Worthy of an Empress: Marie Louise's Necklace

As emeralds are May’s birthstone, I thought it might be appropriate to start this month with a stunner of an emerald piece: the Empress Marie Louise’s emerald necklace.  It is an imposing piece, softened by scrolls of elegant Neo-Classical motifs so much in vogue at the time and like any good piece of jewellery, it has not dated.  

The emerald and diamond necklace and earrings Marie Louise of Austria was given by Napoleon as a wedding present in 1810.

Due to her inability to give birth to an heir (the decider of the fate of many a royal consort), Napoleon had divorced his extravagant, extrovert wife, Josephine de Beuharnais.  They remained on thoroughly amicable terms to the end.  The necklace was made and presented to the Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria on occasion of her marriage to the Emperor Napoleon in 1810.  The marriage, incidentally, was a bitter and humiliating pill to swallow for the Hapsburgs: the great-niece of the unfortunate Marie Antoinette and daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor married to the upstart child of the French Revolution with Imperial pretensions.

The Empress Marie Louise.  The diamond necklace she is wearing survived intact and can be seen in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.

Napoleon was lavish in his bestowal of jewellery with his entire family; as the French Crown Jewels had been stolen during the French Revolution and only partially recovered, he needed to create dazzling pieces as a foil to his new Imperial status.  Not only did he shower his two consorts with generous presents, he gave freely to his family too, and several of these pieces have survived and passed by descent into the Royal Families of Europe.  Even without its impressive provenance, the Marie Louise necklace could be regarded as almost priceless- not only are the emeralds of fantastic size, deep, saturated colour and beautifully matched, but briolette emeralds are incredibly rare.  Due to the brittle crystal structure of emerald, they are almost always cut square or emerald cut in order not to put too much stress on the stone.  A pair of large matching briolette emeralds is unusual, to have ten in one piece is really showing off.

The tiara which also formed part of the wedding set.  The emeralds were removed and sold by Van Cleef and Arpels and replaced with turquoises.

The necklace was made by Etienne Nitot et Fils, who had been apprenticed to Aubert, Marie Antoinette’s court jeweller and who was the one of the most talented jewellers of his generation.  It was part of a much larger set of jewellery which also comprised earrings, a comb and a tiara.  After the fall of Napoleon, somehow this valuable set was not considered to be part of the Crown Jewels and the Empress Marie Louise was able to take it back to Austria with her.  She left the parure to her cousin, the Grand Duke of Tuscany and it passed to his descendants.  Van Cleef and Arpels acquired the tiara in 1953 and shockingly took out the emeralds to sell them, replacing them with turquoises.  The necklace and earrings remained intact- like I said, it was a piece that did not date, which is probably why it wasn’t reset.  The renown jewellery dealer Humphrey Butler brokered the sale of the necklace and earrings to the Musée du Louvre, where it can be admired today.

A detail of Napoleon crowning Josephine; note the lavish jewels of the Empress and the various ladies of the Court.