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Her Story in Jewels: Empress Josephine of France

© Fine Art Images/Heritage-Images

Joséphine de Beauharnais (1763-1814), born Marie-Josèphe-Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, was the first wife of Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte I, and Empress of France. Joséphine was born on the island of Martinique, where she was raised until she was married off at age 16 to Alexandre, Vicomte de Beauharnais, with whom she moved to Paris. Although she gave Alexandre two children, the proud Vicomte was ashamed of her non-Parisian manners and lack of sophistication and refused to present her at the court of Marie-Antoinette at Versailles. His disdain grew so great that eventually, in March 1785, Joséphine obtained a separation from him.

For 3 more years, Joséphine stayed in Paris, learning the ways of the fashionable Parisian world, before going back to Martinique in 1788. In 1790, a slave uprising forced her to return to Paris, in the midst of the Revolution. Her husband, Alexandre, was guillotined in June 1794, and Joséphine herself was imprisoned until the coup d’état put an end to the Reign of Terror, and she entered once again into Parisian high-society.

Marriage and Coronation Jewelry

Now a sophisticated and fashionable figure in Paris - described by many as strikingly beautiful, captivating, and sociable - Joséphine caught the eye of a rising young army officer named Napoléon Bonaparte. They married in a Civil Ceremony in 1796, and after Napoléon became emperor of the French in May 1804, Joséphine persuaded him to marry her anew with religious rites. She was coronated alongside Napoléon the next day, as Empress of France.

This ring would likely have been given by Napoléon I to Joséphine in 1796 (the year of their marriage). Gold ring enameled with blue and cut to form the letters "JNB" (Joséphine Napoléon Bonaparte) in the center, with foliage on either side. The outer rim of the ring bears the inscription "sincere love" on a blue enamel background. © RMN

Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte I was very enthusiastic about art, fashion, and particularly jewelry, believing that collecting and displaying these things would help to restore France to the place it had held before the Revolution, as the center of luxury goods and fashion. Joséphine soon became one of the leading collectors of art, from sculpture and painting to interior decoration, and set many trends in jewelry and fashion, with Marie-Étienne Nitot appointed as her official jeweler.

Wearing tiaras and diadems had been falling out of fashion for some time before the turn of the century, but thanks to the coronation of Joséphine, the wearing of tiaras and diadems was brought back to life. A symbol of majesty and power since ancient times, Napoléon I chose the tiara as an emblem to express the magnificence of his reign.

A fragment of: "The Coronation of the Emperor Napoléon I and Coronation of Empress Joséphine in Notre-Dame de Paris, 2 December 1804" by Jacques-Louis David. © Musée du Louvre

Neo-classical Jewelry

The face of a new regime whose splendor must be shown, Empress Joséphine could often be seen dressed in gold, pearls, and stones. In this revival of French jewelry, however, it was very important to Napoléon I that the jewelry being created for his and Joséphine's reign did not too closely resemble the jewelry of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, the monarchs who were guillotined during the Revolution.

As a result, Joséphine's jewelry took on a new, neo-classical style, looking back to Greek and Roman origins. Ancient symbols such as laurels, oak leaves, and ears of wheat, were featured in many of her pieces, bringing the illustriousness of Antiquity to Napoléon I's reign.

Photo via Chaumet. Wheat Sheaf Tiara - Chaumet - Nitot, Circa 1811. Gold, silver, and diamonds. Chaumet Paris Collection.

A pair of drop earrings formed of two pear-shaped pearls. Personal jewels of the Empress. Collection of the Duke of Leuchtenberg. ©RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum)

Sentimental bracelets made by Nitot. These acrostic bracelets combine colored stones with alphabetic letters spelling out the names of "Eugene" and "Hortense", Joséphine's two children by Alexandre.

Photo via Chaumet.

Greatly interested in the discoveries being made at the time of ancient artifacts in the ancient Roman sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii, Joséphine wore many pieces of jewelry made from Roman cameos brought back to France from Italy - which were raised images carved on hard stone, often depicting mythological scenes or figures.

Portrait of Empress Joséphine (1763-1814), Rueil-Malmaison, châteaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau

© RMN-Grand Palais

Empress Joséphine's shell cameo diadem, presented to her by her brother-in-law, Joachim Murat. Gold, shell, mother-of-pearl, cameos, pearls, precious and semi-precious stones.

Photo via jewellermagazine.

This Tiara or diadem is part of a Neo-classical parure or set of jewelry, made of ancient Roman engraved gems. Gold diadem, decorated with enamel and mounted with carnelian intaglios, mostly Roman, 100 BC -200 AD, with some 18th-century stones probably carved in Italy.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This Tiara or diadem is part of a Neo-classical parure or set of jewelry, made of ancient Roman engraved gems. Gold with enamel, with cameos of layered agate, jasper, and jasper agate.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This comb is part of a Neo-classical parure, or set of jewelry, is made of ancient Roman engraved gems. Gold comb decorated with enamel set with carnelian intaglios which are Roman dating between 100 BC and 200 AD. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This brooch is part of a Neo-classical parure, or set of jewelry, and is made of ancient Roman engraved gems. Gold brooch with enamel decoration, set with a Roman carnelian intaglio (100-200 AD) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This pair of earrings is part of a Neo-classical parure, or set of jewelry, is made of ancient Roman engraved gems. Gold earrings with enamel set with carnelian Roman intaglios (100BC - 200AD).

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Gold and enamel belt clasp with a cameo of layered agate, the cameo probably carved in Italy (1780-1800).

