Royal Face-off

The exceptional pearls of Marie Antoinette and the Duchess of Windsor are up for grabs at auction.


I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.” These were the characteristically dry words of Wallis Simpson—the whippet-thin Duchess of Windsor and one half of perhaps the 20th century’s most scandalous couple—uttered, no doubt, while wearing one of the many exquisite baubles the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII, bestowed on her during their 36-year marriage. Not content to let her Mainbocher and Chanel suits remain bare, the Duchess was a jewelry fiend, piling on flame-hued ruby flamingo pins, onyx-studded panther brooches, delicate bracelets of diamonds and sapphires and, of course, her signature ornaments: unmatched diamond and natural pearl ear clips, one black and one white. It’s this rare, decidedly fashion-forward pair along with a single-strand natural pearl and diamond necklace and pearl pendant that are being auctioned in December in New York by Sotheby’s, with a presale estimate of between $2.2 million and $3.1 million. The sale will take place nearly 20 years after the Duchess’s vast jewelry collection brought in a whopping $50.3 million at Sotheby’s Geneva (where the aforementioned three pearl pieces were snapped up by current sellers Calvin and Kelly Klein for a total of $1.18 million).

The uncommon quality of the pearls and their drama-laced backstory make the sale a fascinating one on its own. But nothing heightens auction drama like a little competition, and who better to give the Duchess a run for her money than Marie Antoinette? Just a week after the Sotheby’s auction, Christie’s hopes to fetch up to $800,000 for the French queen’s 33 slate gray natural pearls, which had been loose and were set in and suspended from a diamond and ruby collar in 1849. One might call the coincidence a modern duel of royalty’s feistiest fashionistas. “I do think it’s kind of hard to beat the House of Windsor,” says Lisa Hubbard, Sotheby’s chairman of North and South America, international jewelry, who attended the historic Simpson sale in 1987 and admits to doggedly pursuing the Kleins, who were not looking to sell, in order to commemorate its 20th anniversary. “Everybody loves royal pearls, because they are natural instead of cultured. With the climate changing, oysters aren’t producing as much. It makes these pearls even more prized.”

The Duchess of Windsor’s Van Cleef & Arpels unmatched pearl ear clips.

The Duke of Windsor famously loved gems and metals and worked closely with Europe’s eminent jewelers—including Jeanne Toussaint of Cartier and René-Sim Lacaze of Van Cleef & Arpels, the maker of the Duchess’s avant-garde ear clips—to craft the perfect accessories for his discerning wife. The Duke received the single-strand necklace from his mother, Queen Mary; he gave it to the then 40-year-old American divorcée, for whom he abdicated the throne to marry. The pendant, a gleaming, bulbous Cartier piece, followed in 1950. The pearl ear clips, each one bordered by 16 pear-shaped and 32 round diamonds, were purchased by the Duke in 1958, providing the Duchess with the cornerstones of her collection.

Kelly Klein broke out the jewelry for the 2006 Costume Institute gala and 1989 CFDA awards and found herself unexpectedly channeling the Windsors’ glamour. “The first time I wore them, it created a lot of drama. I hadn’t realized just how much buzz there was surrounding these pearls,” says Klein, who calls a pearl “the ultimate feminine jewel.” Despite the fact that the pieces lack the signature inscriptions the Duke was known for (a diamond charm bracelet the Duchess wore at her wedding bore the words god save the king for wallis), their origin proved an instant conversation starter. “All evening long, people came up to me and asked, ‘Are those the pearls?’ It was quite a spectacle.”

It was another kind of spectacle altogether when a desperate Marie Antoinette, finding herself imprisoned in the convent of the Feuillants in the midst of the French Revolution in 1792, surreptitiously proffered a bag of pearls and diamonds to her friend Lady Sutherland, the wife of the British ambassador to France. No doubt anticipating a return to her sumptuous lifestyle once the masses had settled down, the Queen reportedly entrusted Sutherland with the gems after realizing that the British aristocrat had diplomatic immunity and could therefore return the jewelry once the Queen had escaped. Fast-forward about 50 years, and the pearls, each imbued with a misty gray shade and some in a rare teardrop shape, were mounted on a necklace to celebrate the marriage of Lady Sutherland’s grandson, George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, to Anne Hay-Mckenzie. The necklace has remained in the family—or rather, the family vault—ever since.

“The owner was reluctant to sell, but he just feels that if they’re not being worn, they should be in different hands,” says Raymond Sancroft-Baker, the London-based senior director of Christie’s Jewellery (the necklace’s owner, who declined to be identified, is a direct descendant of Lady Sutherland). Christie’s is betting the heightened fascination with the extravagance-mad Queen, following Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film and a spate of celebrated biographies, will seduce bidders. Taking a gentle jab at the rivalry between the two auction houses, Sancroft-Baker adds, “These pearls have never been on the market before—most people didn’t even know they existed, which sets them apart. So much was taken from Marie Antoinette when she was imprisoned, and so much of it dispersed—it’s a huge historical moment to be able to sell something that we know belonged to her.”

The single-strand Cartier necklace that belonged to Queen Mary

And while Sancroft-Baker says he hopes the Queen’s luminous gems, which likely derived from the warm waters off the coast of Panama, end up gracing the collarbone of a Frenchwoman, reps from both auction houses say much of the presale enthusiasm has been of the emerging-market ilk. “We’ve been fielding tremendous interest from Asia and the Middle East,” Hubbard says. Whatever their ultimate destinations, the treasures of both women are certain to delight their new owners with inherent beauty and provenance alike. As Hubbard says, “Who doesn’t want a piece of a great story?”