David Kindy – Smithsonian Magazine
“When Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself emperor of France in 1804, he not only revolutionized politics but also fashion. The ruler and his first wife, Josephine, established themselves as 19th-century fashion icons: He embraced lavish accessories as a way of conveying authority, while she popularized flowing, high-waisted dresses and extravagant Neoclassical gold and gems.
Now, more than 200 years after the empress’ death in 1814, two of the tiaras she likely owned at the pinnacle of her power are going up for auction. Sotheby’s plans to sell the diadems—still in their original leather boxes—in London on December 7, reports Jill Newman for Town & Country.
Studded with gems and carvings of classical figures, the two tiaras and accompanying jewelry are expected to sell for between $410,000 and $690,000. Crafted around 1808, the stunning sets have been housed in a private British collection for about 150 years, according to Lily Templeton of Women’s Wear Daily (WWD).
“I handle thousands of pieces of jewelry every month, but these tiaras made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I first held them,” Kristian Spofforth, head of Sotheby’s London jewel department, tells Melissa Twigg of the Telegraph.
He adds, “The carved stones are extraordinary and the way they are mounted into the tiaras shows incredible craftsmanship for the early 1800s.”
When Napoleon assumed control of France, he sought to legitimize his reign by comparing his new government to that of ancient Greece and Rome, even including cameos, or raised relief carvings, of Alexander the Great, Nero and other famous rulers, on his coronation crown, as Ana Estrades wrote for Art & Object last year. Per a Sotheby’s statement, Josephine followed suit, “using her clothes and jewels to evoke the ideals of the ancient world, and linking it with the current Empire to enhance the prestige of her husband’s regime.”
Inspired by the Neoclassical style that gained traction just before the French Revolution, Napoleon and Josephine transformed French fashion by incorporating Greco-Roman styles into their clothing and jewelry. They wore ostentatious outfits and ornaments at parties held in Paris, influencing trendsacross Europe and beyond.
“[Josephine] was the wife of the world’s most powerful man, and the most visible female figure of her era,” wrote biographer Andrea Stuart in 2004. “She was the high priestess of style, and fashion-conscious women the world over idolized her. … Joséphine reinforced Paris’ position as fashion capital of the world, which in turn boosted French industry.”
Each tiara in the auction is part of a parure, or matching set of jewelry. The first is a gold diadem with 25 engraved carnelians depicting the heads of classical characters and blue enamel decorations. A pair of pendant earrings, a hair comb and a belt ornament featuring a cameo of the Roman wine god Bacchus are up for sale alongside it.
The other crown features five cameos depicting the mythical figures Zeus, Medusa, Dionysus, Pan and Gaia. It’s accompanied by a belt clasp and ornament.
According to Sotheby’s, the sets are similar to one in the collection of the Swedish royal family. Josephine’s granddaughter, Josephine of Leuchtenberg, brought jewels once owned by the empress with her when she married the future Oscar I in 1823.
Though the parures are believed to have been owned by Josephine, no surviving paperwork supports this attribution. After Napoleon divorced her in 1810 for failing to bear him an heir, the former empress began selling her jewelry in secret or by having her children by a previous marriage act as brokers. As a result, the provenance of the pieces is presumed.
“The jewels offered here demonstrate the finest delicate work by the finest French workshops, and, today, there are hardly any comparable pieces in the world,” says Spofforth in the statement. “When fashions changed, jewelry was broken up and remodeled, making their survival a truly exceptional one.”
David Kindy is a daily correspondent for Smithsonian. He is also a journalist, freelance writer and book reviewer who lives in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He writes about history, culture and other topics for Air & Space, Military History, World War II, Vietnam, Aviation History, Providence Journal and other publications and websites.