If you’re a collector or admirer of French royal jewelry, the auction coming up this November at Christie’s in Geneva is packed to the gills with jewels just for you! The catalogue is almost a tour through France’s royal jewelry history, starting off with Marie Antoinette’s diamond bracelets, then Pauline Bonaparte’s ears of wheat tiara, and then today’s highlighted piece: a diamond and ruby jewel associated with three French royal women.
Christie’s is auctioning this royal brooch, made of gold and silver and set with rubies and old-cut diamonds. The piece is accompanied by various gemological reports, which note that four of the five rubies are Burmese in origin. (The origin of the fifth, the largest drop, couldn’t be determined without dismantling the piece; the fifth ruby is also the only one that shows signs of heating.)
The jewel, now sold as a stand-alone piece, has a complicated history as part of a much larger suite of jewelry. The brooch has gone through multiple transformations and witnessed a whole lot of French royal history since its initial creation in 1811.
The history of the diamond and ruby jewel begins with none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. We’ve talked at length here about his habit of lavishing jewelry on both of his empresses, as well as other ladies from his extended family. In 1810, he married his second wife, Marie Louise of Austria, and commissioned an incredible range of jewels for her to wear in her new role as France’s empress. The portrait above shows Napoleon and Marie Louise with their son, who was born the year after their marriage.
Napoleon’s crown jeweler, François Regnault Nitot, got to work making several important parures for Marie Louise. Among them was a magnificent set of jewels set with diamonds and rubies. The original sketch of the parure still remains in the archives of the firm. It was displayed (above) as part of an exhibition in Monaco in 2019, and we were lucky that one of our wonderful readers, Royal Warren(t), was able to attend and share some images with us. You’ll note that the drawing shows that the suite had at least eight pieces: a grand tiara, a comb, a coronet, a necklace, a belt, a pair of earrings, and two bracelets. The completed ruby and diamond set was delivered to the empress on January 16, 1811.
And here’s a reproduction of Marie Louise’s ruby parure, based on the original drawings, made of dark red garnets and zircons. François Regnault Nitot’s firm changed hands numerous times over the centuries. It still exists today as Chaumet—they’re the ones who made these reproduction jewels for their archives.
But where are the original jewels? That’s a complicated question to answer. Napoleon was exiled in 1814 and finally defeated for good in 1815, and Marie Louise left France for a new home in Italy. She took some of her jewels with her, but left others in the state treasury. (This was the right move from a legal standpoint, as the French crown jewels always belonged to the state, not the monarch.) The ruby and diamond parure was part of the crown jewel collection, so it stayed behind in France and passed into the hands of the new monarch, King Louis XVIII.
Louis XVIII, who was a younger brother of King Louis XVI, was a widower by the time he came to the French throne. The highest-ranking woman in his family was his niece, Princess Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France (pictured above, ca. 1827). She was better known by two other titles: Madame Royale, the honorific given to her as the eldest daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and Duchess of Angoulême, the title she received on her marriage to her first cousin, Prince Louis Antoine, Duke of Angoulême.
As the senior royal lady at court, Marie-Thérèse had the right to use and wear the crown jewel collection. As you might expect, she was not particularly keen on wearing the jewels that had been made for the government that had deposed and killed her parents. It was decided to reset all of the crown jewels that had been made during the reign of Napoleon. The new French crown jeweler, Paul-Nicolas Ménière, quickly got to work remaking several of the suites, including the ruby and diamond parure that had been made for Marie Louise by Nitot.
Ménière, along with his son-in-law, Jacques-Evrard Bapst, dreamed up a new design for the parure. The earrings were transformed in 1816 from a traditional girandole style to a more modern take on the design. The lot notes from Christie’s describe the shape of the new earrings: “two ruby pendants flank a larger ruby and diamond pendant suspended from a butterfly wing-shaped central element.” The brooch (pictured above) being sold at auction this November was one of the two remodeled earrings from the set.
But, as the story so often goes in French royal history, the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy was ultimately short-lived. King Louis XVIII died in 1824. He was succeeded by another brother (who was also Marie-Thérèse’s father-in-law), King Charles X. He reigned until the July Revolution of 1830, when he was compelled to abdicate. Marie-Thérèse (who was technically Queen of France for about 20 minutes, until her husband also abdicated) headed into exile yet again. Like Empress Marie Louise before her, she respected the legal status of the crown jewels and left them behind in France. (Along with the rubies, she left her famous emerald tiara in Paris, too.)
The rubies changed hands yet again. The next monarch, King Louis Philippe I, had a wife to wear the jewels, but Queen Marie-Amelie chose not to use the grand parures, wearing only the more modest jewels from her personal collection. And then, the monarchy was abolished again by the revolution of 1848. The royal family went into exile, leaving the trappings of royalty in their dust.
The jewels stayed in Paris, unworn until one of Napoleon’s family members rose to power again. From 1853 until 1870, Emperor Napoleon III reigned in France. His wife, Empress Eugenie (pictured in a romantic portrait above), was an enthusiastic jewelry wearer. She loved the crown jewels, including the rubies. Though she had some pieces from the collection altered and reset, she left the ruby suite intact.
After Napoleon III was toppled from power, the Third French Republic decided that it was time to rid themselves of the crown jewels once and for all. A nation committed to democratic rule without a monarch, after all, surely didn’t need a crown jewel collection. “Without a crown, no need for a king,” one legislator reportedly said. A major auction was held in May 1887, and the crown jewel collection was sold off, piece by piece. The illustration above, published at the time of the sale in The Graphic, shows a fraction of the pieces that were sold by the state.
The lot notes from the current auction state that portion of the ruby parure—a pendant and the earrings—was purchased by Maison Boin-Taburet, silversmiths and jewelry manufacturers, who were probably bidding “on behalf of a client.” At some point after the auction, one of the earrings was converted to be worn as a brooch. The photograph of the back of the jewel, shown above, allows for a better view of the brooch clasp now affixed the top of the earring.
Exactly where the brooch-turned-earring has been since 1887 is a mystery. Christie’s does not share the chain of provenance after the crown jewel sale. We know that the pieces from the ruby parure were dispersed after the sale, with the whereabouts of some parts of the set completely unknown. The bracelets from the suite (pictured above), as well as a portion of the belt, are now part of the collection at the Louvre. The necklace has also been sold at auction more than once in the past few decades.
Now, one of the earrings from the set will be sold to the highest bidder. The auction takes place on November 9 in Geneva. The auction estimate range for the brooch conversion is set at between 40,000-60,000 Swiss francs (approximately $43,000-65,000 USD). I have to imagine that the Friends of the Louvre have their eyes set firmly on this particular sale!