THE FRENCH CROWN JEWELS PART 3: THE SECOND APOGEE
The abdication of Charles X in 1830 swept the senior branch of the Bourbons away from the French throne for ever, giving way to the junior Orleans branch of the family. It was headed by the dreary Louis Philippe, who was proclaimed King of the French and who had married the equally uninspiring Amelie of the Two Sicilies. King Louis Philippe and Queen Amelie had none of the panache required to pull off the magnificent personas demanded by the French. Parsimonious by nature, this quality was initially admired in the Citizen King (as he was nicknamed), but began to grate on the French after a bit. His contribution to the Crown Jewels and to the arts in general was negligible at best, destructive at worst. At Versailles, he ripped out hundreds of beautiful 18th century apartments in the courtiers’ wings, the cream of French interior design and replaced them with long, boring picture galleries.
Louis Philippe was sent packing in 1848 and replaced with the Second Republic, which by 1853 had become the Second Empire, personified in Napoleon III (nephew of the first Napoleon). The new Emperor had the sense not to re-enact the defunct ceremonies and etiquette of the Ancien Regime and he was proclaimed, not crowned. Although physically uninspiring, he was a dynamic figure, attractive to women and full of vision. Under his direction, the French economy was rebuilt and flourished and beautiful Paris as we know it today was largely thanks to him. He married the dazzling Eugenie de Montijo- he showered her with jewels and she was a worthy leader of the magnificence that was the Second Empire.
The Empress Eugenie enjoyed wearing jewels and was a leader of fashion- she wore the Crown Jewels with gusto, both the surviving pieces and the new ones created using spectacular stones from the treasury. She and her husband continued to patronise Bapst et Fils, as the Bourbons had done, whilst also commissioning from Gabriel Lemonnier some of the more extravagant creations. She gave some of the up and coming jewellers such as Pierre Cartier and Frederic Boucheron their big breaks, as well as talented couturiers such as Charles Worth. Eugenie was an admirer of Marie Antoinette and adapted much of her style to her own taste. The combination of 18th century motifs, talented jewellers and couturiers was a match made in fashion heaven and came to define the look of the Second Empire.
Some of the great jewels of all time were made during this period. Most notable are the pearl and diamond tiara made by Lemonnier, created out of one of the Empress Josephine’s pearl and diamond parures. It is composed of extravagant swags of pearls and diamonds and was topped by two of the great pearls of history, La Regente and La Perle Napoleon. Another notable tiara was an imposing Greek meander tiara created out of the diamonds from Napoleon I’s sword.
The frothy creations and crinolines of Worth were the perfect canvas for the Empress’ taste. She favoured large bow brooches and stomachers ‘a la Marie Antoinette’, but also had a penchant for the rediscovered naturalism of the 19th century. Stone cutting techniques were improving, with diamonds benefitting the most. The Empress adored large pieces fashioned in the shape of roses, feathers and vine leaves all mass set with diamonds sparkling with new found fire. The most remarkable of these was a set of 30 brooches in the shape of highly naturalistic currant leaves, suspending rows of graduated diamonds which represented boughs heavy with currants. One of these still survives and is the size of a hand.
The good life came to an end for the Bonapartes and the Second Empire in 1871 following the defeat of France during the Franco-Prussian War. They retreated to dignified exile in England, where Napoleon III died shortly after in 1873. His wife was to outlive him by nearly 50 years, dying in Spain in 1920 aged 94. She had had the good taste, unlike her predecessor Marie Louise, to leave behind in Paris all the jewellery that had been paid for by the State. It may have been elegant behaviour, but it was ultimately to prove disastrous for one of the greatest jewellery collections the world has ever seen.