03 February 2021

The Napoleon Diamond Necklace

Chip Clark, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

While I tally the votes and prepare the championship post for our latest tiara tournament, I thought it would be fun to do a sort of coda to our Museum Week tiara posts. (If you missed it, we made virtual visits to some of the most fabulous tiaras on display in museums around the world!) Today, we're peeking into the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History one more time, this time for a closer look at the stunning Napoleon Diamond Necklace.

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

As the name of the necklace suggests, our story begins once more back in the Napoleonic imperial court of France. Napoleon has just divorced Josephine de Beauharnais because she hasn't been able to provide him with a much-needed heir. He has been hunting for a royal bride throughout the courts of Europe, managing to alienate the Russians before finally brokering a marriage with Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria. (She just happened to be a great-niece of a previous French royal consort, Marie Antoinette.)

Eighteen-year-old Marie Louise came to France amid great pomp and celebration, including an elaborate religious marriage ceremony in the Salon Carré in the Louvre on April 2, 1810. (The couple met for the first time on March 27.) Her forty-year-old husband showered her with wedding gifts, including the famed Marie Louise Diadem and its accompanying necklace and earrings, and she was quickly incorporated into Napoleon's world of powerful imagery via multiple portraits in grand jewels and state robes.

Joseph Franque's The Empress Marie-Louise Watching Over the Sleep of the King of Rome, 1811 (Wikimedia Commons)

But, of course, the new Empress Marie Louise wasn't in France to merely look beautiful—she was there to secure the Bonaparte succession. By July 1810, she was pregnant. On March 20, 1811, she gave birth to a son, who was named Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte. He would be Napoleon's only legitimate child. His birth was feted throughout Paris. Napoleon offered the baby a particularly grand title, King of Rome. He also coordinated a royal baptism worthy of a future emperor at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. In the early evening hours of June 9, the royal procession arrived at the cathedral, where the baby was baptized. Breaking with tradition, Napoleon lifted up the child to display him to those gathered after they had cheered, "Long Live the King of Rome!"

The baby was taken back to the Tuileries Palace after the baptism, but the party in Paris continued long into the night. Napoleon and Marie Louise attended a banquet, a concert, and multiple receptions at the Hôtel de Ville, followed by a grand ball that lasted until dawn. Buildings throughout the city were illuminated, and the entire celebration was capped off with an impressive display of fireworks.

Chip Clark, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Napoleon also demonstrated his gratitude to his young wife with a fabulous gift—something that might cringingly be described as a "push present" today. He turned to his court jeweler, François Regnault Nitôt, to create a grand jewel for the empress. (François had succeeded his father, Marie-Étienne Nitôt, in the post of official jeweler to Napoleon after the senior Nitot's death in 1809.) Nitôt created a stunning necklace for Marie Louise, using more than 200 diamonds that had been sourced from either India or Brazil. The design is typical of the era, with a row of diamond brilliants making up the main portion of the necklace, with small and large pendants suspended from it. The entire carat weight of the necklace, including its pendants, measures at just over 260 carats. Thanks to meticulous record-keeping, we even know exactly how much Napoleon paid for the necklace: 376,274 francs.

Detail of Giovanni Battista Callegari's painting of the Duchess of Parma, ca. 1835 (Wikimedia Commons)

Though Napoleon's second marriage had brought him the son he so desperately wanted, his own ambitions ultimately toppled the Bonapartes from the French throne. A disastrous invasion attempt in Russia sent the French army into a retreat across Europe, which culminated in Napoleon's abdication at Fontainebleau on April 11, 1814. (The abdication brought the Bourbons back to the throne, which we discussed in great detail over here.) Marie Louise and her son, who had seen Napoleon for the final time that January, left the Tuileries Palace with a retinue of courtiers to go into exile. Marie Louise's personal jewels, including the diamond necklace and her emerald suite, were packed in her luggage for the journey. After hopping from chateau to chateau, the empress and the prince met up with her father, Emperor Franz of Austria, who helped them into exile in her home country.

