Posts tagged Marjorie Merriweather Post
THE FRENCH CROWN JEWELS PART 4: HISTORICAL VANDALISM

The emerald and diamond tiara made for the Duchesse d'Angouleme, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette's only surviving child and married to the heir to the throne.  It was sold in 1887 and mysteriously reappeared in the 1960s, its provenance forgotten.  it is now on display at the Louvre.

By 1875, the Third Republic was established in France- it was the most radical sitting government since that of the Terror established after 1789 and agitations by extreme right wing monarchists gunning for another Restoration only served to further polarise French society.  In the National Assembly, the cry of “without a crown, no need for a king” began to gain currency.

This ruby brooch is all that remains of the Empress Marie Louise's splendid diamond and ruby parure.

Although the plan took some time to get off the ground, the sale was finally held in the Pavilion de Flore in the Louvre, on 12th-23rd May 1887.  Everything was put up for sale.  The surviving historic crowns were stripped of their stones, to be replaced with glass and sent to museums as historical curiosities.  A few important stones, (such as the Cote de Bretagne spinel which had been part of the collection since the late Middle Ages) were arbitrarily held back and displayed in the Museum of Natural History.  Likewise, the same happened to some of the liturgical instruments and vestments which were sent to cathedrals and abbeys throughout the country. 

The sale inevitably attracted enormous interest- it was well attended by jewellers from all over the world, desperate to buy legendary gems, some on their own initiative and others on the instructions of rich patrons.  The biggest winner was the American jewellers Tiffany and Co, who managed to acquire 24 of the 69 lots.  Through them, some of the pieces made their way to some of the new millionaires of America’s Gilded Age.  Van Cleef and Arpels acquired the Empress Josephine’s diamond diadem and Carl Faberge bought La Regente pearl, which he went on to sell to the fabulously rich Youssoupovs in his native Russia.  The eighteen Mazarin diamonds, bequeathed to Louis XIV by his Cardinal First Minister, were mostly dispersed.

A contemporary illustration of the French Crown Jewels as displayed prior to their sale in 1887.  Only the pearl tiara and bow brooch survive.  The large pearl at the centre of the huge brooch in the middle is the Regente pearl- it was acquired by Faberge and sold to the Youssoupovs.

Most of the most important pieces were broken up and reset as fashion demanded- a great loss to the jewellery world, especially the Empress Eugenie’s fantastic yet realistic flower and bow brooch stomachers, which were the forerunner of what was to become known as the Garland Style.  A few, however, have survived.  The Empress Eugenie’s fabled pearl and diamond diadem was bought by the Thurn und Taxis family.  The Duchesse d’Angouleme’s emerald and diamond tiara disappeared, to be rediscovered in the 1960s with its provenance forgotten.  Her ruby and diamond bracelets survived intact but the rest of the marvellous parure is broken up, bar the tiara, which is thought to be owned by the Niarchos family, although this is unconfirmed.

Marie Antoinette's pearls in a 19th century setting.  She entrusted them to the care of Lady Sutherland who never got a chance to return them.

Marie Anotoinette's diamond eardrops on display at the Smithsonian.

Occasionally, stones from the 1792 theft and from the contents of Marie Antoinette’s jewel case entrusted to friends ahead of her failed escape in 1791 pop up now and again.  Some of these stones are now famously housed in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.  These include the ocean coloured Hope Diamond and Marie Antoinette’s huge drop diamond earrings.  They have also been bequeathed pieces such as the Empress Josephine’s diamond necklace, as well as Marie Louise’s diadem.  This has had its original emeralds replaced with turquoises- when the piece passed through the hands of Van Cleef and Arpels in the 1960s they removed the emeralds and sold them piecemeal, leaving the tiara a shadow of its former glory. 

Marie Antoinette’s fabled pearls, which she had entrusted to Lady Sutherland, passed through that family by descent- it came up for auction in 2007 and failed to sell.  Another strand of pearls though, which had also belonged to the doomed queen and which had been bought by Barbara Hutton, fetched $1.47 million when it was auctioned in 1999.  With the demand for natural pearls soaring, goodness knows what it is worth today.

