Queen Barbara Radvilaite wearing her pearls.
Coco Chanel was
convinced that no fashionable lady could do without pearls, while Marilyn
Monroe was just as sure that "Diamonds are a girl's best friend." Such
attitudes about power jewels reinforce each other, suggesting that they
are about equally alluring today, neither one monopolizing all the
glamour. Yet, historically, there is no question that pearls have long
been far more prestigious. The taste for diamonds coalesced at the court
of Versailles just three centuries ago, while pearls, the "Queen of Gems,"
have been coveted worldwide for millennia. Pearls, ever in vogue among
high-status and pedigreed women, will surely continue bewitching them for
generations to come.
afflicted the nobility of ancient Rome who thought little of bidding
astronomical sums for the best pieces. Suetonius writes that general
Vitellius paid for an entire military campaign simply by selling off one
of his mother's prized pearls. And Cleopatra once wagered Marc Anthony
that she could host the most expensive supper in history, winning the bet
by savoring a glass of wine into which she had dissolved a pearl earring.
The gem in question, according to Pliny, was worth 30 million sesterces,
or about five million U.S. dollars today.
too, was hopelessly obsessed with pearls. Strange as it may now seem, the
fashion consultants of that era did not particularly value diamonds,
ranking them in eighteenth place, far behind pearls, rubies, sapphires,
emeralds, and a dozen other gemstones. Pearls occupied first place, and
their premier status long remained unsurpassed. It is worth pointing out
that Ferdinand and Isabella sent out Columbus, not on a voyage of
discovery, but on a mission primarily seeking a new source of pearls. To
be sure, gold and silver, together with gemstones and spices, also
interested the pair, but those items were further down on their shopping
list. The royal couple knew that kings and queens would pay anything for
gorgeous pearls, whether or not their treasuries could afford the power
jewels. Columbus, initially unsuccessful, came across the oyster beds near
Venezuela only in 1498, on his third voyage to the New World. The Americas
then supplied Lisbon and Seville with sea pearls for a century or so,
providing a temporary fix for Europe's insatiable and incurable
August (Grand Duke of Lithuania 1544-72, King of Poland 1548-72) was the
type of monarch that Ferdinand and Isabella had in mind - his extravagant
tastes would do any potentate proud. Regarding jewels and gems, he was
like an acquisitive schoolboy squirreling away prized hoards of glass
marbles and postmarked stamps. Papal nuncio Bernard Bongiovanni visited
him in Vilnius and afterwards wrote: "He loves jewels inordinately and one
day showed them to me in secret, because he hides them from the Poles, not
wanting them to know the enormous sums that he had spent to buy them." The
nuncio saw a long wall-to-wall table which held sixteen jewel-filled
caskets. Four were from his mother Queen Bona Sforza; four the king had
bought himself; the remaining eight were filled with antique jewelry. One
had a cap filled to the brim with rubies, emeralds, and diamonds.
Bongiovanni concluded: "In a word, I saw so many splendid gems. which the
treasuries of Venice and papal Rome, which I have also seen, cannot
Wedding of King Zygimantas Augustas and Barbara
A few years earlier,
Sigismund August, not yet thirty, had fallen in love at first sight with
the recently-widowed, ravishingly beautiful, twenty-something Barbara
Gostautas, nee Radvilaite. At the time the Radvila (Radziwill) family was
the wealthiest and most powerful in Lithuania, holding an impressive list
of high offices and grand titles. Their status extended far beyond the
country's actual borders. On the political stage of continental Europe,
Barbara's uncle - Nicholas III, her brother - Nicholas V "the Brown," and
her cousin - Nicholas VI "the Black," were all princes of the Holy Roman
Empire - titles conferred in Vienna, courtesy of the Hapsburg Emperor.
By all accounts
Sigismund August and the Radvilas enjoyed one another's company, trust,
and respect. When Nicholas VI "the Black" returned from diplomatic
missions on the crown's behalf, Sigismund August would oftentimes ride out
of Cracow to meet him. And when prince Radvila was late to a session of
the Seimas (Senate), the king would invariably rise, advance a few steps
to greet him, and show his place next to the throne. This irked everyone
in the room, since protocol required that they also stand.
Characteristically, Radvila would find reasons to come late.
In 1547 Sigismund
August secretly wed Barbara Radvilaite, putting off the official
announcement until after his father's death. Bona Sforza, the young king's
mother, and the nobility feared domination by the Radvila clan and opposed
the marriage. They delayed Barbara's coronation as Queen of Poland and
Grand Duchess of Lithuania until 1550. She reigned for only a year, dying
from nasty, "natural causes."
August followed Queen Barbara's wishes and insisted on burying her, not in
Cracow, but Vilnius, even though it would take at least a month for the
funeral cortege to cover the 500 miles between the two capitals. The king
never left the procession, following behind his wife's coffin the entire
way. When the cortege came to a settlement, Sigismund August would
dismount and follow on foot. Queen Barbara was laid to rest in the
Cathedral of Vilnius, alongside Elizabeth of Austria, the king's first
wife. To the end of his days Sigismund August mourned for Queen Barbara,
and it is said he consulted sorcerers and tried necromancy to conjure up
her spirit. Her name was on his lips when he died.
