T he coronation of King Charles III will be a fantastic cause for celebration. One of the highlights of this historic occasion will not just be the crowning itself, but the wonderful jewels worn by those in attendance. Let’s take advantage of this unique time to revisit some of the jewels considered to be the finest emblems of sovereigns and noble families in Europe spanning several centuries, which Sotheby’s have had the privilege to offer.
The history of the Crown Jewels of many countries has been an evolving journey through eras and styles. The official jewelers of the sovereigns have always adapted the jewels, according to the tastes and the obligations of each royal patron, often selecting gemstones already in the royal collection.
Events such as coronations are celebrated, especially in England, with a glittering array of diamond tiaras. In London, at the time of the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902, the Cartier brothers established a permanent address in the English capital. Many tiaras were exhibited there at that time, in order to meet the obligations of the aristocracy in official representation. It was Cartier who created the tiara for Mary, Duchess of Roxburgh, who was a canopy bearer during the 1937 Coronation. This spectacular jewel was sold at Sotheby’s in May 2015, where it fetched CHF 2.4 million.
Apart from coronation occasions, diadems and tiaras were often inherited from one generation to the next, often gifted to young royals for their wedding. One famous example was the impressive diamond tiara, made about 1901 by Köchert, the Crown jeweler of the Habsburg dynasty. It was given by Emperor François Joseph of Austria himself to Archduchess Marie Anne of Austria, on the occasion of her marriage to Elie de Bourbon, Duke of Parma. During the sale of the Bourbon Parma Collection by Sotheby’s, in November 2018, this jewel was among the highlights of the auction and sold for CHF 250,000.
Moving from one marriage to another, the story of Empress Eugenie’s tiara shows another way of passing on an exceptional jewel. Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, commissioned it to jeweler Lemonnier as a gift to his wife Eugenie de Montijo in 1853. This jewel, set with fine pearls and diamonds, was worn by the Empress on numerous occasions and she famously chose to wear it in her official portrait painted by Winterhalter in 1854.
At the fall of the Second Empire in France, the Third Republic decided to sell most of the French Crown Jewels in 1887. This tiara passed into the hands of the princes von Thurn und Taxis and stayed in their collection for almost a century, before they decided to part with it in 1992, when it was sold for CHF 3,719,430. It was purchased by the Société des Amis du Louvre for the eponymous museum where it is on permanent display today.
Beyond tiaras, royal families have always had a history of commissioning spectacular jewels, representing their noble status. Often the relationship between queens and their jewelers were quite personal as the patrons trusted them to create beautiful and unique design with the highest quality stones. Queen Victoria Eugenia of Spain entrusted Cartier to mount conch pearls of superb quality on to a bracelet adorned with diamonds and enamel. Sold at Sotheby’s in Geneva for CHF 3.3 million in November 2012, it set a new world auction record for a conch pearl jewel.
If these major ceremonial events became rarer in the second half of the 20th century, a new society organised prestigious occasions such as cocktail parties, masked balls, gala dinners and chic cruises on the Mediterranean Sea. Whether they were well-born, newly wealthy or gifted with creative talent in multiple forms, this so-called “Café Society” knew how to mix personalities, characters and sartorial style from both sides of the Atlantic.
The legendary Daisy Fellowes, a colourful socialite whose style was much envied, was both the daughter of the 3rd Duke Decazes, and the granddaughter of the American inventor of the famous Singer sewing machines. In Paris, she became the Editor of the famous American Magazine Harper's Bazaar. As someone who celebrated the unconventional, she wore bold, original jewelry, including this elegant Panthère clip made by Cartier, later sold at Sotheby’s in Geneva, in May 2008, for CHF 565,000.
Another great figure was Mona Bismarck, considered “The Best Dressed Woman in the World” by most of the great Parisian couturiers. As part of her jewelry collection, this exceptional brooch made by Cartier in jadeite, onyx, ruby and diamonds was sold in Geneva for CHF 372,500 at Sotheby’s.
The “Café Society” would not be complete without mentioning the one who almost acted as its Queen: Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor. If her style and her elegance were so much imitated, but never equalled, her collection of jewelry unleashed passions when it went for sale at Sotheby’s.
This historic event, held on April 2 and 3, 1987, brought in CHF 53.5 million for the Pasteur Institute in Paris. It was considered as the first major auction to put jewelry on the same level as the other arts and it is still viewed as the most important jewelry collection put together in the 20th century.
Explore Highlights from Magnificent Jewels & Noble Jewels
Royal and noble jewels have always sparked our imagination. Tinged with both splendour and romanticism, each piece is worn with joy on historic occasions, watched today by millions around the world. Nowhere else, is this more apparent than at coronations. Over the years, Sotheby’s has had the honour of offering several key royal jewels. The first dedicated “Royal and Noble Jewels" sale in November 2023 will celebrate this privileged connection.