Posts tagged what happened to the French crown jewels

A publicity photograph of the Grand Mazarin diamond, due to be auctioned by Christie's Geneva next month.

It seems ironic that having written extensively about the French Crown Jewels only a few weeks ago, one of the most spectacular stones from that collection should suddenly appear at auction.  The gem in question is called the Grand Mazarin, a 19.02 carat of very pale pink colour originating from the fabled Indian mines of the Golconda, known for producing diamonds of exceptional clarity.  It is the same mine that produced beauties such as the Koh-i-Noor and Regent diamonds.

The Grand Mazarin was the largest of a matchless collection assembled by Cardinal Jules Raymond Mazarin, Duc de Nevers, Louis XIV’s immensely capable first minister and successor to Cardinal Richelieu as the Sun King’s first minister.  Cardinal Mazarin was a lover and collector of beautiful things and in a privileged position to have cream of the crop.  He put together a marvellous collection of 18 diamonds which came to be known as the Mazarins, of which the Grand Mazarin was the largest.

Cardinal Mazarin, who assembled a fabled collection of diamonds and bequeathed them to the French Crown.

Upon his death, the collection was bequeathed to Louis XIV, who in turn bestowed them on the Crown.  The Grand Mazarin was a personal favourite, often worn on a chain of graduated diamonds.  The Mazarins passed through descent to Louis XIV’s successors.  A disastrous theft in 1792 in the middle of the chaos of the French Revolution saw the collection disappear and scattered to the four winds.  Some of the gems from the theft were recovered, but of the 18 Mazarins, only the Grand Mazarin came back.

The stone was set and reset into various jewels during the Empire, Restoration and Second Empire, as each monarch tried to shape the Crown Jewels to the taste of the day.  With the collapse of the Second Empire in 1870 and a Second Bourbon Restoration being comprehensively bungled by the head of that family, the Crown Jewels were sold off in 1884, the Grand Mazarin passed into private hands.  The sale is being handled by Christie’s Geneva and is the first time the stone has appeared at auction since its sale in 1884.  Experts say that the stone should fetch $9-10 million and after a lacklustre season in jewellery auctions after a record breaking couple of years, the auction houses need a sparkling headline.

It is possible that the French Government may buy it back, as it has been doing with other Crown Jewels that have appeared on the market over the last few years.  I have mixed views on this- I always find it rather sad when a famous stone gets bought and locked up forever, never worn or enjoyed.  On the plus side, if it were to join its counterparts at the Galerie d’Apolon in the Louvre, us lesser mortals would have a chance to gaze, if just for a few minutes, into the facets of history.

A contemporary photograph of the French Crown Jewels before they were auctioned by the French Government in 1884.


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 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.


The reactionary Charles X of France dressed in Coronation finery.  Note the magnificent diamond crown made for his sacre by Bapst on a cushion next to him.

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. 

Queen Sonja of Norway wears the Empress Josephine's emerald tiara.  It passed to her husband's family through inheritance and thence descent.

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. 

The Empress Josephine's diamond coronation tiara.

Detail of the Empress Josephine at her coronation.  Note how low the tiara sits on her brow according to fashion.  Note also the diamond comb and huge earrings.

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

Sapphire parure belonging to the Empress Josephine, now in the Louvre.

 (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. 


The Crown of Louis XV at the Louvre.  It is decorated with paste replicas of the important stones that once adorned it, including some of the famous Mazarin diamonds and the Sancy diamond on top.

The assembly of the greatest collection of jewels the world has ever seen began roughly with the accession of Pepin the Short in 752.  It is the first recorded legitimization of a French monarch under a Christian ceremony called the sacre, a ceremony which was to be performed on every French monarch in a more or less uninterrupted line until the French Revolution.