Sunday, 5 December 2010

Pearls Fit for Queens

Recently I wrote about the large pearl that King Charles I wore in his ear. It seems only fair to write about an equally famous pair of pearl earrings worn by his queen, and several others besides. Many legendary jewels of the past have disappeared through wars and revolution, or have been broken up, re-cut, and reset until they bear no resemblance to their original design. But these magnificent earrings, left, have miraculously survived with both pearls and diamonds intact, and with a tantalizing history to match.

The earrings first appear as part of the dower jewels of Marie de' Medici (1575-1642), the Italian princess who left her native Florence to wed the French king, Henry IV (1552-1610). The de' Medici family was old, powerful, and very wealthy, and the jewels that Marie brought with her astonished the French court. At this time, pearls were the most valuable of precious gems, rare accidents of nature acquired only at great risk and cost. The two almost perfectly matched droplet pearls in the new queen's favorite pair of pendant earrings were of a quality not been seen before in Paris. Other women at the court wore pearl drops (many ladies in 17th c. portraits are shown with them) but most of these pearls were coated glass. Marie's were real, and truly fit for a queen. She was painted wearing the earrings, right, in 1616 by Peter Paul Rubens.

When Marie's youngest daughter, the princess Henriette Marie (1609-1699), married the English King Charles I (1600-1649) in 1625, Marie gave the pearl earrings to her as a wedding gift. Henriette, too, was portrayed many times wearing the earrings, including this portrait of her, left, as a young wife, painted in 1632 by Sir Anthony van Dyck. Her marriage was a happy one, and blessed with many children. But the earrings brought Henriette no luck as the English queen. Her husband's unpopular politics eventually led to the disastrous civil war and the trial for treason that cost him his life. Henriette was forced to flee the country in 1644 soon after giving birth to their last daughter, leaving the baby behind. In exile in France with her sons, she was forced to gradually sell all her jewels first to help support her husband's army, and then, as a widow, to keep herself from poverty. Mementos of happier times, the pearl earrings were among the last jewels to go, finally being purchased by her nephew, the French King Louis XIV (1638-1714) in 1657.

The nineteen-year-old Louis had fallen desperately in love with eighteen-year-old Marie Mancini (1639-1715), the Italian niece of Cardinal Jules Mazarin, the king's primary minister. At first the match was approved both by the cardinal and Louis's widowed mother, and Louis presented the pearl earrings to Marie as his future queen. Marie's portrait, left, shows her wearing the pearls along with flowers in her hair. But politics intruded and the match was broken off, with Louis instead marrying the Spanish Infanta Maria Theresa, and Marie wed to the Roman Prince Lorenzo Onofrio Colonna. But Marie kept the king's pearls, and the earrings were by now so associated with her that they became known by her name, the Mancini Pearls.

No one is certain whether she left the earrings to one of her children, or sold them herself during her long life. In fact, there is no record of the pearls at all for nearly 250 years, until they appeared at Christie's auction house in New York in October, 1979. There they were sold to a private collector for $253,000, a price that almost seems reasonable considering all the history attached to them. They remain among the most famous jewels sold by Christie's, and are still featured on their website.

Now I know that pearls, however beautiful, are inanimate objects, and no more than the work of an irritated oyster. But don't you wish these earrings could tell their story, and repeat even a few of the confidences and endearments, promises and secrets once whispered into the ears that wore them?

2 comments:

Alison Stuart said...

What wonderful provenance for those earrings (which would not look out of place in my jewellery box!). I wonder what they'd be worth now? Thanks for the story, Susan.

Marg said...

It would be fascinating to know what happened to them for all those years!