With the King of Sweden’s big Golden Jubilee coming up soon, we’re going to be spending some serious time with the Bernadotte tiara collection in the coming weeks. First up: I’ve got a deep dive into the history of one of their most fascinating jewels, the Napoleonic Cut-Steel Tiara.
The unusual and innovative jewel is generally called the “Napoleonic Cut-Steel Tiara.” As the name suggests, this is a tiara with links to the court of Napoleon Bonaparte. But the piece didn’t belong to Empress Josephine or Empress Marie Louise. Instead, it’s said to have been made for Empress Josephine’s daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais.
Hortense de Beauharnais is a fascinating figure from the Napoleonic world. The second child and only daughter of Josephine and her first husband, the aristocrat and politician Alexandre de Beauharnais, Hortense was born in Paris in 1783. Her parents’ marriage disintegrated by the time she was five, just as revolution was taking hold in France. Both Alexandre and Josephine were eventually imprisoned, leaving Hortense and her brother, Eugene, to live with servants and a governess in their home in Paris. Hortense was 11 years old in the summer of 1794, when her father was guillotined and her mother narrowly avoided the same fate.
A year later, Josephine de Beauharnais met Napoleon Bonaparte, and the rest is history. Hortense gained a stepfather when Napoleon and Josephine married in 1796. Napoleon’s rise brought Hortense and her brother again closer and closer to the centers of power, something that also brought increased peril. She was injured in a failed assassination attempt on Napoleon in Paris in December 1800.
When Hortense was only 17, her mother and stepfather arranged for her to marry his younger brother, Louis Bonaparte. In her memoirs, written in the 1830s and published a century later, Hortense recalled that Napoleon and Josephine’s failure to produce an heir themselves was part of the motivation behind the arrangement. “We may never have children. I brought up Louis myself; I look on him as a son. Your daughter is what you cherish most on earth. Their children shall be our children,” she remembered Napoleon saying.
Napoleon dispatched one of his closest aides, Louis de Bourrienne, to convince Hortense to accept the marriage. He persuaded her by reminding her that many in their circle wanted Napoleon to divorce Josephine, and Hortense’s marriage to a Bonaparte would be one of the only ways to secure the familial bonds and maintain her mother’s happiness. Hortense relented. (Napoleon eventually divorced Josephine anyway.)
The marriage was solemnized privately on January 4, 1802. The bride was 18, and the groom was five years older. Napoleon had given Hortense a suite of diamonds as a wedding present, but she opted to wear just a simple strand of pearls for the ceremony instead. She received a major haul of glittering wedding gifts that also failed to catch her eye, a subject she discussed in her memoirs: “We went into a drawing-room where the magnificent wedding-presents were displayed. These baubles did not interest me.”
Louis and Hortense were ill-suited from the start, but they managed to quickly produce a son, Napoleon-Charles, who was seen as an heir to his uncle. His younger brother, Napoleon-Louis, followed two years later in 1804, just a few weeks before the coronation of his uncle and his grandmother at Notre Dame in Paris.
In the spring of 1806, Napoleon established the Kingdom of Holland and installed Louis as its monarch. (At the same time, he arranged two more dynastic matches for Hortense’s family, marrying Eugene de Beauharnais to Princess Augusta of Bavaria and choosing their second cousin, Stephanie de Beauharnais, as the bride of Hereditary Grand Duke Karl of Baden.)
Hortense became Queen of Holland and traveled with her husband and sons to the Netherlands, but she deeply missed her life back in France, and her relationship with Louis grew more and more fraught. And then, her beloved eldest son, Napoleon-Charles, died of croup in The Hague in May 1807. The boy’s tragic death led to a brief reconciliation between Louis and Hortense, and the subsequent birth of a third son, Charles-Louis Napoleon, who was born in Paris in 1808. (He would later become Napoleon III.)
King Louis and Emperor Napoleon often found themselves disagreeing, a contentious relationship that came to a head when Louis refused to send soldiers from the Netherlands to help bolster Napoleon’s army ahead of his planned Russian invasion. Ultimately, Louis abdicated (in favor of five-year-old Napoleon-Louis, who reigned for two weeks) and Napoleon annexed the Kingdom of Holland to France.
The abdication, for Hortense, signaled the end of her marriage. Back in France, she took a lover, the Comte de Flahaut, and secretly bore a son, Charles de Morny, in 1811 in Switzerland. When Napoleon was defeated for good in 1815, she was exiled and settled in Switzerland permanently. She purchased a small castle, Schloss Arenenberg, on the shores of Lake Constance in 1817 and lived there until her death in 1837. (Her estranged husband outlived her, dying in Italian exile ten years later.) She did not live to see her third son become first President (1848) and then Emperor (1852) of France.
Hortense had amassed an impressive collection of jewelry, thanks both to her ties to Napoleon and to her role as Queen of Holland. Many of her jewels were dispersed among her nieces, the daughters of her brother, Eugene. Among these jewels, apparently, was a suite of cut-steel and gold jewelry that included several pieces, notably a tiara, a choker, a pair of earrings, and a hair comb. Jewelry made of highly-polished steel had come into fashion in the 1810s, allegedly influenced in part by a suite of steel jewels purchased by Napoleon for his second wife, Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria.
