19 January 2021

Museum Week: The Marie Louise Diadem

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Museum week continues today with a look at another spectacular sparkler from the Napoleonic era: the Marie Louise Diadem.

Detail of Georges Rouget's painting of the wedding of Napoleon and Marie Louise, ca. 1810 (Wikimedia Commons)

In yesterday's feature, we discussed a set of briolette-cut diamonds that were given to Empress Josephine of France by a curious admirer, Tsar Alexander I of Russia. You'll remember that we noted that Alexander and Josephine's ex-husband, Napoleon Bonaparte, had once forged a tentative alliance and friendship. One of the issues that ended that entente was the matter of Napoleon's second marriage. In 1810, he divorced Josephine, who had been unable to provide him with a much-needed heir. While scouting around Europe for eligible princesses, he landed on the idea of marrying Grand Duchess Anna Pavlovna of Russia, Tsar Alexander's younger sister.

The matter was, of course, a sensitive diplomatic issue. The princess who married Napoleon would bring about an alliance between her home country and France. When Emperor Francis II of Austria heard that Napoleon wanted to marry the sister of the Russian tsar, he decided to take action. The Austrians weren't interested in being caught in the middle of the Russian and French empires. Prince Metternich, the famed Austrian diplomat, convinced Emperor Francis that a marriage should instead be brokered between his eldest surviving daughter, Archduchess Marie Louise, and the French emperor. Apparently the fate of his aunt, Marie Antoinette, didn't put Francis off the prospect. (Nobody asked eighteen-year-old Marie Louise what she thought of the the idea of marrying the forty-year-old emperor of France.)

Napoleon thought that Alexander and the Russians were dragging their feet over the marriage question, so when the idea of an Austrian imperial wedding was proposed instead, he focused all his energy on negotiating that union. He called off his offer to the Russians in January 1810, and the contracts for his marriage to Marie Louise were drawn up and signed by February. Only then was Marie Louise fully informed that she was to become Empress of France. Napoleon and Marie Louise were married by proxy in March, and by the end of the month, Marie Louise had arrived in France. Their grandest public wedding celebrations took place in the Louvre, where they were wed by Napoleon's uncle, Cardinal Fesch, in the Salon Carré. 

Detail of Jean-Baptiste Isabey's 1810 portrait of Empress Marie Louise in her robes of state, wearing the diadem (Wikimedia Commons)

France had a new teenaged empress, and Napoleon showered her with gifts of jewelry commensurate with her new station. Along with the grand state jewels that she was now entitled to wear, he presented her with several parures of jewelry to add to her personal collection. Marie-Étienne Nitot, court jeweler to the Bonapartes, created two suites of jewelry especially for the new empress. One was set with opals and diamonds, and the other was studded with diamonds and emeralds. Nitot delivered the emerald set to the palace by the end of March. It was composed of a grand tiara, a coordinating hair comb, a large necklace with pendants, and a pair of earrings.

Empress Marie Louise posed for new official portraits in her state robes and jewels almost immediately after the wedding. Court painter and miniaturist Jean-Baptiste Isabey, who worked for King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette before taking commissions from the Bonapartes and their successors, painted the young empress in all her splendor. It's clear from the design that she's wearing the emerald and diamond tiara in this portrait, but for some reason, Isabey decided to render the stones as rubies instead. (The original painting is currently in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.)

Here's a rendering of the tiara as it looked when Marie Louise received it in 1810, with large, luminous emeralds set among the diamonds. The tiara is very typical of Nitot's work from the period; you'll note similarities to the Norwegian Emerald Parure Tiara and the Duchess of Angouleme's Emerald Tiara, as well as the diamond and ruby parure that the firm made for Marie Louise in 1811.

Wikimedia Commons

And here's a look at the original necklace and earrings from Marie Louise's emerald set. Seeing these emeralds helps us imagine how the stones looked in the original diadem. (The comb, sadly, has apparently since been dismantled.)

Portrait of Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma, ca. 1835 (Wikimedia Commons)

Marie Louise was quickly able to make Napoleon's dream of an heir a reality. She gave birth to their son, Napoleon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte, less than a year after their marriage. But Marie Louise's time as Empress of France was ultimately very short. Marie Louise and three-year-old Napoleon II saw Napoleon for the last time in January 1814, shortly before his abdication and exile to Elba. They didn't seem him again when he returned to Europe the following year, facing his final defeat at Waterloo and subsequent exile to St. Helena.

In the wake of her husband's defeat, Marie Louise was given something of a consolation prize: she would become the Duchess of Parma. She moved to Italy, taking her personal jewelry (including the emeralds) with her to her new home. (Her son, however, was taken to Austria, where he was raised at his grandfather's imperial court before dying at the age of only 21.) In Parma, Marie Louise married again (twice, and both times morganatically) and had three more children. She died in Italy in 1847 at the age of 56.

