Stowed away during the French Revolution, the dazzling jewels — which, miraculously, have remained intact rather than being broken up — have spent the past two centuries hidden from view in a private royal collection
In January 1791, while Marie Antoinette was imprisoned in the Tuileries Palace in Paris, she secretly wrapped her finest jewels in cotton and stashed them away in a wooden chest. This was later sent out of France for safekeeping to the former Austrian ambassador, Count Mercy-Argenteau, in Brussels — then under Austrian rule.
A loyal friend of the family, Mercy-Argenteau stored the chest, undisturbed and unopened, in the hope of one day returning it to the young French queen. On 16 October 1793 Marie Antoinette was guillotined.
Four months later, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II, the late queen’s nephew, ordered the chest to be opened and an inventory of its contents made. Inside, under layer upon layer of stuffing pads, was Marie Antoinette’s most valuable property, including a pair of three-strand diamond bracelets.
Item number six on the detailed inventory, now held in the Austrian National Archives, pertains to these bracelets. It reads: ‘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’.
Once documented, the contents of the chest were sent from Brussels to the imperial treasury in Vienna, where they were kept for Marie Antoinette’s sole surviving heir, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France, Madame Royale, later Duchess of Angoulême (1778-1851). Madame Royale claimed the bracelets upon her arrival in Austria in 1796, as recorded in the letters she sent to her cousin, Emperor Francis II.
More than two centuries later, these extraordinary bracelets, with approximately 140 to 150 carats of diamonds, are now offered for sale in Geneva Magnificent Jewels on 9 November.
‘What is miraculous is that they have remained together and intact when they could have easily been broken up, as many other jewels of royal provenance have been,’ says Jean-Marc Lunel, senior international specialist in the Jewellery department at Christie’s in Geneva. ‘This makes them particularly attractive to collectors.’
For Lunel, the bracelets’ symmetry and elegant design are typical of the work of Charles Auguste Boehmer, Marie Antoinette’s personal jeweller. ‘They are so light and so well made that they simply flow on your wrist like fabric,’ he says. ‘And the imperfect antique cut of the diamonds provides a unique charm that cannot be found in modern cut diamonds.’
According to the historian, author and jewellery specialist Vincent Meylan, who has carried out extensive research on the history and provenance of the bracelets for his forthcoming book on Marie Antoinette’s diamonds, the jewels were purchased from Boehmer for 250,000 livres — a sum that has been estimated as equivalent to around $4.6 million in today’s money. (The French livre was worth roughly the same as a pound of silver.)
Even Marie Antoinette’s mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (1717-1780), admonished her daughter for her extravagant spending. In a letter dated 2 September 1776, she wrote: ‘The news from Paris tells me that you have just performed a purchase of bracelets for 250,000 livres and, to that effect, you have unsettled your finances.’
The news was true. To pay for the bracelets, Marie Antoinette had had to trade in some of her own gemstones at a very low price, as well as borrowing 29,000 livres (around $533,000 today) from her husband, King Louis XVI, as recorded in the king’s accounting books from 1777, now held in the National Archives in Paris.
Despite the maternal reprimand, the queen revelled in her purchase. In a portrait by the Swedish painter Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller (above), she is depicted proudly wearing the bracelets, joined together as a chatelaine, in the Gardens of the Petit Trianon, with two of her children, including a young Madame Royale.
Just over 30 years later, Madame Royale would also be painted wearing the bracelets. In an 1816 portrait by Antoine-Jean Gros (below), the three-strand bracelet on her right hand shows four diamonds on the clasp, as described in the Brussels inventory of 1794. (While no changes have been made to the overall composition, the clasp has since been modified to include an additional fifth diamond.)
Madame Royale died childless in 1851 and left her jewels to be divided among her nephew and two nieces: the Count of Chambord, the Countess of Chambord and the Duchess of Parma. The duchess inherited the bracelets and in turn bequeathed them to her son Robert, Duke of Parma (1848-1907). They have remained in the same royal family collection since.
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‘Their illustrious provenance provides a moving glimpse into European royal history,’ says Lunel. ‘The market for jewels of noble and royal provenance continues to perform extremely well, so we could see their estimate vastly exceeded, as has previously been the case with other items of jewellery owned by Marie Antoinette.’