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Napoléon I’s sister, Caroline Murat, who became Queen Consort of Naples in 1808, is said to have gifted many cameos to Joséphine, which were probably later mounted into her jewelry. Napoléon I himself also had a great interest in carved gems and particularly liked this neo-classical style as a reinforcement of his desire to channel the Emperors of ancient Rome in his reign as Emporer of France.

A Nullified Marriage

In 1810, Joséphine had still not provided Napoléon I with a son. Under pressure to produce an heir, the couple agreed to nullify their marriage, allowing Napoléon to seek out a new, politically convenient marriage with Marie-Louise, daughter of Emperor Francis I of Austria. Joséphine retreated to a private residence at Malmaison, outside of Paris, where she continued to entertain lavishly. Napoléon provided her with a substantial yearly allowance and continued to write her passionate love-letters while away on campaigns.

The Parures

Joséphine de Beauharnais had many parures, or sets, of jewelry. There were several inventories made of her impressive collection, but since jewelry was often gifted to family members and passed down through lines of inheritance, and since some of Joséphine's jewelry was passed on to Napoléon I's new wife, Marie-Louise, it's unclear where a lot of it ended up.

It is clear, however, that Joséphine was incredibly fond of jewelry and had a lot of it, from pearls and emeralds to amethysts and rubies; there are very few paintings in which she is not wearing an impressive parure or set.

Photos: © RMN-Grand Palais (musée des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau)

Given the unknown whereabouts of much of Joséphine's collection, the Musée National des Châteaux de Malmaison & Bois-Préau has had several reproductions made of sets of Joséphine's jewelry that featured in her portraits.

Empress Joséphine wearing an Emerald set ©RMN

Reproduction of an emerald set worn by Empress Joséphine (tiara, earrings, necklace, two bracelets). Metal gilded with fine gold; Swarovski crystal; glass beads. These jewels were commissioned by the Malmaison museum at the Maison Privilège Orfèvrerie. © RMN

Portrait of Joséphine de Beauharnais (1763-1814), Empress of the French.

© Paris-Musée de l'Armée, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/image musée de l'Armée.

Reproduction of a pearl set worn by the Empress Joséphine (tiara, earrings, necklace, belt). Metal gilded with fine gold; Swarovski crystal; glass beads. These jewels were commissioned by the Malmaison museum at the Maison Privilège Orfèvrerie. © RMN

© RMN-Grand Palais (musée des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau)

Reproduction of a sapphires set worn by the Empress Joséphine (tiara, earrings, necklace, belt). Metal gilded with fine gold; Swarovski crystal; glass beads. These jewels were commissioned by the Malmaison museum at the Maison Privilège Orfèvrerie. © RMN

There is a lot of speculation about who now owns some of these sets of jewelry and specific tiaras and diadems. For example, there is an Emerald Parure in the possession of King Harald V of Norway, who is descended directly from Joséphine through the Duke of Leuchtenberg, which is often claimed to be the very same Emerald Parure that Joséphine wore herself.

However, many of these claims are problematic and seem somewhat unlikely, given the dating of the gemstones and the alterations to the styles of the various parures. There are, however, several pieces of existing jewelry that were gifted by Empress Joséphine to some of her relations.

A half-set purchased by the Empress Joséphine (necklace and earrings). A two-row necklace of twenty-three small medallions in red glass paste, connected by a double gold chain. On the back of five of them is engraved: "given / to / Van Hée" "by SM / the empress". The necklace and earrings were offered in 1805 by the Empress to one of her goddaughters, Joséphine Van Hée. © RMN

Believed to have been a gift from Joséphine de Beauharnais, Empress of the French, to her daughter-in-law, Princess Augusta of Bavaria, Duchess of Leuchtenberg. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Photo: Sotheby's

The Empress Josephine Tiara

The Empress Joséphine Tiara was made in 1890 by Russian jeweler, Carl Faberge. Empress Joséphine never wore the tiara herself, but several of the pear-shaped briolette diamonds set within it did belong to her and have an interesting story behind them.

France's relationship with Russia, specifically with Tsar Alexander I of Russia (who ascended to the throne in 1801) was not an easy one. During Napoléon I's reign, he had not one, but two wars with Russia. After the first war, a treaty was made, but when Napoléon I failed to honor his side of that treaty - refusing to support Russia in fighting Turkey because Alexander had refused to give his sister's hand in marriage to Napoléon while he was searching for a new, heir-producing wife - they went to war again.

In 1814, Russian troops secured Paris. Under threat of mutiny, Napoleon abdicated his throne and went into exile. One month later, Alexander I paid a visit to Empress Joséphine in her private residence. He was obsessed with making peace in Europe, and he went to her to do it, seemingly satisfied that she was completely separate from her exiled and estranged husband.

Alexander visited Joséphine several more times, and it is said that he was impressed with the character, integrity, and maternal anxieties of Empress Joséphine. The two took many walks together, discussing France's co-operation with Alexander's efforts, and Joséphine's fears for France's future. During one visit, he gave her a present: several briolette diamonds, which are now set in The Empress Joséphine Tiara.

The Empress Joséphine Tiara. Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Photo via Wikipedia Commons.

In the weeks that followed the collapse of the French Empire, Joséphine entertained not only Tsar Alexander I, but many other European dignitaries from nearby countries. She was ill at the time, however, and one morning, after catching a chill while walking with the Tsar, she retired to bed. Six weeks later, she died, and shortly after her funeral Alexander bought a significant number of paintings and sculptures from her collection, leaving her children with ample security, and ensuring that she would always be remembered for her impeccable taste in art, fashion, and jewelry.