Portrait of Princess Elisabeth of Savoy, wife of Archduke Rainier of Austria and aunt of Empress Marie Louise (Wikimedia Commons)

Exactly what happened to the emeralds in the wake of Marie Louise's death is difficult to say for certain. We know that they stayed in the family for another century following her passing, but sources differ on which relatives owned the pieces. The Smithsonian Insitution, which now owns the diadem, says that Marie Louise left the emeralds to her aunt, "Archduchess Elise." I think they're referencing Princess Elisabeth of Savoy, who became Marie Louise's aunt by marriage when she wed Archduke Rainier of Austria (brother of Marie Louise's father, Emperor Francis II) in 1820. 

Elisabeth had important royal connections to Italy, where Marie Louise lived out most of her life as Duchess of Parma: Elisabeth's brother was King Charles Albert of Sardinia. Moreover, Archduke Rainier and Archduke Elisabeth's daughter, Archduchess Adelaide, married King Vittorio Emanuele II of Sardinia (who would later become the king of unified Italy) in a grand ceremony in 1842—and their daughter, Princess Marie Clotilde, eventually married one of Napoleon's nephews, Napoléon-Jérôme Bonaparte. (This marriage, of course, took place several years after Marie Louise's death.)

Portrait of Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, first cousin of Empress Marie Louise (Wikimedia Commons)

But the Louvre disagrees with the Smithsonian's chain of inheritance for the emeralds. They argue that Marie Louise left the emerald parure to her first cousin, Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany. His descendants, they state, kept the emeralds in the family until 1953, when they were sold to Van Cleef and Arpels.

Archduke Karl Albrecht of Austria, whose son, Karl Stefan, sold the emeralds to Van Cleef and Arpels (Wikimedia Commons)

I tend to think that the Louvre is probably right about the chain of descent of the emeralds, in part because of a detail included by the Smithsonian in their description of the parure. They note that the person who sold the emeralds to Van Cleef and Arpels in 1953 was "Archduke Karl Stefan Hapsburg of Sweden." That seems to be a reference to Prince Karl Stefan of Altenburg, a direct descendant of Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany. Prince Karl Stefan and his wife lived in Sweden; his mother was a Swedish aristocrat, and he died in Stockholm in 2018. His father, Archduke Karl Albrecht (whose mother, Archduchess Maria Theresia, was a granddaughter of Leopold II) died in 1951, only two years before Karl Stefan sold the jewels to Van Cleef and Arpels.


After taking possession of Marie Louise's emerald parure, the higher-ups at Van Cleef and Arpels made a big decision. They removed the emeralds from the diadem, leaving the necklace and earrings untouched, and mounted a campaign to sell the individual stones. The company placed an ad in a major American magazine, inviting women to own a little piece of imperial history. In 1955, the company's secretary, Fred Vermont, told the United Press, "In 24 hours, we were sold out of emeralds. And we are still flooded with orders...letters and telegrams from all over the country."

As a result, numerous pieces of new jewelry were crafted by Van Cleef and Arpels to showcase these individual emeralds. One of these jewels was the diamond and emerald brooch pictured above, which belonged to Sybil B. Harrington. The central emerald in the brooch, which was sold by Christie's in 2014, comes from the Marie Louise Diadem. Harrington also owned a ring set with one of the emeralds from the tiara.

Wikimedia Commons

With the emeralds removed from the tiara, the diadem could easily have been completely dismantled, its silver and gold frame melted down and its diamonds repurposed. But instead, Van Cleef and Arpels decided to replace the emeralds with 79 vibrant blue Persian turquoises. It's a controversial choice, of course. On one hand, the turquoises provide a very different aesthetic experience than the emeralds did. On the other, without the addition of new stones, the tiara may have ceased to exist entirely. Synthetic emeralds would have been another option, but the quality of "faux" stones available in the 1950s and 1960s was far inferior to the ones on the market today. Ultimately, the alternative stones were added to the original diamond diadem, and the new turquoise version of the tiara was exhibited at the Louvre with the original emerald necklace and earrings in 1962. The diadem was subsequently purchased by one of the great American jewelry collectors, Marjorie Merriweather Post.

Wikimedia Commons

Post made at least one important appearance in her new tiara, wearing it for the Red Cross Ball in Palm Beach in 1967. Four years later, she decided to give the diadem to the Smithsonian Insitution, allowing the historic jewel to be seen by the public for years to come. (Several years earlier she had donated another of Marie Louise's jewels, the Napoleon Diamond Necklace, to the institution.) Today, the piece is exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. (where the Hope Diamond also resides!). And, even better, the necklace and earrings from the original parure are available for the public to enjoy as well, on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Have you seen the turquoise diadem or the emerald necklace and earrings in person?