Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Queen(s) with the Pearl Earrings

Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Susan reports:

Last month I wrote about the large pearl that King Charles I wore in one 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), an 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. 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 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 painted many times wearing the earrings, including this portrait of her as a young wife 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 a disastrous civil war 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 and tumultuous 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?

12 comments:

Laura said...

Thanks so much for sharing this beautifully written post. It's so tantalising to wonder about the earrings' 250 year sojourn!

Sandy said...

Wonderful article. Now famous women seem to borrow jewels to wear for special occasions rather than own them, so we don't see that same association as much. Notable exceptions: Oprah's diamond earrings, which are similar to these pearl earrings in shape, and Princess Di's sapphire and diamond engagement ring.

gentlewomanthief said...

Oh wow - what a fabulous tale! And gorgeous earrings, too - I can't believe they're still in such excellent quality.

Vanessa Kelly said...

Great story! I think someone could write a book about the "life" of those pearls.

Margaret Evans Porter said...

Lovely objects, fascinating tales!

In her last will & testament the real-life protagonist of my novel bequeathed "my ruby earrings with pearl drops" to her daughter, who never married. Oh, how I wish I knew what had become of those earrings! And "the large pearl necklace"--I do love those gorgeous Oriental pearls that the 17th centuries ladies wore when sitting for their portraits.

Michelle Buonfiglio said...

Hi, Susan! Thanks for treating us to this lovely tale. I have to tell you: I'm kind of all choked up and literally gasped when I spied these in your TNHG email. These may be the most gorgeous earrings I've seen, and so powerful whether given in love or sold -- again, perhaps because of love but most likely for duty -- to gain power. $250K is a steal. You know, if you had that to toss around.

Mme.Tresbeau said...

Beautiful pearls, and fascinating stories. These three ladies would make a wonderful book. (hint, hint) I'd love to read more.

Charleybrown said...

Interesting post! Thanks! I do wonder where they were for those unaccounted 250 years??!

Mari said...

I love the Fleur de Lys in diamonds above the pearls! Yes, indeed to have Charles I and Louis XIV whispering "sweet nothings" in your ears would be worth owning the earrings. What a prize!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I do wonder where they were hiding myself for all that time. Probably tucked away in a vault somewhere. If they were being worn, SOMEONE would have noted it, or had their portrait painted wearing them.

As gorgeous as they are, though, I'm afraid I'm too superstitious to want to wear them. Though not exactly cursed, they didn't exactly bring lasting happiness to the wearers. Marie de' Medici found no love with Henri, who much preferred his mistresses, then died young, and after much turmoil, she was driven from France to die in exile. Henriette loved her husband, but he lost his head to Cromwell and company, and she, too, died alone in a French convent. Marie de Mancini was forced to marry a man she didn't love, who by all reports was so insane that she left him, roaming Europe and always one step ahead of the men he hired to bring her back.

So maybe a few too many bad vibes there! But I'd love to know who owns them now....

ILoveVersailles said...

No jinx for me! I'd wear these in a heartbeat!

DeGeorgetown said...

What happened to the baby she left behind?

There was an error in this gadget
 
Two Nerdy History Girls. Design by Pocket