Paris. 1793. An elegant queen, together with her family, sits huddled in a tower in the seething, tumultuous capital. Outside, her courtiers are being arrested, summarily tried, and sent to their deaths by the insatiable Madame la Guillotine. That instrument of ‘efficient’ beheadings was to become a symbol of the French Revolution, but to Marie Antoinette, it was the end of a most extravagant road.
At 38, Marie Antoinette had enjoyed decades of the privilege due an Archduchess of Austria, then Queen of France. But now all France had turned against her; her allies in Austria, Prussia, Britain, and Russia had abandoned her. Little comforted by her dispirited husband, King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette retained her haughty contempt and stood determined to secure an escape from the clutches of the revolutionary guards. She had but one thing left up her sleeve (hidden, quite literally): a few of the diamonds and pearls that once glittered within her grand wardrobe.
A Hasty Flight
Having tried to flee abroad, the royal family was being detained in ignominy as traitors to the republic. One of the few visitors allowed to the queen was the wife of the British ambassador and the future Countess of Sutherland: Lady Elizabeth Leveson-Gower. Relying on both her favorable regard and diplomatic immunity, Lady Elizabeth had already proven herself useful by smuggling linen, clothes and little luxuries to the royal family. But now Britain had broken off relations with France, and the ambassador was being recalled to London.
Marie Antoinette entrusted the jewels to her care. Thinking that soon this moment of rebellion would be over, the queen had planned to collect the diamonds and pearls from Lady Elizabeth on a happier occasion. That day never came. The elegant, stately neck that was once festooned in the riches of France, met with the cold, hard steel of the guillotine.
Pearl Jewelry Worthy of a Queen
Within the two small sachets that Marie Antoinette pressed into Lady Elizabeth’s hands, reportedly the last gesture of kindness shown to the ill-fated queen, were 21 natural, grey, tear-shaped pearls and a handful of diamonds. Until recently, when the jewels surfaced for auction at Christie’s, the pearls had remained with the Sutherland family since that fateful day they were spirited out of France. The Countess had them fashioned as a gift to the bride on the event of her grandson’s wedding in 1849.
The necklace boasts graduated pearls suspended beneath a ribbon of diamond and gold, which wraps about a collar of rubies. A further 12 button-shaped grey pearls punctuate the rubies. It is certainly a necklace befitting a queen, the beauty of which has endured as long as the allure of Marie Antoinette. “Courage!” she says, “I have shown it for years; think you I shall lose it at the moment when my sufferings are to end?” Pearl is the de rigueur gem for a woman of that pluck.