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Chaumet, the high jewelry house, pays tribute to Napoléon on the 200th anniversary of his death with an exhibition that does not focus on his military or political exploits but rather on his passionate love story with Joséphine de Beauharnais, his first wife.
The venerable maison, now part of the LVMH luxury conglomerate, was founded in 1780 by Marie-Etienne Nitot. He started supplying Napoléon on the occasion of his coronation, working on the Coronation Sword (where the famous Régent diamond, today on display at the Louvre, was set) and also on a tiara that Napoléon presented as a gift to Pope Pius VII.
The venerable maison, now part of the LVHM luxury conglomerate, was founded in 1780 by Marie-Etienne Nitot. He started supplying Napoléon on the occasion of his coronation, working on the Coronation Sword (where the famous Régent diamond, today on display at the Louvre, was set) and also on a tiara that Napoléon presented as a gift to Pope Pius VII.
Besides these institutional commissions, Nitot’s son and right-hand man, Francois-Regnault, understood very quickly that more business might be forthcoming from the Empress, who was so notoriously spendthrift that the access of suppliers promoting their wares to the Imperial Palace was restricted to once a week, as Napoléon tried to rein in his wife’s shopping sprees.
But, as is proved by the passionate letters exchanged between the two, some included in the show, there was little that the man could refuse his beloved wife. Joséphine’s charm and kindness had put a spell on Napoléon since the two met during the Revolution. She was recently widowed, her first husband a victim of Madame Guillotine at the height of the Terror, and a whirlwind romance started.
Even after a hard day on the battlefield, Napoléon would find the energy to write to his lover: “What, then, is your strange power, incomparable Joséphine? One of your thoughts poisons my life, rends my heart with the most opposing wishes, but a stronger feeling, a less somber humor binds me again, brings me back and leads me still more guilty to you,” he wrote in March 1796, just a few days before their wedding.
And Nitot and his son were there to supply the lavish gifts Napoléon would shower on Joséphine throughout their marriage. Included in the exhibition is a wheat sheaf tiara like the one the Emperor commissioned for his wife, but also several of her cameo parures and, in a red paneled room reminiscent of a jewel box, an incredible set of baroque pearls, reunited for the first time in more than a century. And because Joséphine was as much of a fashion icon as Marie Antoinette had previously been, customers flocked to purchase the same jewels the Empress wore. The name of the maison was made.
Among the priceless ornaments included in the exhibition, so sparkly that one’s head could spin, there are also personal mementos like a pair of slippers, an evening pouch and a particularly poignant item, the hand-held fan Joséphine sported on the day she signed her divorce. Barren, she gave up her love for the good of the country, but hers was a sacrifice for love: “[…] the dissolution of my marriage will in no respect change the sentiments of my heart. The Emperor will ever find in me his best friend. I know how much this act, commanded by policy and exalted interests, has rent his heart. But we both glory in the sacrifices we make for the good of the country.”
Joséphine exerted a powerful influence on the Nitots that extended far beyond her reign. For instance, she introduced the court jewelers to the work of botanical illustrator Pierre-Joseph Redouté, who had produced several folios with depictions of the roses growing in the Empress’s garden at the Château de la Malmaison. The ateliers of the Nitots copied from his plates or, sometimes even from life, to produce tiaras, brooches and other jewels stunning in their naturalism, such as this transformable emerald tiara included in the exhibition. It is known as the Leuchtenberg Tiara as it was commissioned for the wife of Auguste de Beauharnais, whose father Eugène, Napoléon’s adopted stepson from Joséphine’s first marriage, had been made Duke of Leuchtenberg.
As for the House of Nitot, thanks to the Imperial patronage they became purveyors to several European reigning dynasties, because the Emperor had strategically placed his relatives at the helm of the countries he had conquered. Later on they also became court jewelers to the other Emperor, Napoléon III, and his wife Empress Eugenie.
Since 1907 the maison has been known as Chaumet- the same year it moved to 12 Place Vendôme (where the show takes place in the sumptuously refurbished, 18th-century salons). With this exhibition Chaumet manages to bring to life an extraordinary love story while highlighting its craftsmanship through the centuries.
A must see if you are in Paris this summer.
“Joséphine & Napoléon, an (extra)ordinary story” is on until July 18, 2021. The exhibition is free, booking compulsory here.
Lead photo credit : Josephine Cameo Parure (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong