The French Revolution which began in 1789 unleashed a torrent of terror and destruction which swept everything before it, eventually even consuming some of its creators. It was inevitable that the Crown Jewels would suffer and in 1793, in the midst of the general chaos engulfing Paris the jewels were stolen from the Garde Meuble, or State Treasury, whence the jewels had been taken to for safekeeping.
It was to be the one of the great heists of history. The thieves made off with most of the Coronation regalia and these were never seen again- from a historical viewpoint this was an almost incalculable loss, as these included the medieval sceptre of Charles V, the ivory topped Hand of Justice and the crown of Charlemagne itself. Also lost were some of the great pieces of gold and silversmithing of the medieval age: chalices, orbs and assorted relics, most of which were probably melted down for their metal value. The thieves also managed to get away with some of the great stones collected by the French kings through the ages: the Cote de Bretagne spinel, the 67 carat French Blue diamond, the 140 carat Regent diamond, the 55 carat Sancy diamond and the 20 carat pink Hortense diamond. Some of these stones were recovered a year later, some went on to live colourful histories- but the cultural damage had been done.
Some of the Bourbon’s personal jewellery had already been smuggled out of France in 1791 ahead of the Royal Family’s ill-fated attempt to escape the country. Some pieces were entrusted to Lady Sutherland, wife of the British Ambassador as her bags would not be checked due to diplomatic immunity. The rest were sent on to Belgium with M. Leonard, Marie Antoinette’s effeminate, highly strung hairdresser, who was to meet up with the Queen in Brussels. When the Queen failed to appear, M. Leonard entrusted the jewel casket to an army officer, the contents of which were to appear individually all over Europe in the coming decades.
As his power and Imperial aspirations grew in the aftermath of the Revolution, Napoleon not only tried to reverse the damage but sought to increase the magnificence of the French Crown Jewels. An inventory taken in 1791 showed that the jewels comprised of just under 10,000 stones- by 1814 the collection had swollen to 65,000 stones. Napoleon understood better than anyone the power of imagery and created for himself and Josephine splendid new regalia which was a marvellous mixture of his vision of Roman power coupled with medieval insignia designed to give him monarchic legitimacy. A casual look at his Coronation picture by David gives a good insight to some of the jewellery masterpieces he commissioned, not just himself but his family. The Hortense pink diamond, for example, derives its name from Hortense de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepdaughter and for a time Queen of Holland.
Napoleon’s contribution to the State jewellery box was significant not only in quantity but in quality. His preferred jeweller was Marie-Etienne Nitot, forebear of what was to become the house of Chaumet. He created a profusion of parures in fine gemstones of the first quality, some supplied by him and others by the Imperial treasury. Nitot’s style was one of graceful, timeless elegance, inspired by but not enslaved to the motifs of neoclassicism. Napoleon’s requirement for jewellery was increased by the need to please two empresses; after divorcing Josephine in 1810, more jewels were commissioned to befit the status of his new wife, the Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, daughter of the Emperor and Marie Antoinette’s niece. After the definitive fall of Napoleon in 1815, some of these pieces passed into some of the reigning families of Europe whose members had married into the Bonaparte and Beauharnais families. Marie Louise rather gracelessly took her jewellery with her, rather than leave it behind as property of the State.
With the Bourbon restoration, much of Napoleon’s jewellery was altered but it was also added to- the Bourbons wanted to create shape the Restoration to their own image (the coronation crowns of Napoleon and his wives did not survive- these were destroyed by Louis XVIII). The Bourbons dispensed with Nitot, preferring to use the services of Bapst et Fils. This jewellery dynasty had married into the Meniere family, who owned Boehmer et Bassange and had been Marie Antoinette’s personal jewellers. The Duchesse d’Angoulême
(Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s only surviving child), married to the heir to the throne, needed pieces that were not associated with the Bonaparte regime. Her father-in-law, the reactionary Charles X (Louis XVI’s brother), would also commissioned extensively. He yearned for a return of the Ancien Regime, its pomp and privileges. His coronation was a reflection of that desire and the defining jewel was the magnificent diamond crown he created for himself, topped with a diamond fleur-de-lys set with the Sancy, in the style of the crown of his great-grandfather Louis XV. Much of the ancient regalia lost during the Revolution was painstakingly re-created or restored for this sacre, which was to be the very last in France’s history.