The Treaty of Fontainebleau, the agreement made by Napoleon and the European coalition in 1814, offered Marie Louise and her son a path for life after Napoleon. Three Italian duchies—Parma, Placentia, and Guastalla—were given to Marie Louise, who would also be able to continue to call herself "empress." The younger Napoleon was no longer permitted to use the title of King of Rome, but he was allowed to style himself as a prince of his mother's Italian territories. (He had technically become Emperor Napoleon II of France for a few days in 1814 in the midst of the wrangling over Napoleon's capitulation and abdication, and then again for a few more days at the end of Napoleon's resurgence the following year.) In his new home at his grandfather's court in Austria, the little boy was called Franz rather than Napoleon. In 1818, his grandfather offered him his own Austrian title, making him Duke of Reichstadt. He died in Vienna at the age of 21.

Joseph Karl Stieler's portrait of Archduchess Sophie of Austria, 1832 (Wikimedia Commons)

Marie Louise reigned as Duchess of Parma from her husband's abdication in 1814 until her own death in 1847. In her will, she bequeathed the Napoleon Diamond Necklace to one of her sisters-in-law. The new owner of the piece was Archduchess Sophie of Austria, who had married Marie Louise's younger brother, Archduke Franz Karl. Sophie was a daughter of King Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria—which means, intriguingly from a Bonaparte-related standpoint, that she was a sister-in-law of Eugene de Beauharnais, son of Empress Josephine of France. 

The Habsburg-Wittelsbach family tree from this period history is a real roller coaster ride. When Sophie married Archduke Franz Karl in 1824, she was essentially marrying her step-nephew. (Stick with me here: Sophie's half-sister, Princess Caroline Augusta of Bavaria, had married Franz Karl's father, Emperor Franz, in 1816, becoming his fourth wife.) These Bavarian sisters ultimately played a major role in the Habsburg court of the nineteenth-century. When Emperor Franz died in 1835, he was succeeded by his eldest son, Ferdinand. But as Ferdinand was epileptic, and apparently had some mental deficits, Franz Karl and Sophie were an important part of the ruling of the empire during his reign. Franz Karl was part of the council that basically reigned over Austria during Ferdinand's tenure as emperor. And, because Ferdinand had no children, Sophie and Franz Karl's sons were next in line in the imperial succession.

By bequeathing the necklace to Sophie, Marie Louise was handing it over to the woman who was essentially the future of the Austrian monarchy. Ambitious, strong-willed, and smart, Sophie was a force behind the scenes—someone Napoleon himself might have admired. (Indeed, she was also noted for her close friendship with Marie Louise's son, Napoleon II, who also lived at the Austrian court. Their relationship was close enough that there were even rumors that the two had had an affair before the younger Napoleon's death, and that he might have fathered one of her younger sons.) Given her self-assured character, it's not a surprise that Sophie had the confidence to also make a small change to the grand diamond necklace she inherited from Marie Louise. At some point, Sophie had the piece shortened slightly, using the two stones that had been removed to make a pair of coordinating earrings and turning the necklace into a demi-parure. Sadly, the earrings seem to have been lost to history. Their whereabouts are not known today.

Ludwig Angerer's photographic portrait of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria with his brothers: (L-R) Archduke Karl Ludwig, Emperor Franz Josef (sitting), Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian (later Emperor of Mexico), and Archduke Ludwig Viktor, ca. 1860 (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1848, the year after she inherited the Napoleon Diamond Necklace, Sophie's hopes for the Habsburg succession came to fruition. Following the revolution of 1848, Emperor Ferdinand abdicated, and Archduke Franz Karl renounced his own rights, paving the way for Sophie and Franz Karl's eldest son, Franz Josef, to become the new Austrian emperor. Sophie became one of her son's most important advisors. Not content merely to have her son on the throne, however, Sophie wanted to strengthen the Wittelsbach-Habsburg ties even more. She tried to engineer a marriage between her niece, Duchess Helene in Bavaria, and Franz Josef. But when Helene arrived in Austria with her mother and her younger sister, Elisabeth, Franz Josef's eyes were drawn to Duchess Elisabeth instead. Franz Josef told his mother that he'd marry Elisabeth or no one. Over Sophie's reservations, the marriage between Franz Josef and Elisabeth, known to history as "Sisi," took place in 1854. (We recently discussed a tiara purported to be from her collection over here!)

