Marie-Antoinette, Princess of Hungary and Bohemia, Archduchess of Austria, Queen of France (1755-1793), was celebrated for her luxurious tastes, as was Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton (1912-1979). This stunning pearl necklace is reputed to have belonged to the above mentioned French Queen and can be witnessed in numerous photographs of the latter, often referred to as the "World's Best Dressed Woman".
Of all known gemstones, royalty has always favoured the pearl due to its rarity and beauty. Recent centuries have awarded the diamond with a more and more coveted role, but this was not the case prior to the development of a precursor of today's modern brilliant-cut circa 1700 by the Venetian, Vicenzo Perruzzi. Before this breakthrough in cutting, diamonds were incorporated into jewellery, but possessed little fire, they did not enjoy their current cachet.
Though it can not be proven that the present necklace belonged to Marie-Antoinette, research establishes that at the time of the 1791 inventory of the French Crown Jewels, the round pearls consisted of 25 large ones, making up the necklace of the Queen, as well as eleven strings comprising 310 pearls, weighing in total 6778 grains. Thus, the necklace could have been part of this collection. Furthermore, it was sold by Cartier to Mr Franklyn Laws Hutton, father of Barbara, as the "Marie Antoinette Pearl Necklace". He purchased it as a gift on the occasion of her marriage to Prince Alexis Mdivani, in June 1933 and it was rumoured, at the time, to have cost $1,000,000. This is mentioned both in Hans Nadelhoffer's "Cartier: Jewellers Extraordinary" and in Philip van Rensselaer's "Million Dollar Baby: An Intimate Portrait of Barbara Hutton".
Barbara Hutton inherited $40 million (the equivalent of at least $2 billion today) on her twenty-first birthday in 1933. Already flaunted by the press for her extraordinary spending habits, she maintained her reputation, buying a very large house in London's Regent's Park. No expense was spared in its redecoration, She even had gold taps installed in the bathrooms and purchased a Savonnerie carpet that had once belonged to Marie-Antoinette for the hallway. Hutton spent most of her time between London, Paris, her Venetian Palazzo and Monaco. After coming of age, her only long stint in America was during the Second World War, when she married Cary Grant in 1942. The marriage was dubbed "Cash and Carry" by the press.
Hutton had an exceptional jewellery collection. The author Philip van Rensselaer wrote of it: "Barbara's amazing collection of jewelry was spread out over the ivory lace coverlet... These emeralds, sapphires, rubies and pearls were gemstones with historical backgrounds. Barbara was particularly fond of running Marie Antoinette's pearls through her fingers." The single-strand was the jewel that she most frequently wore.
Pearl necklaces of such important size very rarely appear for sale. Some are familiar to us from images and portraits of Maharajahs, Kings, Queens, Emperors and Empresses, but, sadly, the fate of the majority of these jewels remains a mystery. If one only knew what had happened to the strands and strands which dripped down the dresses of Queen Elizabeth I or Queen Margherita of Italy.
The near exhaustion of natural pearl resources at the beginning of the century has led to a finite supply of these gems and explains their ever increasing value. Though currently all but exhausted, the most consistent producer of high quality pearls historically was the Persian Gulf, where one can presume the present strand originated.