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Marie Antoinette's diamond earrings book spread

History’s Most Prized Jewellery: 5 True and Astonishing Stories

History’s Most Prized Jewellery: 5 True and Astonishing Stories

Indulgent, ornate and absurdly valuable, these famous historical pieces of jewellery have never been just accessories. They’re symbols of wealth and power, of luxury and might, and they come along with storied – sometimes gory – pasts full of upheaval, intrigue and misfortune. Here are some of history’s highest-stakes pieces of jewellery.

1. Marie Antoinette’s diamond earrings

Reigning as the queen of France alongside King Louis XVI from 1774 to 1792, Marie Antoinette was the most glamorous woman in Europe in the 18th century, setting trends that were slavishly followed by fashionable ladies of the royal courts. Her extravagance provided fuel for the satirical newspapers of the day, and her love of fine clothes and jewellery earned her the Nickname “Madame Déficit”.

"Every woman wanted to imitate..." Madame Chapman Marie Antoinette quote

Among her indulgences were up to 300 dresses a year, countless pairs of perfumed gloves, and a hoard of sparkling jewellery. Some of it was made from paste (heavy glass) but much of it was real, including a favourite of the queen – a pair of diamond earrings with pear-shaped drops, one weighing 20.34 carats, the other weighing 14.25 carats.

© 2016 Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC / National Museum of Natural History / Chip Clark

2. The Hope Diamond

The Hope Diamond is celebrated first and foremost for its stunning colour and size. It weighs 45.52 carats and is the world’s largest deep blue diamond to date.  For all the accursed tales surrounding it, the Hope Diamond has an illustrious, royal provenance. Discovered in an Indian mine in the 18th century, it was originally a larger stone weighing 115 carats. It was called the Tavernier Diamond after its first owner, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, who sold it to Louis XIV.

Corbis / Smithsonian Institution

Adding to its aura of mystery, the Hope Diamond is said to carry a curse – various figures from its history have suffered ill fortune, including Marie Antoinette, guillotined in the French Revolution, and American heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, who was struck by a catalogue of misfortunes. She bought the gem in 1911 and suffered bereavement, divorce, and bankruptcy. Its last private owner, jeweller Harry Winston, posted it to the Smithsonian, its current owners, paying $155 in insurance, but even the mailman who delivered it attracted bad luck – he was allegedly hit by a truck.

3. The Dom Pedro Aquamarine

© 2016 Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC / National Museum of Natural History / Donald E. Hurlbert

The Dom Pedro is the largest known aquamarine gem in the world. It was fashioned out of an enormous crystal, discovered by three independent prospectors at Pedra Azul, in the Minas Gerais mining region of Brazil. Before the prospectors could decide what to do with it, however, they dropped it and the crystal broke into three pieces. The largest of these ­– which was around 2ft (60 cm) in length and weighed about 60lb (27 kg) – was eventually transformed into the Dom Pedro.

From the outset, there was a battle to preserve the crystal. In purely commercial terms, the most profitable outcome would have been to cut it up into small gems to be sold off, and this was the intention of the original Brazilian owner. However, the crystal came to the notice of Jürgen Henn, a German gem dealer. Immediately struck by the exceptional size, clarity and colour of the piece, he organised a consortium of investors to purchase the crystal and transport it to Idar-Oberstein, a famous gem-cutting centre in southern Germany. There, he took it to his friend, the gem artist Bernd Munsteiner, knowing that Munsteiner could turn the crystal into something truly remarkable.

4. Napoleon Diamond Necklace

© 2016 Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC / National Museum of Natural History / Chip Clark

Commissioned by Napoleon I of France in 1811 for his wife Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, this necklace is composed of 234 diamonds. The single thread is set with 28 mine-cut diamonds. A second tier has nine pendeloques and 10 briolettes (teardrop-shaped cut). 

Following Marie Louise’s death, Maria Theresa, a princess of Portugal, eventually inherited it and, in 1929, decided to sell. She engaged two agents, “Colonel Townsend” and “Princess Baronti”, to sell the necklace for $450,000. Since the stock market had just crashed, this figure proved unrealistic and the agents began offers at $100,000, enlisting Archduke Leopold of Hapsburg, Maria Theresa’s penniless grandnephew, to give assurances of authenticity to buyers. The necklace eventually sold for $60,000, but the agents and Archduke Leopold claimed a collective fee of $53,730 as expenses. Maria Theresa took the matter to court, recovered the necklace and Leopold was jailed. The “Townsends” evaded capture, however, and their true identities remain a mystery.

5. Marie Louise’s Diadem

Few pieces of historic jewellery have undergone such a dramatic makeover as the Marie Louise Diadem. Dating from 1810, the tiara was originally studded with 79 deep green Colombian emeralds totalling 700 carats. It is named after Empress Marie Louise of France, who received the headpiece from her husband Napoleon I to mark their wedding in 1810. Made in Paris by Francois-Regnault Nitot, it was part of an emerald and diamond parure that included a necklace, comb, belt buckle, and earrings.

© 2016 Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC / National Museum of Natural History / Chip Clark

When Napoleon’s empire crumbled, Marie Louise fled to Austria and, on her death, left the parure to her aunt, Archduchess Elise. However, in the 1950s, jewellery maker Van Cleef & Arpels acquired the diadem from a descendent of Elise, and removed and sold the emeralds at auction.

Van Cleef & Arpels replaced the emeralds with 79 turquoise cabochons, a change that horrified some but appealed to others. One such admirer was American socialite and breakfast cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. She purchased the tiara in 1971, adding it to her extraordinary collection of jewellery. 


A dazzling visual guide to precious and semiprecious stones, organic gems, and precious metals, Jewel showcases beautiful, specially commissioned images as well as science, natural history, mythology, and true stories of adventure and discovery.

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