09 October 2018

Empress Eugenie's Bow Brooch

Empress Eugenie's Bow Brooch (Christie's)

Our journey through the remarkable jewelry collection of our Magpie of the Month, Empress Eugenie of France, arrives today at a truly stunning piece of art: her massive Diamond Bow Brooch. Once worn in France's royal palaces, the bow took a meandering path, eventually returning to one of France's most cherished institutions.

Winterhalter's Portrait of Empress Eugenie, 1861 (Wikimedia Commons)

The brooch was made for Empress Eugenie by a French jeweler, Fran├žois Kramer, in 1855, two years after she married Emperor Napoleon III. Originally the brooch only consisted of the main diamond bow portion, and it was intended to be worn as a sort of buckle on a belt of diamonds. (As one does.)

The bow brooch as it appeared in the catalogue of the French crown jewel sale, 1887

But Eugenie was very much in the "more is more" camp where jewelry was concerned, and she asked Kramer to transform the bow brooch into a larger stomacher ornament. The resulting devant de corsage featured five pampilles (or fringes), as well as two elaborate diamond tassels.

The jewel was one of many pieces left behind when Napoleon and Eugenie went into exile in 1871, and it was also one of the pieces that the French government decided to sell at auction in 1887. The image above is from the catalogue that accompanied that sale. At the auction, the ornament was purchased for 42,000 francs by a French jeweler, Emile Schlesinger -- but not for himself.

Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, ca. 1850s (Wikimedia Commons)

The client for whom Schlesinger acquired the bow brooch was none other than The Mrs. Astor. Caroline Schermerhorn Astor was the doyenne of New York society, gatekeeper of the Gilded Age splendor of the city. She added the bow brooch to her already extensive jewelry collection, and it stayed with the family for a century, becoming known as "Mrs. Astor's Diamond Stomacher."

The bow brooch, ca. 2008 (Christie's)

In April 2008, just before the recession, the brooch popped up on the public market, offered for sale at Christie's in New York in connection with another jeweler, Ralph O. Esmerian. Aware of the link between the brooch and Empress Eugenie, an organization called the Friends of the Louvre planned to purchase the piece. But a legal battle involving Esmerian ultimately led to the cancellation of the sale.

Nevertheless, the Friends of the Louvre were intent on acquiring the brooch for the museum, which already holds several other pieces of Eugenie's jewelry, including her grand pearl and diamond tiara. Fran├žois Curiel, President of Christie’s Europe, helped to coordinate a private sale, and the Friends of the Louvre were successful in purchasing the brooch after all.

Henri Loyrette, then director of the Louvre, noted, "Among the great missions of the Louvre is the development of the museum’s collections, with a particular focus on works of art and precious objects belonging to members of the former French Royal family. The crown jewels are important among the nation’s treasures and we are thrilled to see the brooch of Empress Eugenie returning to France."

The Dorset Bow Brooch, ca. 2015 (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

But if you're the kind of person who likes to see jewels worn rather than displayed in museums, you've got another option to sort of see the brooch in action. Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom often wears a very similar brooch (although without the fringes or tassels): the Dorset Bow Brooch, which was made by Carrington for Queen Mary.  (Our post on the Dorset Bow Brooch is here!)

Hugh Roberts noted the similarities between the Dorset brooch and Eugenie's Bow Brooch in his 2012 book, The Queen's Diamonds, and yep -- when they're seen side-by-side, the similarities are far too close to be coincidental. Seems like perhaps Carrington took some very literal inspiration from Eugenie's brooch when making this royal treasure?