Monthly Archives: September 2019

The Three Brethren, the Burgundian Crown Jewel

A rendering of the Three Brethren sometime between 1479-1505.
A rendering of the Three Brethren shoulder clasp / pendant sometime between 1479-1505.

King Henry VIII of England and his daughter, Elizabeth I, were indefatigable jewelry collectors. At the time of his death Henry VIII owned over 100 diamond rings and when Elizabeth I was 54 years old an inventory of her jewelry was tallied at over 600 pieces. And so it’s no surprise they were both in contact with the Three Brethren, the most important jewel of its time. It was owned by dukes, kings, queens, and the richest man who ever lived. To each of them it meant something unique, totemic. Its owner was potent with real power and wealth. After 250 years in existence the jewel vanished. It’s believed to have been dismantled and sold for parts.

The jewel is named for the three very large, rectangular table-cut red spinels arcanely called balas rubies. They matched in color, saturation, and dimension, and were likely sourced from Asia. The rose-red gems were set in a triangular formation with a white, round pearl between each spinel, and a pear-shaped fourth pearl dangling freely at the bottom. The pearls weighed 0.50 ounce each. In the center of the triangle was a flawless, pyramid-cut diamond (with a 5/8” square base) from India weighing 30 carats. It was known as the Heart of the Three Brothers and was once believed to be the largest diamond in Europe.

The Three Brethren was designed as a shoulder clasp and had an estimated 3 inch diameter. It was commissioned in France by John Valois, Duke of Burgundy (also known as John the Fearless after a brave display fighting with Hungry against the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid in 1396).  Velois died wearing the jewel in 1419 at the age of 33 when he was brutally murdered at a parley with his 16 year old cousin, Charles Valois. Charles was the dauphin of France and future king, 1422 – 1462. Their fateful dispute on a bridge in Montereau stems from dynastic turmoil and is part of the Hundred Years War.


The Three Brethren was passed down to John Valois’ grandson, Charles the Bold, who was perceived as the greatest duke in Europe and with the most powerful army. He traveled to battles with enormously valuable objects as talismans: carpets belonging to Alexander the Great, bronze sculptures, gemstones and jewels including the Sancy diamond (55.23 carats), and The Three Brethren. For the second time in its short history, the jewel is about to be parted from its owner in an encounter with an adversary. Charles the Bold lost the Battle of Grandson against the Swiss in 1476. He retreated leaving his tent to be pillaged including his ducal seal and treasure chest. His dead body was found a few days later in a river.

Jacob Fuggar, the wealthiest man of all time.
Jacob Fuggar, the wealthiest man of all time.

The jewel turns up in 1505. It was secretly sold in Basel Switzerland in 1504 and the following year recorded in the inventory of Jacob Fuggar of Ausburg Germany, the richest man who ever lived. Fuggar’s grandfather was a peasant, his father was a common textile trader, and Jacob started working at age 12. He went on to become an international mercantile banker turned venture capitalist and monopolistic mining entrepreneur who loaned money to the rich and royal family members in exchange for silver and copper mining rights throughout Europe.

Jacob Fuggar funded the ascension of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor and successor to his father Maximilian I, who Fuggar had close financial and social ties with. Charles V (a Hapsberg born in the Netherlands) was Charles the Bold’s great grandson and very much aligned himself with his ancestor’s politics. But the jewel, the Burgundian crown jewel, was never to be his. It did circle around Charles V’s Hapsburg heirs, namely his son Phillip II, though out of reach from reclaiming it.

Fuggar purchased the Three Brethren as capital reserves. The Three Brethren was never worn and likely never saw the light of day in the years he owned it. Fuggar’s motto in life was “I want to gain while I can”. In his lifetime he amassed a $400 billion fortune in todays money.

Fuggar died alone in his house at age 66. He was in loveless marriage that resulted in no children. His nephew inherited his fortune and sold the The Three Brethren to King Henry VIII. It took 2 years to close the sale and the king died (at the age of 55) before taking ownership. Henry VIII had 2 daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. His only legitimate son and heir was 9 year old Edward VI who received The Three Brethren during his short reign of 5 years before dying of Tuberculosis. The jewel was kept by the Lord Treasurer for safe keeping.

Mary I wearing the pearl La Peregrina (The Pilgrim). A wedding gift from her husband Philip II of Spain.

Mary I started her reign like a slap in 1553. She beheaded Edward’s chosen successor for the purpose of repealing her father’s Protestant religious edicts and became the first queen ragnant of England; she ruled in her own right and not as wife to a king. Seeking to return the country to the Catholic Church she revived old heresy laws and burned 300 people at the stake earning her the moniker Bloody Mary. In her 5 year reign she became wildly unpopular, even to her husband who was betrothed to her sight unseen for political convenience. She married Prince Philip II of Spain after agreeing with her court that a woman shouldn’t rule alone. (Philip II was never crowned King of England. He became King of Spain three years into Mary’s reign.) Philip was a diplomat about the marriage. The arrangement pacified his father Carlos V of Spain – and Holy Roman Emperor – for Henry VIII’s split from Catherine of Aragon, and subsequent break with the Catholic Church over complications to annul the marriage and wed Anne Boleyn. Mary was 11 years older than Philip, and acted like a silly, giddy school girl around him. He was bored by her and disgusted with her appearance. Over the course of their short marriage Philip spent an increasing amount of time away from her, months, and even a two year stint. The Three Brethren is listed as being delivered to Mary’s Treasury on September 20, 1553 though there’s no mention of her having any interest in it. She ardently preferred the jewelry given to her by Philip before the marriage, before he even met her including a large table-cut diamond ring and a multi-stone diamond necklace. Mary’s most favored jewel from Philip was La Peregrina, a pear-shaped pearl weighing over 11 grams and the topic for another blog. Mary died at age 43, and was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I wearing the Three Brethren in the Ermine Portrait, 1585.