Sophie continued to be a dominating force at the imperial court in Vienna for the rest of her life. When she died of a brain tumor in 1872, the Napoleon Diamond Necklace was jointly inherited by all three of her surviving sons, Emperor Franz Josef, Archduke Karl Ludwig, and Archduke Ludwig Viktor. (The fourth, Maximilian, had become Emperor of Mexico in 1864, and was executed in 1867. He's the one that many speculated might have been the son of Napoleon II. Sophie reportedly never got over his death.)

Archduke Karl Ludwig of Austria and his third wife, Infanta Maria Theresa of Portugal, 1873 (Wikimedia Commons)

Of the three brothers, the one most in need of a grand jewel in 1872 was Archduke Karl Ludwig. He was about to marry his third wife, Infanta Maria Theresa of Portugal, daughter of the deposed Portuguese king, Miguel I. Karl Ludwig bought out his brother's shares of the necklace, becoming the piece's sole owner. (There doesn't seem to have been much contention over the piece. Given Empress Elisabeth's fraught relationship with her aunt/mother-in-law, she may have wanted nothing to do with the jewel. The third surviving brother in the family, Ludwig Viktor, had no one to offer the necklace to, as he never married.)

Adele Perlmutter's photographic portrait of Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria, ca. 1880s (Wikimedia Commons)

Karl Ludwig and Maria Theresa's marriage produced two daughters, Maria Annunziata and Elisabeth Amalie, but it was an unhappy union. Karl Ludwig was particularly dismissive of and unkind to Maria Theresa, even though she was a devoted stepmother of his children from his previous marriages (including, famously, Archduke Franz Ferdinand). When Franz Josef's only surviving son, Crown Prince Rudolf, died at Mayerling in 1889, Karl Ludwig's family suddenly gained immense prominence at court. Empress Elisabeth withdrew from public life, leaving Maria Theresa to serve as the de facto first lady at court. The Napoleon Diamond Necklace would have gotten significant use in this period, as Archduchess Maria Theresa attended numerous court functions as a stand-in for the empress.

Archduchess Elisabeth Amalie of Austria with Prince Alois of Liechtenstein, photographed on their wedding day with the bride´s mother, Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria, 1903 (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1896, Archduke Karl Ludwig contracted typhoid and died in Vienna. Archduchess Maria Theresa, now a widow, became the sole owner of the Napoleon Diamond Necklace, which she continued to wear during her long widowhood. In 1903, she paired the necklace with another grand jewel from her collection, the Habsburg Fringe Tiara, for the wedding of her younger daughter, Archduchess Elisabeth Amalie, to Prince Alois of Liechtenstein. They later inherited the tiara, which remains with the princely family of Liechtenstein to this day. (Maria Theresa's elder daughter, Maria Annunziata, never married. In 1894, Emperor Franz Josef appointed her Princess-Abbess of the Theresian Royal and Imperial Ladies Chapter of the Castle of Prague.)

Adele Perlmutter's photographic portrait of Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria, ca. 1905 (Wikimedia Commons)

But, of course, any student of history knows that the Habsburgs fell on very hard times in the twentieth century. Already reeling from the horrific death of Crown Prince Rudolf, the family again suffered a major tragedy with the assassination of the next heir to the throne, Maria Theresa's stepson, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in 1914. The murder of the archduke was one of the flames that lit the fires of World War I, the conflict that finally knocked the Habsburgs off their throne. By 1929, Archduchess Maria Theresa was in serious financial trouble. She decided that it was time to part with the Napoleon Diamond Necklace, and she turned to a pair of agents to help her sell the jewel in America.

