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Her Story in Jewels: Eugénie de Montijo

As Empress of the French and wife of Emperor Napoleon III from 1853 until 1870, Eugénie de Montijo was the fashionable face of the Second French Empire. Despite controversies surrounding her suitability for the role, she was an icon for the flourishing luxury industries in Paris and was described as “perhaps the last Royal personage to have a direct and immediate influence on fashion.” It was her patronage that helped launch the careers of designers like Cartier and Boucheron, craftsmen like Louis Vuitton, and couturiers like Charles Frederick Worth.

The French crown jewels were exhibited in the Musée du Louvre in 1884. This image is a page from the exhibition catalogue - © Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Born Doña María Eugenia Ignacia Agustina de Palafox y Kirkpatrick, the French Empress was originally born in Granada, Spain. Her father, it seems, was a Spanish collector of Peerages, being a Duke, Count, and Marquis of several different titles. Her mother was a half-Scottish, quarter-Belgian, quarter-Spanish daughter of a Consul-turned-wine merchant.

In 1834, Eugénie de Montijo’s father sent the family away to Paris amongst fears of a cholera outbreak and after witnessing a riot and a murder in the square outside their house, indicating an escalation in the conflicts of the First Carlist Civil War. Eugénie soon became enamoured with Parisian life, so much so that when her mother tried to send her away to learn English at a school in Bristol, she tried to stow away on a ship bound for India to escape. Headstrong, dramatic, and daring, Eugénie refused to give reserved or demure responses to situations and was bold with her feelings, twice attempting suicide after experiencing romantic disappointments.

Portrait of Empress Euegénie by Franz Xavier Winterhalter, 1861 - Via Wikimedia Commons

Meeting Napoleon

In 1849, Eugénie de Montijo met Louis-Napoléon (Napoléon III), then “prince-president” of France. Although Napoléon was at that time awaiting a response to his request for the hand of Princess Adelaide of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, he soon became infatuated with Eugénie. The court gossips began laying wagers on how long it would take before the Spaniard was bedded, but Eugénie - a devout Catholic - declared that the road to her heart lay only through the chapel, refusing to become his lover. In 1853, after receiving a rejection from Princess Adelaide, Napoléon formally announced his engagement to Eugénie. He claimed that he preferred to marry a woman whom he loved and respected over “an unknown lady who would have brought advantages not unmixed with sacrifices”.

The Clover of Emeralds

The clover of emeralds was given by Napoleon to Eugénie in 1852, before the announcement of their marriage, and was made by Jules Fossin (an ancestor of Maison Chaumet) - ©Chaumet. The clover brooch features in the portrait by Edouard Louis Dubufe from 1853 and is thought to have been a firm favourite of Eugénie's, worn frequently, like a talisman of good luck - ©RMN-Grand Palais (domain de Compiègne) / Daniel Arnaudet

The Wedding

The pair were married on 29th January 1853 in the Tuileries and had a grander religious ceremony at Notre Dame the following day. Between an army of seamstresses and royal couturiers, 54 dresses were made for Eugénie, alongside a wedding gown containing 40,000 francs’ worth of Alencon lace. She wore a diamond and sapphire belt, which had been given to the empress Marie Louise by Napoleon I. At Notre Dame, she wore another stunning gown swathed in a cloud of transparent lace, with a diadem on her head and orange blossoms in her hair.

A color print of Eugénie de Montijo in her Notre Dame wedding dress - From the LIFE Magazine archives

The Pearl & Diamond tiara

Shortly after the wedding, Eugénie de Montijo was painted wearing the pearl and diamond tiara. This was part of a suite of jewellery Napoléon III ordered court jewellers in Paris to make for his marriage to her. The crown was made by Gabriel Lemonnier and was described by Arthur Bloche as “a jewel in the purest Louis XVI style”, with a filigree silver mount crusted with small brilliant-cut diamonds – 1998 diamonds in all, with a total weight of 63.30 carats – surrounding and enhancing large pearls. The largest pearl is believed to be the “Perle Napoleon”, or the Regent Pearl, which was thought to once have been part of Empress Marie Louise’s pearl tiara, given to her by Napoléon I as part of a pearl parure.