Elizabeth I was beautiful, charming, bold, courageous, and she spoke 6 languages. Mary despised her and throughout much of her tenure as queen kept Elizabeth locked up. Philip thought to marry her after Mary’s death, even flirting with her by giving her a diamond worth $23,000,000 in todays market in a private meeting after one of Mary’s false pregnancies. Elizabeth had no interest in marriage or being sidelined by a husband. Immediately after Mary’s death Philip proposes to Elizabeth and she made a very public point of objecting to it. Her strong objection to marriage was likely steeped in from her father. Henry VIII terrorized his friends, wives, and children with his erratic behavior and Elizabeth was determined to follow her own path and not be beholden to anyone.

Tutor clothes were frothy, and the jewelry in court was elaborate, opulent, and important. Elizabeth I, like her father Henry VIII, put her personal prestige on the line and expected those around her to do that same. It is said Elizabeth “only tolerated attractive people in her court. She instituted what she called the Statutes of Apparel, dictating, in detail, who could and should wear what.”

It’s during the reign of Elizabeth I that The Three Brethren is seen for the first time in paintings and its history more fully revealed before going dark in the 1640’s. The Ermine Portrait and Segar Portrait (below) were both painted in 1585.

On the matter of vanity Elizabeth is a somewhat relatable figure. She suffered from smallpox when she was 29 (a few years before the Ermine Portrait) and remarkably survived. To cover the resulting scars on her face she wore white, lead-based makeup, and a mixture of red dye and egg whites as rouge, a concoction that was slowly poisoning her and causing her to age prematurely, including hair loss. She wore a wig and due to poor dental hygiene typical of the time, several of her teeth rotted and had to be pulled. She stuffed cloth in her mouth to keep her cheeks from looking hollow. Sir Francis Bacon once said her jewels drew attention away from her aging.

Elizabeth I wearing The Three Brethren as pendant on pearl necklace. Segar portrait, 1585

Symbolism in Elizabeth’s portraits is not to be discounted. In the Pelican Portrait (1575) she wore a pelican pendant and 2 cherries in her hair possibly representing self-sacrifice in keeping her virginity in tact. In the Phoenix Portrait she wears this mythical bird in hopes of regenerating the Tudor dynasty (1575). The later portraits of her wearing The Three Brethren to me relate to her brute force power. The treasury was empty when she arrived to the throne and she found a way to fill the treasury. She laid out a policy for pirating and in her relentless determination to dominate the seas vanquished Philip II’s Spanish Armada in 1588, the high water mark in her reign. By 1600 the British (and Dutch) were dominating the world in exploration, creating wealth, and empire building.

The Chequers Ring

Elizabeth died in 1603 at age 69. At the time of her death she was wearing the Chequers Ring, a locket ring concealing portraits of her and her mother, Anne Boleyn, beneath rubies, diamonds and pearl. Her mother was beheaded when Elizabeth was 2 years old. Elizabeth named no successor though she was in negotiation with King James VI of Scotland and he was given the ring as proof of her death. Elizabeth I was the last Tudor. (The Chequers Ring is named for the 16th century manor where it is housed, also the residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom)

King James I and The Three Brethren as a hat pin

King James VI of Scotland becomes King James I of England, starting the Stuart line and combining the two thrones for the first time. He moves to London and rules from 1603 – 1625. In 1605 The Three Brethren is listed in the Crown Jewels inventory, and 18 years later it’s on a list of pieces going to his Crown Jeweler, George Heriot, for resetting. In 1623 James I sends his son and heir, Charles, the “newlie sette” Three Brethren to woo the infanta of Spain which was unsuccessful.

Unfortunately it’s during Charles I’s reign that the story of the jewel ends. To raise money and credit for the English Civil Wars Charles’s wife, Henrietta Maria, starts selling off precious objects from the Crown. She believed these items belonged solely to the monarch and she could do what she pleased with them. She raised a significant sum at The Hague and what didn’t sell there she tried pawning at street markets. Important works like The Three Brethren were particularly risky and didn’t sell; Parliament may reclaim them, buyers were weary.

A letter dated June 2 1642 from Amsterdam was read to the House of Commons on June 11 1642 by Sir Walter Erle:

That there were Jewels brought to Amsterdam, certain Collars of Pearl; which were sold; and the Product of them is the Sixteen thousand Pounds sent over hither; and the Residue is kept there, to pay for the Arms and Ammunition bespoken there. One great Collar of Rubies. The Jewels called the Three Brethren; Four or Five great Diamonds; with divers other Parcels; but no Money got upon them yet. 

A similar letter was read to the House of Lords on June 11, 1642

I cannot learn that any Jewels more are pawned than I have formerly expressed, neither of the Sale of any jewels, save divers Collars of Pearls. (…) In writing hereof I understand, by an eyewitness, that all the jewels are brought here again to be pawned and amongst them the great collar fetched from Hamb. Also the three Brethren, four or five great diamonds, with divers more; but no money to be had thereupon in this place, as the party imployed therin doth tell me 

In 1643 Henrietta Maria leaves for Holland again, reportedly with the jewel. She returns to London but the trail for The Three Brethren goes cold and its whereabouts unknown. One theory is that Cardinal Mazarin bought it and in doing so acquired all Henrietta Maria’s debt. Another is that it was sold and dismantled for parts. The jewel nor parts of it have been seen again.

Equally fascinating to me as the owners and particular details of the jewel is that The Three Brethren was reset several times…which hardly changed a smidge in its 250 year history.

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