Even by contemporary assessments, the 1887 sale was not a success- it failed to bring in the expected revenues and in fact temporarily depressed the market by flooding it with so many important stones.  The two important tiaras mentioned earlier, along with the ruby bracelets have been re-acquired for the French Nation by the subsequent Republics.  They continue to claw back what they can, not always successfully, and always at a far higher cost than that which they received.  These pieces are on permanent display at the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre

The Empress Marie Louise's once magnificent diadem.  The stones were removed by Van Cleef and Arpels in the 1960s and sold piecemeal.  The tiara was bought by Marjorie Merriweather Post, who bequeathed it to the Smithsonian Institute.

The Marjorie Merriweather Post Brooch
The Marjorie Merriweather Post Emerald Cartier Brooch

The Marjorie Merriweather Post Emerald Cartier Brooch

All major jewellery collectors are defined by one piece they own, a piece that becomes inextricably linked in the public’s imagination with its owner: with the Duchess of Windsor, it was her multi-coloured flamingo brooch; it is hard to picture Elizabeth Taylor without her famous emerald necklace- Marjorie Merriweather Post was defined by her Cartier emerald brooch.

Born in 1887, the four times married Mrs. Post was one of the great heiresses of her age.  She was the only child of C.W. Post, founder of the Postum Cereal Company and at the tender age of 27 inherited a fortune estimated then at $250 million dollars.  She was a great spender (in 1971 her clothing expenses amounted to around $250000 a year) and became a great collector and connoisseur.  Her soft spot was beautifully crafted pieces and objects of vertu.  She filled Hillwood, her principal residence, with china, Sevres porcelain, tapestries and Faberge.

It was inevitable that someone with such a fine eye for exquisite detail could fail to be enchanted by magnificent jewellery.  Mrs. Post bought it prodigiously throughout her life and often remodelled existing pieces to suit changing tastes, a testament to her open mindedness to new design concepts. 

Mrs. Post’s Cartier emerald brooch was not a special order, but it was a unique piece.  It was created in 1928, the interwar period considered to be a time when the firm was at the height of its creative powers.  The jewel is a triumph of Cartier’s art, an elegant marriage of Art Deco and the Indian style they were espousing due to the spectacular success they had re-setting stones for Maharajahs.  Cartier’s love affair with India started in 1911, when the firm was commissioned to make dazzling pieces to be worn at the Delhi Durbar.  Since then, they had been accumulating important carved Indian stones which they incorporated into spectacular unique pieces. 

First and foremost in Cartier’s mind, jewellery had to be wearable and they had always avoided extreme movements such as Art Nouveau and Modernism.  The brooch is very much Art Deco, but the lines are softened and not symmetrically harsh.  It is also articulated and lends fluidity to what could have been a rather cumbersome piece.  The geometric pentagonal central emerald, a 17th century carved Mughal stone, brings a perfect touch of exoticism to the jewel.  Exoticism played a key role in Cartier’s style during the 1920s and 30s, with influences varying from India, China and Japan.

The brooch is also a masterclass in stone setting.  The use of platinum in jewellery had been pioneered by Cartier at the beginning of the 20th century as it allowed stone setting in minimal metal- there is barely any metal visible in the calibre cut stones suspending the smaller fluted hanging emeralds.  The brooch is beautifully finished off with a hallmark of Art Deco jewellery, black onyx detailing.

Marjorie Merriweather Post left Hillwood House and its contents to the Smythsonian Institute in 1968, retaining the right to live there for the rest of her life.  However, the $10 million endowment she left did not produce sufficient income for its upkeep, so in 1976 it reverted to the Post Foundation.  On her death in 1973, she also bequeathed to the Smythsonian her fabulous collection of jewels, which apart from the Cartier brooch included Marie Antoinette’s diamond earrings and the diamond necklace Napoleon presented to his second wife, Marie Louise, to celebrate the birth of their son.

A portrait of Marjorie Merriweather Post wearing the Cartier brooch, amongst other jewels.  The brooch Is such a piece that the painter has clearly made it the focus of his attention, rather than the sitters.