Diadème de l'Impératrice Eugénie © 1992 RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum). Empress Eugénie wears the diadem in Winterhalter’s portrait of her, 1853, along with an eight-row necklace and a bracelet.

The Pearl Napoleon, also known as The Regent - a rare oval, drop-shaped natural pearl measuring 17.6-20.8 x 28.5mm and weighing 302.68 grains with superior lustre. The old-cut diamond acanthus-leaf surmount is a later addition - ©Christie's

The Empress Eugénie Diamond

Given as a bridal gift for his Empress, Napoleon gifted Eugénie a diamond – an oval-shaped brilliant diamond weighing 51 carats – which originally belonged to Empress Catherine II the Great of Russia, who wore it often as the centrepiece of a hair ornament. Empress Catherine later gave it to her lover Grigory Potemkin, and it became known as the Potemkin Diamond. It was then passed down through his family until it was eventually bought by Napoleon III, and the diamond was renamed as The Empress Eugénie Diamond. She wore it often as the centrepiece of a diamond necklace.

The Pearl & Diamond Shoulder Brooches

Made in the year of her marriage, this shoulder brooch, now in the Louvre, was part of a set of 4 brooches that the Empress commissioned from François Kramer. Both of the round pearls, the 5 pear-shaped pearls, and the 17 large, cushion-cut diamonds were part of a piece that once belonged to Empress Marie-Louise, the 2nd wife of Napoleon I.

A should brooch made by François Kramer in 1853 for Empress Eugénie. The brooch is formed of two rose windows each composed of a large round pearl surrounded by eight diamonds; two pear-shaped pearls hang from each side of these rosettes and another pear-shaped pearl hanging from the bottom - © 2015 RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Stéphane Maréchalle

Here you can see all 4 brooches made by François Kramer in 1853 for Empress Eugénie, in decreasing sizes, surrounding a devant-de-corsage piece commissioned from Alexandre-Gabriel Lemmonier - Photo from Berthaud, 1887

A Pendant Gift

At some stage during their marriage, Napoléon gifted Empress Eugénie a pendant in the shape of a radiating star, with their initials entangled on the front as a symbol of their union.

A pendant made of 750 thousandths gold and 800 thousandths silver with an oval-cut amethyst at the center, edged with a diamond border and diamond-set spokes. There is a pear-cut emerald at each of the four cardinal points, and a pearl set with diamonds is suspended from the bottom. In the center of the amethyst is the double E of Eugenie centered on the N of Napoleon III, surmounted by the imperial crown - ©Pierre Bergé & Associates

Becoming Napoleon III's Wife - Inherited JEwels

Upon their marriage, Empress Eugénie had access to the state treasury and the crown jewels, which she wore with enthusiasm. While she had many stones from older pieces reset into new pieces of her own taste, creating new fashions and harking back to old fashions from the first Empire, some pieces she wore as they were, since they already fitted her taste so well.

The Duchess of Angoulême's ruby bracelets, 1816. Both bracelets are made of twenty-four oval rubies, surrounded by three hundred and fifty-six bright diamonds. They were originally made for Empress Marie-Louise by Nitot and were set with fewer stones. After the fall of the Empire, the stones were removed, to be later reset by Paul-Nicolas Menière and Evrard Bapst for the Duchess of Angoulême. They were then in turn worn by Queen Marie-Amélie and then by Empress Eugénie. - © 2016 RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle

The Diadem of the Duchess of Angoulême, 1819-20, offered by Louis XVIII to his niece, the Duchess, and made by Christophe-Frédéric Bapst and Jacques-Evrard Bapst. In total, the tiara is composed of 40 emeralds and 1031 diamonds. The central emerald is surrounded by 18 brilliants. Empress Eugénie particularly appreciated emeralds - © 2002 RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

The Universal Exhibition & The Imperial Crown

Since Napoléon was proclaimed Emperor rather than crowned, there was, notably, no coronation ceremony for either Napoleon III or Eugénie de Montijo. However, in 1855 Napoléon had an imperial crown specially made for each of them, to show off at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. Empress Eugénie’s was a gold crown set with 2,490 diamonds and 56 emeralds in eagle and palmette motifs, topped with a monde.