Sadly, though, Maria Theresa had put her trust in the wrong people—and she had unwittingly chosen a very bad time to sell a valuable piece of jewelry. The coupled she'd hired called themselves "Colonel Townsend" and "Gervez Baronti." He claimed to be from the British secret service; she represented herself as his wife, a novelist. But the Townsends weren't who they claimed to be at all, and their true identities have never been discovered. An initial attempt to sell the necklace to the Khedive of Egypt reportedly failed, and the Townsends set their sights on America instead. The couple arrived in New York with the necklace just as the stock market crashed, and they quickly realized they'd never be able to secure a good price for the necklace in the midst of a tanking economy.

Archduke Leopold (right) with his brother, Archduke Rainier, ca. 1917 (Wikimedia Commons)

Enter yet another member of the extended Habsburg family: Archduke Leopold, who was a member of the Tuscan branch of the clan. His connection to Archduchess Maria Theresa was fairly tenuous: he was a great-nephew of Princess Maria Annunziata of Bourbon-Two Sicilies, who had been the second wife of Archduke Karl Ludwig of Austria, Maria Theresa's late husband. (Maria Annunziata was the mother of Franz Ferdinand, and grandmother of the last Austrian emperor, Karl I. Maria Theresa's eldest daughter was named after her.) Archduke Leopold called Archduchess Maria Theresa his "aunt."

If Archduchess Maria Theresa was facing reduced circumstances in 1929, Archduke Leopold's own had been pretty much reduced entirely. He had served in the Austrian army in World War I, and had been the very last person invested as a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece by Emperor Franz Josef. But after the war, Leopold's fortunes stalled significantly. He renounced his imperial rights to marry a commoner, then became a partner in a wholesale mercantile business in Vienna, selling hops, barley, and sausages. Next, he came to America to try to establish a Hollywood acting career, landing a few roles in the late 1920s, most prominently a small part in the film Four Sons.

Chip Clark, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

But Hollywood didn't bring him the fame and fortune he was hoping it would. One newspaper wrote that he was subsequently planning to open an "ideas" office on Broadway in New York, literally trying to make money off selling new concepts to investors. He also made the news for more salacious reasons, including one lawsuit accusing him of failing to pay his tailors in Vienna and another involving a physical altercation with an American millionaire at the Hotel Astor in New York. With his finances in tatters, he was a prime mark for the Townsends, who approached him to help them sell the Napoleon Diamond Necklace. Having him present in America as a purported representative of the family would surely help them add legitimacy to the sale, and help them fetch a much higher price in the midst of the dawn of the Great Depression.

Mrs. Townsend held showings of the necklace in a bank vault in the autumn of 1929, and Colonel Townsend ended up selling the necklace twice in quick succession. He made deals with Harry Winston and a Boston attorney, Arthur Berenson, who purchased the necklace for $94,000 and $95,000, respectively. According to the New York Daily News, however, "on each occasion he received a small cash payment but exercised an option to buy the necklace back." In the meantime, Maria Theresa had been unable to get in contact with the Townsends, and she wrote to them, dismissing them as her agents and requesting the return of the necklace.

The day after they received Maria Theresa's dismissal, the Townsends and Archduke Leopold sold the necklace to a New York jeweler, David Michel. He reportedly paid them only $60,000 for the necklace, a fraction of the $400,000 price that Archduchess Maria Theresa had assumed it would bring. (The jeweler had apparently planned to remove the diamonds and reuse them in other pieces of jewelry; under the terms of the deal, he would then return the silver setting of the necklace to Leopold, who would replace the stones and fraudulently sell the necklace again, as if it were still the original piece.) The Townsends and Leopold reportedly sent only $7,200 to Maria Theresa, splitting the rest between themselves. Increasingly frustrated, Maria Theresa dispatched a friend, Anna Eisenmenger (wife of the late Archduke Franz Ferdinand's personal physician), to find out what had happened to the necklace. Mrs. Eisenmenger contacted the authorities, and Michel came forward with the necklace, claiming that it had not yet been altered.