Barbara, the king would send her wonderful gifts. When she stayed in the
Radvila estate at Dubingiai, he sent swans to decorate the castle pond.
She liked Sicilian oranges, so the loving king made sure they seasonally
graced her table. As a keepsake, she sent him a small sundial watch set on
a ring. He responded with a miniature timepiece, mounted on a stunning,
diamond-encircled ring. There is no question that Barbara prized pearls.
Among the other objets de luxe listed in her dowry, we find ten pearl
necklaces, a sash decorated with black pearls, seven pearl headbands, and
three pearl-encrusted shoulder capes or tippets. Knowing of her fondness
for pearls, Sigismund August had well-financed agents scouring European
jewel markets ready to acquire more gem-quality pieces for her delight.
most prized pearls came from the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Gulf
of Mannar in the Indian Ocean. They were created by the same species of
sea oyster, plucked by hold-breath divers from shallow-water oyster beds.
The lustrous natural jewels reached Europe through one branch of the Spice
Road, which started off in Indian Ocean ports, made stops in pearl-rich
Bahrain and Dubai, continuing overland to Cairo and Alexandria. Merchants
from Venice and Constantinople would then acquire the pearls, gems, and
spices, shipping the precious cargoes home from whence they reached the
principal courts Europe. But the luxury-loving courtiers never had enough
of the beautiful natural jewel, and the demand for sea pearls continued to
Zygimantas Augustas at the bedside of his dying wife
Europe actually had
plenty of pearls of its own - freshwater pearls, abounding in its cold,
fast-flowing, gravel-lined rivers and streams. The pearl mussel Margaritafera margaritafera once ranged from Germany to the Arctic Sea,
but survives today only in the northernmost rivers of Russia and Finland.
This particular species also thrived in waterways of Lithuania, where it
was once highly valued but is now extinct. We should recall here that the
funerary pyre which consumed the remains of Grand Duke Algirdas in 1377
also turned to ashes belts of silver and gold, eighteen stallions,
gold-embroidered purple cloth, and robes decorated with jewels and pearls.
His gorgeous fabrics and jewels suggest ties to Byzantium, evoking its
storied, extravagant splendor. It is likely that some of his pearls were
imported sea pearls. Archaeologists excavating in Kernave, a site not far
from the forest grove where the pagan funerary rites were held for
Algirdas, have dug up items of the same period which came from Venice,
Constantinople, Damascus, and Cairo. No pearls have yet been uncovered at
Kernave, possibly because they are organic and can decompose; however, the
archaeologists did find some cowry shells of a type found only on the
Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean.
The earliest known
portrait of Queen Barbara displays her affection for pearls. Dated around
1548, it was possibly painted by Andrew Ruhl or Antanas Vydas (Antonius
Wied), artists associated with the royal court in Vilnius at the time. A
pearl-studded beret, a pearl headband, and a pearl-encrusted cheek scarf
snugly hug her sad, thoughtful face. The dress, too, was preciously
adorned, intricate patterns of small pearls enlivening the narrow collar,
belt, and wrist cuffs. Larger pearls decorated the upper arm sleeves and
the wide edging of the shoulder cape. Some of the pearls were doubtlessly
imported sea pearls, highlighting the regal portrait.
The extended Radvila
clan had several estates, each with a gallery needing a portrait of Queen
Barbara, the family's most distinguished woman. Artists were thus
repeatedly commissioned to paint images of the deceased queen. In the
course of centuries the format of the original portrait was altered;
material was added and deleted, giving rise to several variants; all of
which Marija Matudakaite has traced in her admirable study on the subject.
In 1857 Francois Grenier created the queen's most idealized portrait,
which appeared as a lithograph in J. K. Vilcinskis' Album de Vilna. In it
all of the pearls have gravitated upwards, assembling into the coif and
the wide, shoulder-covering choker. A golden crown has also replaced the
original pearl-studded beret. Widely-reproduced, it is an image of an
assured and intelligent young beauty, suggesting what attracted King
Sigismund August to Queen Barbara in the first place.
Queen Elizabeth I
of England must hold the record for possessing more pearls than anyone
else before or since. The leading fashionista of Shakespeare's day, she
coveted pearls with boundless passion, a weakness she would indulge with a
bottomless purse. The queen amassed an unparalleled collection of
priceless pearls, some of them inherited, others acquired from the crown
jewels of Scotland, Portugal, Navarre, and Burgundy. She knew about
Sigismund August's fabulous jewel collection and Queen Barbara's
extraordinary pearls. And when Elizabeth I learned of his death and the
imminent dispersal of his prized acquisitions, she sent off agents seeking
Queen Barbara's pearls. Duly acquired, they soon found their place among
the crown jewels of England. Eventually inherited by the 3rd Duke of
Cumberland, at the end of the 19th century the pearls entered the dowry of
his eldest daughter Princess Marie Louise of Hanover and Cumberland. In
the decades between the two world wars she certainly had ample
opportunities to show them off. During that very period Coco Chanel moved
in the highest social circles, rubbing shoulders with Europe's creme de la
creme, so chances are high that at some gala event she would have
encountered some of Queen Barbara's pearls.