Empress Eugenie's Crown, 1855 - © 2016 RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Stéphane Maréchalle

A Fascination with Diamonds & The First Empire

Eugénie de Montijo was a great admirer of Marie Antoinette. She favored large bow brooches and stomachers ‘a la Marie Antoinette’, as well as having a penchant for diamonds, much as Marie Antoinette did. The Empress avidly collected anything related to Marie-Antoinette, often fashioning new jewelry pieces out of them, and brought the former Queen's fashion back into style for the second half of the 19th century.

An official portrait of Empress Eugénie in an adaptation of an eighteenth-century Marie Antoinette style gown by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1854 - ©The Met Museum

As a Spaniard, it's thought that Eugénie may have felt a deeper connection with Marie Antoinette, the Austrian Queen of France. As a "foreign" figurehead whose allegiances were often questioned, and whom it was easy to blame when things went wrong, she may have felt a certain kinship. Though Eugénie fulfilled her role as Empress dutifully and with relish - accompanying the Emperor to balls, operas, and plays, traveling on official business, and acting as regent during Napoleon’s absences, as well as advocating strongly for equality for women and making many donations to help the poor - her appreciation for luxury was disliked amongst the common people and her views on royalty and monarchy were often at odds with the Emperor’s own reign. She was also frequently criticized for her Catholic, conservative influences on Napoleon’s policies.

The Diamond Bow Brooch

The Diamond Bow Brooch was one of the Empress’s favorite jewelry pieces. It was originally only a bow, made by François Kramer and intended to be worn as a kind of buckle on a belt of diamonds, but Eugénie asked Kramer to transform it into a larger stomacher ornament, resulting in the addition of five pampilles (fringes) and two elaborate diamond tassels.

Empress Eugénie’s diamond bow brooch, made by François Kramer in 1855. It is composed of 2,634 diamonds - © 2015 RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle

The Reliquary Brooch

This brooch holds several diamonds of prestige. The diamonds forming the butterfly wings are the Mazarins 17 and 18, of the collection of 18 Mazarin diamonds bequeathed in 1661 by Cardinal Mazarin to Louis XIV. The 3rd largest diamond in the brooch was the fourth button of Louis XIV’s jerkin, before being transformed into an earring for Marie Antoinette.

The Reliquary Brooch made by Alfred and Frederic Bapst in 1855 - © 2015 RMN-Grand Palais (Louvre Museum) / Stéphane Maréchalle

The Feuilles de Groseillier

The Feuilles de Groseillier brooch, meaning currant leaf brooch in English, was once part of a stunning parure of 30 feuilles de groseilliers commissioned by Empress Eugenie from Bapst Jewellers in 1855. The Parure comprised a guirlande, worn as a necklace; a tour-de-corsage, worn directly on the dress, and a devant-de-corsage brooch amongst many other pieces.

The brooch is designed as a cluster of three openwork currant leaves centering upon a larger cushion-shaped diamond, suspending three detachable articulated pampilles, set with old mine-cut diamonds - ©Christie's.

These are photos of some of the full feuilles de groseilliers set, from the original catalogue of the French Crown Jewels, 1887

The Greek Key/Meander Tiara

There are 1856, 1864, and 1867 versions of this tiara, all made by Bapst for Empress Eugénie. The first version features the Regent Diamond that was once mounted on the hilt of Napoleon Bonaparte’s sword in the center, the second places it on top of the tiara, and the third removed it completely. In spring 2019, French police recovered a historic ring that had been stolen out of a parked car, now belonging to Countess Olympia von Arco Zinneberg, that contains a 40-carat diamond from Eugénie's crown.