Archduke Leopold on the set of the film Four Sons, ca. 1928 (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

The Townsends, meanwhile, had vanished, leaving behind most of their luggage in their New York hotel. Archduke Leopold was left alone to answer for the suspicious sale of the necklace. He was summoned for questioning in March 1930. "I don't see the necessity for all this excitement," he said dismissively, claiming that his aunt would receive both the $60,000 and the necklace's silver setting, "which, in my opinion, is worth a lot more than the stones themselves." He added, "My conscience is perfectly clear," but also declared, rather tartly, that he and Maria Theresa didn't have a great relationship, and he hadn't seen her since 1919. "There are two kinds of Habsburgs. Rich Habsburgs and poor Habsburgs. I am a poor Habsburg. She is a rich Habsburg," he told the press.

Whether his conscience was clear or not, it quickly became apparent that Leopold would be the one who would have to answer for the actions of both the Townsends, who were never seen again, and himself. He was indicted in New York on the charge of conspiracy to commit grand larceny in April 1930, after admitting that he had received a commission from the sale of the necklace, and spent time in prison while awaiting trial. The case had further divided the already dispersed branches of the Habsburg family. One of his sisters, Archduchess Dolores, told the press that she was very disappointed that the matter had gone so far: "I am confident that the Archduchess Marie Therese must intervene in this embarrassing matter. It seems incredible that she had not done so, long before this." From his jail cell, Leopold even apparently planned to sue Empress Zita, the widow of the last Austrian emperor, for damages.

The trial took place in November 1930. During the proceedings, letters from the Townsends revealed that they had planned to offload the necklace on an American millionaire, capitalizing on the Napoleonic provenance, for a major profit, a strategy that was completely spoiled by the stock market crash. The DuPont and Chrysler families had apparently both been possible targets. Mrs. Eisenmenger testified to Leopold's relationships with the family, explaining that he was indeed a Habsburg but that Maria Theresa was not his aunt. She also noted that his reputation in Austria was "bad." David Michel also testified, sighing, "I got the necklace, and then the trouble." He revealed that he had sold the jewel back to Leopold for $50,000, losing $10,000 in the process, and that the necklace had already been returned to Maria Theresa in Austria.

On November 24, 1930, a jury of twelve men found Archduke Leopold not guilty of the charges leveled against him. He departed from the courtroom with a female companion. She was not his wife, Baroness Dagmar Nicolics-Podrinska, but rather his girlfriend, the wealthy Canadian widow Alicia Gibson Coburn. She had befriended him during the time he spent in jail before the trial, earning the nickname, "Angel of the Tombs."

Prince Franz Josef II of Liechtenstein, 1943 (Wikimedia Commons)

With the necklace back in her possession, Maria Theresa didn't try to sell it again. It remained with her until her death in 1944, when it was inherited by her descendants. Four years later, her grandson, Prince Franz Josef II of Liechtenstein, successfully sold it. Interestingly, the purchaser was the French businessman and philanthropist Paul-Louis Weiller. In 1965, Weiller's son, Paul-Annik Weiller, linked the family to royalty by marrying Olimpia Torlonia di Civitella-Cesi, a granddaughter of King Alfonso XIII and Queen Ena of Spain. Thirty years later, Paul-Annik and Olimpia's daughter, Sibilla Weiller, wed Prince Guillaume of Luxembourg, brother of Grand Duke Henri.

The Napoleon Diamond Necklace on display in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1960, Weiller sold the necklace once more. This time, the buyer was—as it had briefly been thirty years earlier—Harry Winston. Thankfully, he believed strongly that the necklace was most valuable when left intact, rather than when divided up for sale as individual gemstones. (This was the fate of the original emeralds from the Marie Louise Diadem.) Within a year, he sold the necklace to one of the greatest American jewelry collectors of all, Marjorie Merriweather Post. She must have adored Empress Marie Louise's collection, because she's also the American who purchased the Marie Louise Diadem from Van Cleef and Arpels.

The Napoleon Diamond Necklace on display in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History (Wikimedia Commons)

Post clearly believed that a treasure like the Napoleon Diamond Necklace was meant to be enjoyed by as many people as possible. In 1962, she donated the necklace to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., where it remains on display today. In the early 1970s, she also donated the Marie Louise Diadem to the same museum. Delightfully, after years of meandering separation, two of Marie Louise's grandest jewels now reside side by side once more.