cousins in 1799. When her uncle, Louis XVIII, was restored to the throne in 1814, she became an important figure in the restored Bourbon monarchy, essentially stepping to her mother’s former shoes. The grand portrait of the Duchess above, painted in 1816 by Antoine-Jean Gros, comes from the restoration period. (It’s part of the collection at Versailles today.) In the image, Marie-Thérèse appears to be wearing her mother’s diamond bracelets.
The Bourbons were toppled from the French throne again in 1830, and Marie-Thérèse once more went into exile. She left behind some of her jewelry, but she took along the pieces she had inherited from her mother, including these diamond bracelets. After the death of her husband, the Duchess settled in Austria, where she lived out the rest of her life, dying in 1851. In her will, her jewels were divided between her niece, the Duchess of Parma, and her nephew and niece-in-law, the Count and Countess of Chambord. (The portrait of the Duchess of Parma, included above, shows her wearing one of the jewels she inherited from Marie-Thérèse: Marie Antoinette’s pearl pendant.)
Christie’s lists the bracelets as currently belonging to a “European royal family,” without specifying any additional details. While the Count and Countess of Chambord had no children, the Duchess of Parma has a whole lot of descendants. Her son Robert alone was the father of twenty-four children, including Princess Marie Louise of Bulgaria, Empress Zita of Austria-Hungary, Prince Felix of Bourbon-Parma (husband of Grand Duchess Charlotte of Luxembourg), and Prince René of Bourbon-Parma (father of Queen Anne of Romania). It’s not clear which royal family currently owns the bracelets; there are a lot of descendants who could potentially be the owners. A few years ago, a huge auction of jewels from the Bourbon-Parma branch of the family took place at Christie’s in Geneva, including pieces also owned by Marie Antoinette.
The bracelets are expected to sell for a kingly sum. In the press release advertising the sale, François Curiel, Chairman of Christie’s Luxury, notes, “As seen in recent Geneva sales, the market for jewels of noble provenance continues to perform extremely well.” The pre-auction estimate for the bracelets is set at $2,000,000-4,000,000. The auction will take place at the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues in Geneva on November 9, with the bracelets taking the spotlight as Lot #1 in the sale.