Noble Jewels: Legacy & Honour

Noble Jewels: Legacy & Honour

As Sotheby's specialists continue to lead the charge in the sale of jewels with Royal & Noble provenance, we embark on a new series that explores the captivating history of these storied objects.
As Sotheby's specialists continue to lead the charge in the sale of jewels with Royal & Noble provenance, we embark on a new series that explores the captivating history of these storied objects.

J ewels are, and have always been, the most potent emblems of royal, imperial and noble power. Speaking a language of honour, heritage and hierarchy, jewels have always proclaimed the majesty of monarchy, the dominion of empire, the privilege of aristocracy. In early times, jewels marked out the ruler, identifying a King, Queen, Emperor or Empress, Mughal or Maharajah, commanding authority, inspiring awe and allegiance in subjects. The jewel-adoring Queen Elizabeth I wore an abundance of pearls and gems in portraits to serve as propaganda, a declaration of the might and wealth of her territory.

The Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I of England, 1588. Previously attributed to George Gower.

Most recently, at the Coronation of King Charles III, the royal regalia, studded with ancient, historic, storied gems, grabbed the limelight as the instruments of monarchy, and symbols of power both temporal and spiritual.

Yet too, jewels are intensely personal, intimate and deeply emotive, creators and keepers of memories and stories. They celebrate life’s milestones, and send private messages of love, loyalty and affection.

It is this combination of contrasting roles, the ceremonial and the secretive, the seductive intermingling of grandeur and intimacy, that have made jewels of royal, imperial or noble provenance today’s most sought-after objects of desire. To own or better still wear a truly historic jewel, of the kind that have become the speciality of Sotheby’s auctions of royal and noble Jewels, is to gain entry to an unreachable, untouchable realm, to unlock the innermost secrets of history, both personal and political, and to glimpse the private lives of royalty and nobility.

This was all demonstrated to perfection in the Vienna 1900 auction in November 2023 offering a distinguished single-owner collection of historic Viennese Imperial and Royal jewels, the most important and largest of its kind to ever come to auction. The cast of characters included Archduchess Margarete Sophie of Austria (1870-1902), Archduchess Maria Immaculata of Austria-Tuscany (1878-1968) and Archduchess Marie Therese of Austria-Teschen (1845-1927) as well as of Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria (1861-1948) and Princess Marie Louise of Bourbon-Parma (1870-1899). At the beginning of the 20th century, all were living in Vienna.

Vienna in 1900, at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was a cultured, elegant city of dreams, alive with a celebration of femininity, of art, music, literature, intellect and beauty. As one century turned into the next, it was also a city in the throes of dramatic metamorphosis, caught between tradition and modernity, between the opulent neo-baroque palaces that housed these illustrious families, and the radical, unadorned graphic modernism of the Vienna Secession.

A superb ruby and diamond necklace and brooch by the Austrian Crown Jeweller Köchert, sold for 546,100 CHF and 355,600 CHF respectively.

It was also the beating heart of an Empire, soon to be extinguished, teetering on the brink of a new world order. These exquisite and emotive jewels, redolent of old-world elegance and refinement, of royal rituals, possess a particular poignancy, the precious swansong of disappearing society.

"These exquisite and emotive jewels, redolent of old-world elegance, refinement and royal ritual, possess a particular poignancy."

The collection encompassed both formal, ceremonial ornaments, including an Order of the Golden Fleece, the ultimate Habsburg honour, and smaller, intricate personal jewels, tokens of affection, sentimental gifts, fashionable, wearable, stylised designs, whimsical Fabergé creations, gem-set and enamelled egg pendants, and the refined accessories of the Belle Epoque gentleman. Together they captured the spirit of their moment in time and told stories of both wearer and maker. As the auction threw light on two leading Viennese court jewelers of the era, Köchert, which is still in existence in Vienna today, and Emil Biedermann. From the Köchert workshops for example came a ravishingly romantic necklace and accompanying brooch, circa 1870s, composed of diamond and ruby roses, their petals softly sculpted, as if about to fall, and linked by diamond stems and leaves, suspending two sweet pendant rose buds. The set had belonged to Archduchess Margarete Sophie of Austria (1870-1902), niece of Emperor Franz Joseph, who had presented it to her as a wedding gift when she married Duke Albrecht of Württemberg.

Strong period style and superlative craftsmanship melded with historical provenance to generate frenetic bidding, and an astronomical result (1.1 million CHF) for one of the top lots in the auction: a wondrously naturalistic corsage ornament, designed as a garland of diamond and natural pearl flowers and foliage, suspending three superb natural drop pearls in its centre. Pearls were the ultimate expression of regal femininity, and the extreme rarity of these lustrous specimens added to the appeal. Displaying the light and lively naturalism that was the height of fashion at the time, the devant-de-corsage had been presented as a wedding gift to Marie Therese of Austria-Teschen, Duchess of Württemberg (1845-1927) in 1865.

Adding a touch of opulent exoticism, and showing the influence of the eastern regions of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was a gold, diamond and gem-set hair comb, 1890s, from the collection of Princess Marie Louise of Bourbon-Parma, princess consort of Bulgaria (1870-1899). This was a reminder of Sotheby’s previous milestone auction of royal jewels from the Bourbon-Parma family, at the time the most important collection of royal jewels to come up for sale in modern times. The saga that unfolded in the Bourbon-Parma auction continued in Vienna 1900.

