The Jewels in the Crowns: Chaumet and its Fabulous History
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The first arrondissement on the Seine’s Right Bank is the very heart of Paris, France. It is the city’s most singularly elegant and sophisticated district, which embraces the Louvre, the Palais Royal, the Tuileries Gardens, and the Place Vendôme. Built for the court of Louis XIV, the Place Vendôme forms a classically designed, octagonal square symbolizing absolute political power. Today, the Ritz and the world’s great jewelry houses– the modern epitome of wealth– have turned the Place Vendôme into a continuous stream of window displays showcasing the ultimate in luxury goods. Chaumet, one of the oldest jewelry houses in Europe, has been situated at 12 Place Vendôme since 1907.
Marie-Étienne Nitot (1750-1809) was the original founder of Chaumet. In 1780, after apprenticing to the official court jeweler of King Louis XIV and Queen Marie-Antoinette, he opened La Bijouterie Nitot. Over the next nine years he judiciously accumulated an aristocratic clientele, which included the patronage of Joséphine de Beauharnais, future wife to Napoléon Bonaparte. During the French Revolution of 1789-1799, Napoléon rose steadily through the ranks of the French armed forces, and in 1796, two days before the commencement of his Italian military campaign, he married Nitot’s long-time patron, Joséphine.
In 1799 Napoléon seized political power in a coup d’état. In 1802, Nitot, who was then working with his son, François-Regnault (1779-1853), was appointed to create Napoleon’s Consular Sword, into the hilt of which he set the legendary, 141-carat Regent Diamond. This extraordinary object was discovered in 1698, weighing 410 carats. Its first cut in 1704 resulted in the creation of a 141-carat gemstone which was purchased by Louis XV, the remainder later sold to Russia’s Peter the Great. In 1722 this stunning diamond was set into the coronation crown of Louis XV, where it remained until 1775. It was then removed and re-set into a new crown for the coronation of Louis XVI. Subsequently removed from this crown, it found its way onto a hat worn by Marie Antoinette. Remarkably, this same stone was stolen during the French Revolution and rediscovered among roof timbers in a Paris attic.
In 1802 Nitot and François-Regnault were named official jewelers of Napoléon, and remained so through the Napoleonic periods of The Consulate and The Empire. Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804. To get a sense of the splendor of the event, one must view the painting The Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon and the Coronation of Empress Joséphine, by Jacques-Louis David, who was commissioned to capture the moment for posterity, its grandeur evoking Napoléon’s intention.
Marie-Étienne Nitot died at the age of 59 in 1809 and was succeeded in the business by his son. The following year Napoléon’s marriage to Josephine was dissolved due to a lack of male heirs, and he married Austrian Princess Marie-Louise d’Autriche. In celebration of the marriage, Napoléon placed an order for two stunning parures (sets of jewels) to be worn together. One parure consisted of a set containing close to 400 rubies and more than 6,000 diamonds. The other parure was comprised largely of emeralds and diamonds, including a splendid crown adorned with 22 large emeralds, 57 small emeralds, 66 rose-cut diamonds, and 1,002 brilliants. Both parures were given to Marie-Louise in 1811. These pieces reveal an exquisite artisanship that was unparalleled at the time.
It is unfortunate that the crown was later sold by descendants of Marie-Louise to the jewelry company Van Cleef & Arpels, which removed the emeralds for re-setting in other pieces and replaced them with turquoise. The refurbished crown was eventually donated to the Smithsonian Institution. In March of that same year, Marie-Louise gave birth to a son and heir, and Napoleon commissioned for her a beautiful 275-carat diamond briolette necklace, featuring an elongated pear-shaped gemstone cut with facets. The necklace was so costly it equalled the personal annual household budget of the Empress (over 370,000 French francs), the equivalent of €56,500.00 today.
The patronage of Napoléon raised Nitot’s firm into heights of success Marie-Étienne likely never imagined. When Napoléon’s Empire fell in 1815 and he was exiled from France, François Regnault, a Royalist, sold the jewelry house to his foreman, Jean-Baptiste Fossin (1786-1848). For much of the remaining 19th century, Fossin and his son, Jules, created jewelry that reflected the romanticism of the age inspired by the Italian Renaissance. They continued to produce stunning adornments for the elite as well as the crown, including King Louis XVIII and his brother, Charles X, who succeeded Louis in 1824.
