Posts tagged empress eugenie

The pearl and diamond diadem of the Empress Eugenie by Lemmonier.  It passed into the Thurn und Taxis family and is now back at the Louvre.

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 by Winterhalter.  Her love of clothes and jewellery came to define the look of the Second Empire.

The Empress Eugenie's currant diamond brooch, one of the very few surviving from a set of 30.

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.

The Empress Eugenie's diamond hair comb and star and flower hair pins.  Examples of jewellery that was sold and broken up after the great sale of the French Crown Jewels in 1887.

The Empress Eugenie's corsage bow brooch by Bapst, reflecting her love of the 18th century. 

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.

PEARLS (Part 3)

One of the greatest bespoke pieces of jewellery ever made surely has to be the diamond and pearl hair ornament Faberge made for the Princess Irina Youssoupov at the turn of the century. Its greatness came not from the design (which was marvellous for its simplicity)but because the ornament housed two of the greatest pearls ever known, La Pelegrina and La Regente.

I have written previously on La Pelegrina’s exciting history, and that of La Regente is no less riveting. The pearl is the fifth biggest in the world and perhaps the biggest of a regular shape. It weighs 302 grains, down from over 346 due to peeling and re-polishing, yet it is still the size of a pigeon’s egg. It has an exceptional colour and lustre and is slightly flat at the back, a characteristic that has made it easy to identify in its journey through history

The Empress Eugenie wearing ropes of priceless pearls and her famous pearl and diamond tiara.  The tiara was sold by the Thurn und Taxis family in the 1990s and acquired by the Louvre.

The Empress Eugenie wearing ropes of priceless pearls and her famous pearl and diamond tiara.  The tiara was sold by the Thurn und Taxis family in the 1990s and acquired by the Louvre.

Also known as la Perle Napoleon, it came to prominence when Napoleon I bought it as a gift for his second wife, the Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, Marie Antoinette’s niece. He duly paid through the nose for it, 40000 gold francs, or the weight of 10 kilos of pure gold. Napoleon was trying to awe Europe with the trappings of his newly wrested power and bought jewellery for his new wife, partly to dazzle foreign courts and partly to replete the considerably diminished Crown Jewels. After his defeat at Waterloo La Regente remained with the French Crown Jewels and was worn by the monarchs of the Bourbon restoration. The tiara made by Nitot into which the pearl was originally mounted was dismantled by Napoleon III and he commissioned the jeweller Lemonier to design and make a magnificent devant de corsage in which to sit the pearl. It was a jewel worthy of the opulence of the Second Empire and a favourite of the Empress Eugenie’s, composed of swags of diamonds and pearls and highly stylised acanthus leaves. A matching tiara was also made, and this piece of jewellery was immortalised in Franz Winterhalter’s portrait of her.

The devant de corsage made for the Empress Eugenie by Nitot, with La Regente Pearl set in the centre.

The devant de corsage made for the Empress Eugenie by Nitot, with La Regente Pearl set in the centre.

With the fall of the Second Empire after the Franco-Prussian War the Ministry of Finance took custody of the French Crown Jewels (La Regente included)- Eugenie had been unable to take them with her into exile as they were not personal property. In a fit of historical vandalism, the National Assembly decided to auction off the Crown Jewels in 1887 in order to disperse the symbols of a decadent and discredited regime. From St. Petersburg, Peter Carl Faberge sent his agent to Paris specifically to acquire the famous pearl. It is very probable he had a very special client in mind, the fantastically rich Prince Boris Youssoupov, as that is who it was sold to (the devant de corsage, alas, was probably broken up).

The Youssoupovs could have anything they wanted and their possessions may even have eclipsed those of the Romanovs. Prince Boris’ only child and heir, Zenaida, wore the pearl simply, sometimes suspended off a row of matchless pearls, allowing La Regente’s beauty to speak for itself. Most notably, she sometimes wore it in conjunction with La Pelegrina pearl in a delightfully simple yet highly effective hair ornament. She gifted the pearl to her son Felix in anticipation of his marriage to Princess Irina, Tsar Nicholas II’s niece. They married in 1914, so Princess Irina probably had little chance to wear and enjoy it due to the rarity of grand society events after the outbreak of the First War. The Youssoupovs fled to Paris in August 1917 in the tumult of the Russian Revolution- Prince Felix took with him some of his most prized treasures, amongst them valuable paintings, the Polar Star diamond, La Pelegrina pearl- but not La Regente: that was holed up in his St. Petersburg safe as he assumed he would be able to return to Russia, which of course he never did. The immediate fate of the pearl after that becomes a little murky- it was most likely found by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution after one of their ransacking of aristocratic palaces for valuable items. La Regente is not to be found in any inventories or the sales the Bolsheviks conducted in their desperation to raise hard currency.

La Regente Pearl in its last known setting.

La Regente Pearl in its last known setting.

The pearl came up for sale unidentified at Christie’s in 1987, the owners apparently ignorant of its provenance, but they did know it was Russian. It was identified by the buyer (who remained anonymous), one tell tale sign of what he had bought being its slightly flattened back. Firmly back in the spotlight, the pearl was set into an important sapphire, diamond and pearl necklace and was last seen in Christie’s Geneva in 2005- sold by an anonymous buyer to an anonymous buyer for the record price of £1.6 million: it remains the single most expensive pearl in history.