Today marks the 105th Anniversary of the Birth of the late Infanta Alicia, Duchess of Calabria, who was born on this day in 1917! The daughter of the Duke of Parma and Archduchess Maria Anna of Austria who married the Duke of Calabria and became the aunt of King Juan Carlos of Spain, Infanta Alicia possessed an absolutely spectacular collection of Heirloom Jewels, the highlight of which was Queen Marie Antoinette’s Pearl Necklace!
Composed of three rows of slightly graduated natural pearls with a diamond clasp, from which the spectacular diamond and pearl pendant was usually suspended, the necklace was described by Archduchess Maria Anna, Princess Elias of Bourbon-Parma as
Three rows of large pearls the first one comprising 49 pearls, the second 53 pearls and the third one 61 pearls, in total 161 pearls…A large drop with a small diamond bow and a large diamond. The drop was originally, together with the diamond bow, part of the third row of large pearls. The diamond was originally the clasp of the large necklace. This parure comes as it is from Queen Marie Antoinette and was inherited by Marie Thérèse de France, Duchess d’Angoulême, Countesse de Marne, then to her niece and adoptive daughter, Louise Marie Thérèse de France, Mademoiselle Duchesse de Parme”
When Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria married the Dauphin of France, she received several spectacular jewels from her mother, Empress Maria Theresa, and her grandfather-in-law, King Louis XV, which may have included these Pearls.
The Dauphine had brought from Vienna a considerable number of white diamonds: the King added to them the gift of the diamonds and pearls of the late Dauphine , and also put into her hands a collar of pearls, of a single row, the smallest of which was as large as a filbert, and had been brought into France by Anne of Austria, and appropriated by that Princess to the use of the Queens and Dauphines of France”.
Queen Marie Antoinette was depicted wearing Pearls in various portraits throughout her life, and maintained a keen interest in jewellery through her life, going into debt to acquire Diamond Bracelets, and later being erroneously associated with the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Ahead of the ill-fated Flight to Varennes, the Queen packed all her Jewels, save for a suite of Pearls and a pair of Diamond Earrings, which were smuggled by her hairdresser and sent with the Duke de Choiseul to her sister in Brussels.
It was only in 1794, a few months after the Queen’s execution, that Emperor Francis II of Austria ordered the chest to be opened, inventoried and sent to the Imperial Treasury in Vienna, where, in 1796, they were handed over to Princess Marie-Therese, the Madame Royale, who received the jewels after her long imprisonment as the sole surviving member of her family. The Madame Royale, who became the Duchess of Angoulême after her wedding, wore her mothers jewels throughout her life, even after the monarchy was restored and she had access there father-in-law and husband in 1830.
After the Duchess of Angoulême’s passing in 1851, her Jewels were divided between her nephew, the Count of Chambord, and his sister, Princess Louise Marie Thérèse de France, the Duchesse de Parme. The Duchess was depicted wearing a Pearl Necklace with the iconic Pearl Pendant in a portrait painted around 1849, even before the Duchess of Angoulême’s death.
After her death, the Jewels were inherited by Robert I, Duke of Parma, who also inherited the rest of the Duchess of Angoulême’s Jewels after his childless uncle’s death, and the Pearls were among the Jewels passed to Archduchess Marie Anne of Austria who married his eventual heir, Prince Elie de Bourbon-Parme, in 1903. Archduchess Marie Anne, also known as Princess Elias of Bourbon-Parma seems to have had the pearls restrung into a long sautoir, worn with Queen Marie Antoinette’s Pearl Pendant.
By the 1960s, Queen Marie Antoinette’s Pearls were in the collection of Archduchess Marie Anne’s daughter, Infanta Alicia, by then restrung into one three-strand pearl necklace and a single pearl necklace, with the three-strand pearl necklace worn for numerous royal and family events, including the Christening of her grandson, Prince Pedro, the current Duke of Calabria, in 1968, the Enthronement of King Juan Carlos of Spain in 1975 and several family weddings.
Infant Alicia retained her spectacular Jewellery Collection until her death in 2017, just before her 100th Birthday, and the following year, many of the Jewels of Queen Marie Antoinette came up for auction for the first time in history in the ‘Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family’ Sale at Sotheby’s in Geneva. The single-strand Pearl Necklace had an estimate of 40,000 – 70,000 CHF, eventually selling for 447,000 CHF, while the three-strand Necklace had an estimate of 200,000 – 300,000 CHF, and sold for ten times that at 2,295,000 CHF. However, it was the spectacular Pearl Pendant, which had a presale estimate of 1,000,000 – 1,990,000 CHF, which fetched a record breaking 36,427,000 CHF, the highest ever for a natural pearl.
While Jewels like these remain unknown after auction, it was discovered by Mauriz of RJWMB, that the Pearl Pendant and the three-strand Pearl necklace were acquired by Austrian billionaire art collector Heidi Goess-Horten, who wore it to receive an Order in Klagenfurt in 2019. Heidi Horten passed away earlier this year, and while she had no children, she had opened a private museum in Vienna, where we can hope these priceless pearls will be exhibited.