The assembly of the greatest collection of jewels the world has ever seen began roughly with the accession of Pepin the Short in 752. It is the first recorded legitimization of a French monarch under a Christian ceremony called the sacre, a ceremony which was to be performed on every French monarch in a more or less uninterrupted line until the French Revolution.
During medieval times, the French Crown jewels could only really be thought to consist of regalia which was thought to enhance the Divine Right of Kings. These tended to be items such as sceptres, gold spurs, sceptres, golden Hands of Justice and orbs. These are familiar to us from paintings and sculpture of the time and were in fact in frequent use. Medieval kings of all countries wore these items during most high days and holidays: feast days, saints’ days, name days- in short, any occasion that demanded a show of power vested in a single person by the state. A king normally had a new crown made for his sacre as it was traditional for the monarch to bequeath the item to the Abbey of St. Denis, in whose basilica French Monarchs were crowned. The important stones, however, would be removed and reused by each successive king. This collection of medieval ornaments, added to and enhanced by each successive monarch, came to be known as the Regalia (much like the British Crown Jewels). This grew to include Church ceremonial plate and vestments and represented the apogee of medieval goldsmithing.
The concept of the French Crown Jewels as unalienable was instituted by Francis I in 1530. By this time, the use of the medieval regalia outside the sacre had become an anachronism, but the King still needed to use the powerful imagery of splendid jewels to enhance his image of power. At this time, there were 8 notable stones, the most important of which was the ‘Côte-de-Bretagne’ red spinel, a 105 carat stone originally thought to be a ruby. Despite a partial dispersal of the jewels in 1590 due to disturbances caused by the Catholic League, the jewels were reconstituted by Henri IV.
It is only fitting that the jewels should have started accelerating towards their glittering crescendo under the watch of Louis XIV, the Sun King. The centre of his own universe, he needed to shine accordingly. His first addition was the Mazarin diamonds, a collection of 18 near perfect stones gifted to him personally in 1661 by his minister, Cardinal Mazarin. The most important of these stones was the Sancy diamond, a stone which originated in the 16th century in Turkey. It had become part of the Crown Jewels under Henri III, stolen under Henri IV and bought back by Cardinal Mazarin.
The collection continued to grow: when Louis XIV married Maria Theresa of Spain in 1660 she brought with her the famous pearl ‘La Pelegrina’, which was incorporated into the Crown Jewels. Another stone of huge importance was the Tavernier Blue, acquired by the explorer Tavernier in India in 1666 and sold to the King a couple of years later. It was recut and christened the French Blue and it would pass down through history to become the Hope diamond. Louis XIV clearly had a penchant for blue, as in 1691 he acquired an incredible sapphire known as the Ruspoli sapphire, a huge, flawless crystal weighing 135 carats cut with only 6 facets.
Inheriting this healthy collection from his great-grandfather, Louis XV continued adding to the Crown Jewels. He wore them himself with panache, mounting the ‘Côte-de-Bretagne’ spinel with the French Blue into an Order of the Golden Fleece insignia. Louis XV’s crown still survives in the Louvre, decorated with copies of some of these famous stones studded into it, giving a very accurate idea of what a priceless jewel this must have once been. Louis XV’s most important addition was a pink diamond of over 20 carats which was to become known as the Hortense diamond. To find such a stone today would be almost unthinkable
Under Louis XVI, the financial strains under which the nation was suffering were beginning to show and there were no major additions to the Crown Jewels- not that it was really necessary, as by this stage the Crown Treasury numbered tens of thousands of precious stones and pearls. Marie Antoinette, however, was given some magnificent gifts by her grandfather-in-law, Louis XV, and Louis XVI her husband. It is well recorded she was fond of diamonds and certainly enjoyed wearing them more than her reluctant husband. Sadly this fondness was blown out of all proportion when she was caught up in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, falsely accused of buying a necklace worth 2 million livres behind her husband’s back while the people starved. The Crown Jewels as they were known under the Ancien Regime were last seen on Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the State Opening of the States Generale in 1789. Neither the jewels or the owners were to survive the cataclysm that was to come soon after.