Both included important Orders of Chivalry, the decorations that shriek of legacy, duty and honour, the glittering prizes of an all-powerful dynasty. Orders, decorations and medals possess a very particular mix of glamour and glory, a touch of Eastern European romance, flavoured with hint of medievalism and suggestions of the gallantry expected of a noble knight. The Order of the Golden Fleece originating in 1430 and the Order of the Saint-Esprit, founded in 1578, were the highest chivalric orders granted by the Austrian Emperors and the Kings of Spain and the French Kings respectively. Vienna 1900 offered up two Neck Badges of the Order of the Golden Fleece, both having belonged to Ferdinand I, Tsar of Bulgaria (1861-1948) who was granted knighthood of the Austrian Order of the Golden Fleece in 1911.

One was set with a blue sapphire and yellow zircon, the other with sapphire and ruby, both accented with diamonds. Dipping back further into Sotheby’s high-profile 1992 Thurn und Taxis sale, the extraordinary collection from the Princes Thurn und Taxis, Regensberg, Bavaria included many rich and beautiful examples of the insignia of Order of the Golden Fleece, including a spectacular diamond bracelet, circa 1770, and a neck badge, of similar date, in gold, silver, diamonds and amethyst, that had belonged to Prince Karl Anselm Von Thurn und Taxi, (1733-1805).

The Saint-Esprit, in the form of Maltese cross with a dove at its centre, was a highlight of the Bourbon-Parma sale, this particular order having originally belonged to King Charles X of France. This breast star was later disassembled, and the diamonds reset in a tiara composed of three fleur-de-lys motifs, the heraldic symbol of the Bourbon-Parma dynasty.

Royal family orders were traditionally awarded to female members as an expression of appreciation of service or loyalty. George IV initiated the ritual for the British royal family in the 1820s. In 2022 Sotheby’s offered the family order presented by King George IV to his sister, Princess Elizabeth, (1770-1840) Landgravine of Hesse-Homburg. It was a dramatic jewel, centred on an enamel portrait miniature of King George IV when Prince Regent, by Henry Bone, framed by diamonds and a rose-cut diamond wreath.

One more decorative order of chivalry, relevant to this saga, is the Sternkreuzordern, or the Order of the Starry Cross, the royal family order of the Habsburg family. It was a Christian order awarded to ladies of high nobility and was traditionally worn on a black silk bow, although many ladies, understandably, preferred to wear it on a diamond-set bow instead. The Bourbon-Parma Collection included just such a diamond bow with a provenance reaching back to the Empress Maria Theresia, the mother of the Habsburg-Lorraine dynasty. While Vienna 1900 featured a bow for the Order of the Starry cross, circa 1840, whose first recorded owner was Archduchess Marie Therese of Austria-Teschen, Duchess of Württemberg (1845-1927).

The last word must surely go to the tiara, the unassailable, deeply emotive and evocative symbol of royal, imperial and noble femininity, a magical jewel exuding status and power. Sotheby’s can take pride in an unrivalled roll-call of spectacular historic tiaras that have passed through its salerooms and found new owners: from a 1920s Spanish ducal coronet, and the natural pearl and diamond tiara from the French Crown Jewels, to the stunning emerald and diamond tiara, owned by Princess Katharina Henckel von Donnersmarck, from around 1900, celebrating the great age of the tiara.

A fine diamond brooch, circa 1840, worn by Archduchess Marie Therese of Austria-Tuscany to suspend the Order of the Starry Cross, sold for 76,200 CHF.

In the Vienna 1900 auction, tiaras came out on top: two enchanting creations were both by Köchert. One late 19th century model, a light, airy, garlanded composition of draped diamond festoons and flowers of diamonds and natural pearls, came from the collection of Princess Maria Immaculata of Bourbon-Two Sicilies, Archduchess of Austria-Tuscany. The other, circa 1896, a sublimely feminine ribbon and bow design, in diamonds and Burma rubies had belonged to Isabella, Duchess of Württenberg, Princess of Saxony (1871-1904).

Often, a royal or noble tiara conveyed a message through considered motifs, drawn from heraldry perhaps, from royal ciphers, such as the fleur-de-lys, or, as in the case of Lady Hesketh’s late 19th century floral tiara, patriotic symbols. A superb example of naturalistic diamond jewelry, the tiara celebrated heritage through its finely modelled and diamond-smothered national flowers of the United Kingdom, a rose, for England, in the centre, set en tremblant, with a thistle for Scotland and a shamrock for Northern Ireland.

Today, when jewels are appreciated more and more as powerful expressions of identity, and at a time when legacy is prized for the reassurance of longevity and continuity, historical royal, imperial and noble provenance has become as important as intrinsic value, if not more so. It’s often said that every jewel has a story to tell, and these are the jewels that tell the most fascinating stories of all, from the grandest of sweeping historical sagas to the most movingly poignant tales of love, loyalty and affection.

To discuss property valuation for upcoming Royal & Noble Jewelry auctions please contact:

Andres White Correal, Deputy Chairman, Jewelry.


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