After the French Revolution of 1848, the same year that Jean-Baptiste died, Jules established a boutique and workshop in London managed by Jean-Valentin Morel (1794-1860), and assisted by his son Prosper. They created jewelry for an equally elite clientele in London, including Queen Victoria. Their presence at London’s World’s Fair in 1851, where they displayed works that evoked the enameling traditions of earlier periods, catapulted their company to fame. In 1854, Prosper Morel returned to Paris overseeing the continued creation of exquisite jewelry. Four years later, his father Jean-Valentin died.
In 1885, Joseph Chaumet (1852-1928), a talented jeweler from Bordeaux, married Prosper Morel’s daughter, Marie, and Prosper relocated to the countryside of France. Over time, Prosper slowly allowed his son-in-law greater charge of the firm, and once Chaumet had proven himself, Prosper named him his successor. Chaumet renamed the company after himself. He drew inspiration from Japanese art and scrollwork inspired by nature which, in turn, influenced the then exotic Art Nouveau, Belle Epoque style.
In 1907, he moved the workshop and boutique to 12 Place Vendôme. In 1925 the company exhibited at the Expo des Arts Décoratifs and became a leader in the newly fashionable Art Deco style. The Grand Salon of Chaumet’s headquarters became a historic monument in 1927. It was in the Grand Salon that Frédéric Chopin composed his last Mazurka, Opus 68, No. 4.
Marcel Chaumet (1886-1964) succeeded his father. He adapted his creations to reflect the interest of fashionable women who were embracing the newer, unconventional styles of the era. The Wall Street crash of 1929 deeply affected the firm’s business. It closed in 1934, partly due to the global repercussions of the Great Depression and the subsequent onset of World War II. When the war ended, Chaumet reopened and slowly rebuilt its clientele. In 1958, Marcel appointed his sons, Jacques and Pierre, executive directors.
The 1970s and 80s were marked by originality and unconventional combinations of precious gems and minerals, but they also brought major downturns in the diamond market. Chaumet acquired Breguet, a legendary Swiss, high-end watchmaking company, and though a successful maneuver, it didn’t stave off the company’s need to file bankruptcy against a debt of 1.4 billion francs. The brothers were later convicted of fraud and related illegal banking activities and in 1991, were sentenced to five years in prison. However, as a result of the appeals process, their sentences were reduced to six months with time served.
At the time of the bankruptcy, Chaumet was bought by Investcorp, an investment banking company in Bahrain, and in 1999, after showing sizable profits, was purchased by the luxury goods conglomerate, Louis Vuitton, Moët, Hennessy (LVMH). In an effort to spur further growth, LVMH moved into the Asian market and expanded their watch and jewelry brands, acquiring TAG Heuer, DeBeers, Montres Christian Dior, among others. In 2011, the Responsible Jewelry Council announced the certification of Chaumet. This distinction attests to the company’s ethical, social, environmental and respectful human rights practices, the 10th only certification to date.
Chaumet still controls all of its designs and the production of its jewelry pieces. Its 14 artisans create all of the special orders and fine jewelry by hand and in so doing preserve the company’s history and traditions. Chaumet’s Museum and Collections of over 38,000 glass negatives, 300,000 photographic prints, 55,000 gouache drawings and 2,500 crowns enrich the heritage of France. The Chaumet Museum is not open to the public, but regularly organizes events and exhibitions throughout Paris.
Currently showing: “Promenade Bucolique offers the chance to discover a selection of jewellery by Chaumet dating from the Romantic period to the 1980s. The drawing collection displays the origins of a piece, while black-and-white photographs document creations from each age through the interplay of negative and positive. This visual, sensory and documentary immersion traces the evolution of Chaumet style through the centuries.”
Promenade Bucolique – Sept. 14th 2015 to January 23rd 2016, 10:30 – 7:00 p.m., Chaumet, 12 Place Vendôme, Paris, 1st.
Lead photo credit : Chaumet's Joséphine Collection. Photo: Chaumet