Hortense reportedly left the steel jewelry to Eugene’s second daughter, Princess Eugenie of Leuchtenberg. She married the Prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen, but they had no children, and on her death from tuberculosis in 1847, the cut-steel parure was passed along to her younger sister, Amelie, who had been Empress of Brazil from 1829 until 1831. Amelie survived in Portuguese exile until 1873. On her death, most of her possessions were willed to her only surviving sibling: Josephine, the Queen of Sweden and Norway.
Princess Josephine of Leuchtenberg had become Crown Princess of Sweden and Norway in 1823, when she married Crown Prince Oscar, the only son of King Karl XIV Johan (who, as Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, had been one of Napoleon’s generals) and Desiree Clary (who had been Napoleon’s fiancée until he broke off the engagement to marry Josephine de Beauharnais). Crown Princess Josephine brought numerous pieces of important Napoleonic jewelry (including the cameos, the sapphires, and the amethysts) into the Swedish royal vaults when she arrived in Stockholm. She became Queen of Sweden and Norway in 1844, and she was 66 years old when she received the fabulous bejeweled legacy of her sister, Empress Amelie—which included the cut-steel parure as well as the Braganza Tiara and coordinating jewels and the family emeralds.
While much of Josephine’s fabulous jewelry was worn often both during her lifetime and in the years afterward, the cut-steel parure was forgotten. It was placed in a storage cupboard in the Royal Palace in Stockholm and left to gather dust. That all changed in 1976. Göran Alm, a Swedish art historian who was employed by the royal court, was searching for items to include in a planned exhibition about artifacts from the reign of the first Bernadotte king, Karl XIV Johan. He stumbled upon the cut-steel jewels while hunting through a storage area dedicated to silver—presumably put there at some point by someone who thought they belonged with metal items rather than with the family’s jewelry.
Alm, who passed away in 2020, showed the jewels to Queen Silvia, the new wife of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. The fragile jewels were restored and returned to the jewelry vaults, and Queen Silvia began wearing the pieces, especially the grand tiara from the set, for gala occasions. She made her debut in the cut-steel tiara in November 1979 during a state visit to Austria. Above, she’s pictured wearing the tiara with the earrings and choker on the cover of Vorsten in November 1987.
Queen Silvia has also shared the cut-steel jewels with other members of the family. It was worn by Princess Lilian, the wife of King Carl XVI Gustaf’s uncle, Prince Bertil, for the Nobel Prize ceremony and banquet in Stockholm in December 1984.
The tiara has also been worn by at least two of King Carl XVI Gustaf’s sisters. Above, Princess Christina wears the tiara with the Russian Pink Topazes at the Nobel Prize celebrations in 2006. She’s worn the tiara numerous times for the Nobel celebrations.
Princess Desiree has worn the tiara for two recent family weddings. Above, she dons the jewels at the wedding of Princess Madeleine and Christopher O’Neill in June 2013.
And here, in June 2015, Desiree wears the tiara for the wedding of Prince Carl Philip and Princess Sofia.
For the past two decades, though, the most dedicated and frequent wearer of the cut-steel tiara has been Crown Princess Victoria, the heir to the Swedish throne. One of her first prominent appearances in the jewel took place in December 2004, when she wore it in Stockholm for the annual Nobel Prize celebrations.
Since then, she’s worn the tiara for numerous gala events. Above, she pairs the tiara with diamonds at the Nobels in December 2010. (Earlier that year, she was also married wearing another of the family’s fabulous Napoleonic tiaras.)
She sometimes pairs the cut-steel tiara with pieces from that other Napoleonic jewelry suite, the Cameo Parure. Above, at the King’s Dinner for the Nobel Prize laureates in December 2013, she wears the steel tiara with the cameo earrings, necklace, bracelet, and brooch. (The brooch features a cameo of Napoleon Bonaparte himself.)
She also paired the cut-steel tiara and the cameos for a memorable Nobel Prize appearance in December 2016.
One of her most recent appearances in the tiara came in May of 2022, when she again wore the jewel with the earrings from the cameo set.
She also chose the cut-steel tiara, paired with diamonds and pearls, for one of her most recent sets of official gala portraits. In 2020, Victoria spoke about the tiara for the SVT documentary on Sweden’s royal jewels. She revealed that she deeply loves the tiara but is also cautious about how she wears the 200-year-old jewel, choosing it primarily for events where she can sit fairly still.
In the interview, though, she reiterates that she feels that it’s important to keep wearing the jewels when she can, because it means they are “still alive.” I couldn’t agree more. From the ashes of revolution to the glitter of the Bernadotte court, the Napoleonic Cut-Steel Tiara lives on beautifully today.
There are so many spectacular tiaras in the Swedish royal vaults, wouldn’t it be fun if we picked one of our favorites? Hint, hint—stay tuned next week for more!