Top left: the 1867 version, Top right: the 1856 version - via Tiara Mania. Bottom: The Empress wearing the Greek Key Tiara in a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, c.1864 - via The Court Jeweller

The Regent Diamond was discovered in 1698 in Golconda, India. Even today, it is considered the most beautiful diamond in the world: its color is "first water", that is, perfectly white and of practically irreproachable purity. The Regent was first worn by Louis XV at the reception of the Turkish Embassy in 1721 - © 2016 RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Stéphane Maréchalle

An Heir

In 1856, after a 2-day labor that almost killed her, Eugénie de Montijo gave birth to an heir - Napoléon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte, Prince Imperial. She had suffered a miscarriage after a 3-month pregnancy 3 years prior to this. These difficult experiences seem to have created a barrier in Eugène. She held sexual love in small esteem all her adult life, regarding it not as wicked but as unimportant and cheap. It seems that after the birth, this only deepened, and she turned away Napoléon’s advances. Meanwhile, Napoléon remained, as a friend put it, “tortured by the flesh”, and so took his desires elsewhere. Despite this disconnect, their rule and relationship did not seem to suffer much for it - Eugénie was still consulted on important matters and continued to commission grand pieces of jewelry.

The Emerald Tiara

In 1858, Empress Eugénie commissioned a new tiara from Eugène Fontenay – a coronet-style circlet with diamond-set strawberry leaves/florets punctuated with rectangular-cut emeralds. Each of the strawberry leaves could be removed and replaced with a set of pear-shaped pearl toppers or diamonds.

Top: An image of the tiara from a book - via Pinterest. Left: The Empress Eugénie wearing the tiara along with the clover of emeralds and a pearl necklace and earrings, painted by Pierre de Pommayrac - ©Archives Larbor via Wikimedia Commons. Right: The emeralds are made to look more like sapphires in this painting, also by Pierre de Pommayrac - ©Walters Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons

The Auction of 1872

After Napoleon III’s defeat in 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War, Napoleon and Eugénie were exiled and Eugénie spent the rest of her time between England, Spain, and southern France. In 1872, Empress Eugénie resolved to part with some of her personal jewels - some of which she had taken into exile with her, some of which she had sent ahead to England after the fall - in an auction of "a portion of the magnificent jewels," held in London by Christie, Manson & Wood.

A medallion-pendant belonging to Empress Eugénie - ©Musée National du Palais de Compiègne

Empress Eugénie's chatelaine-watch, 1853, Jules Jean-Francois Fossin - ©Musée National des Chateaux de Malmaison et Bois-Préau

Diamonds of Empress Eugénie exhibited at the World Fair in Vienna 1873. They may have been sold by the Empress as part of the 1872 Christie's auction - Via Pinterest

The Great Crown Jewels Auction of 1887

In their absence, the government of the Third Republic began to dismantle and sell the royal jewels. Many of them were sold off in the historic 1887 auction, including the diamond bow brooch, the Greek key tiara, and the pearl and diamond diadem (which sold for 78,100 francs).

The Crown Jewels of France, an illustration for The Illustrated London News, 23 April 1887

Pages from the 1887 French Crown Jewels auction catalogue - Photos from Berthaud - © Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The End of an ERa

Not all of the jewels ended up in this sale or the previous one, however. Eugénie managed to hang on to a few beloved pieces of jewelry from her personal collection.

A heart-locket pendant with circle-cut rubies and old and rose-cut diamonds from Eugénie's personal collection - ©Christie's

Empress Eugénie's natural pearl earrings from her personal collection - ©Christie's. She wears these earrings in a painting by Winterhalter from 1864 - ©Compiegne Palace, Compiegne via Arthive

The Imperial Crown of Empress Eugénie did not go to auction, and was returned to her intact as reimbursement for the amount the Republic owed Napoleon III. As well as this, the emeralds from her emerald tiara somehow skipped the auction and found their way into the collection of Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg, who became Queen of Spain in 1906 and had the emeralds set in a necklace which she also occasionally wore as a bandeau.

Portrait of Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg by Philip de Laszlo, c.1920 - via Wikimedia Commons

After losing her son in 1879 in the Zulu War in South Africa, Eugénie lived on for another 41 years alone but was comforted at least in part by her lasting friendship with Queen Victoria. The former empress died in July 1920, aged 94, at the Liria Palace in Madrid, Spain, while visiting an old friend.


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