The Viscountess de Courval was a lady of exquisite taste. She was born into an important and wealthy family in New York. Brought up in France where her parents had settled, Mary Ray was a perfect match for a French aristocrat. In 1856, she married the Viscount de Courval in New York. A lover of the arts, the Viscountess looked for fine and delicate objects and works of art in Paris auctions to furnish and embellish her hôtel particulier at 6 rue Paul Baudry, near the Champs Elysées.
Excerpt from the SSEF appendix letter
This exquisite, rare and impressive natural pearl and diamond tiara is a superb combination of the most flattering and imposing form of jewellery with the use of this exceptional, fascinating and mysterious material, natural pearl. In the appendix letter accompanying the certificate for this lot, the SSEF states: 'The described eleven pearls of remarkable size are set in this tiara together with a fine selection of diamonds in a beautiful historic design. The pearls have been carefully selected and show a matching slightly baroque drop to drop shape and a fine pearl lustre'.
The word 'pearl' has long been a metaphor for something rare, fine and valuable. For centuries, royalty throughout the world has coveted these precious gems as a symbol of power, purity and beauty, even endowing them with medical properties when consumed. Pliny, in his Natural History, recounts the tale of Cleopatra drinking one of the largest pearls in the world, dissolved in vinegar, after a bet with Marc Antony. Pearl was the most sought after gem for royalty and nobility, and this tiara is the perfect combination between this exquisite gem and the nobility of the tiara.
The purpose of tiaras has constantly been threefold: to adorn, to convey status and to signify wealth. From the 19th century, tiaras were often given by a groom to the bride, marking not only the culmination of love, but a promise of high status and the comfort that would ensue. The Bonapartist era marked the beginning of the use of tiaras as they are worn today. Tiaras were worn at coronation, marriage and sometimes baptism. Just before the outbreak of World War I, they were worn to the new forms of entertaining of that time, particularly charity balls, private parties and, as always, to the opera. They were regarded as a glamorous accessory to evening dress.
Because of their social significance, tiaras were often set with the most beautiful and precious family stones. In the tiara offered here, the design emphasises the quality and the importance of the drop shaped natural pearls and the function of the delicate diamond mount is merely that of enhancing their beauty.
The ongoing fascination with tiaras was confirmed by the Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition 'Tiara' which took place in 2002. Over two thousand tiaras were assembled for the show, with examples from British and European Royal families, as well as more contemporary creations. Over a hundred and eighty thousand people visited the exhibition to pay tribute to one of the most enduring and scintillating of jewellery forms.
Besides the quality of the pearls and the delicate design of the jewel, the provenance adds interest to this fine and delicate piece. Indeed the tiara has been kept in the same family for well over a century. A painting by Gustave Jacquet (1846-1909) dated 1883, portrays Mary Ray, Viscountess de Courval, wearing the tiara together with a Worth dress inspired by the 18th century 'robe à crinoline' and by the high lace collar of the 16th century, worn by Marie de Médicis, Queen of France. This dress was created for a ball hosted by Madame de Courval on 24 May 1883. In the portrait, the Viscountess wears it together with several necklaces, a devant-de-corsage, hair ornaments, bracelets and rings. This painting is a true testimony of fin de siècle opulence when, after the fall of the Second Empire and under a still young Third Republic, France was divided between monarchists and republicans, but the elites met at a succession of sumptuous receptions. The tiara passed on to the only child of the Viscount and Viscountess de Courval, Madeleine, who married François de Noailles, Prince de Poix, on 24 June 1889; thence by descent.
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