Empress attitude: Chaumet brings history to life
Parisian jeweller’s latest collections are a graceful tribute to Joséphine Bonaparte
“I win the battles, Joséphine wins me the hearts,” so said Napoleon Bonaparte of his beloved wife. The first empress of France - who was born on the island of Martinique in 1763 - was one of the most prominent tastemakers of her age, known for her love of art, botany, fashion, jewellery and cute pugs. Hers was aptly named Fortune.
Although she wasn’t especially creative herself, Joséphine was intuitively drawn to fine and noble things; and, while she was no great beauty, her charm and grace were described as irresistible by all those who encountered her, not least Napoleon who famously wrote many paeans to the love of his life - until, of course, he set his sights on someone who could produce him an heir.
While their attraction for one another eventually waned (Josephine certainly wasn’t one for maudlin heartbreak), both parties held a deep respect for each other until the end, with Napoleon calling her a friend and confidante long after she passed away in 1814. And certainly, Joséphine was a woman who knew how to leave a lasting impression on people.
After the Reign of Terror, the soon-to-be-empress adopted a Neoclassical style in the spirit of the Merveilleuses, women who embraced decadent fashion as a form of revolt against the bloodshed they had seen during Robespierre’s rule. During her romance and marriage to Napoleon, it was this modern and audacious style that the young woman made her own, helped along by her love of tiaras and precious bijoux crafted by Marie-Étienne Nitot. As the official jeweller to Napoleon during the Consulate and the Empire, Nitot designed the emperor’s famous coronation sword mounted with the spectacular 141-carat Regent diamond as a symbol of his authority and command over the country.
Nitot’s business was renamed Chaumet at the start of the 20th century (after jeweller Joseph Chaumet who took over in 1885) but the grand bijouterie has had a foothold in Paris’ Place Vendôme since 1812 - in fact, it was the first jewellery house to take up residence on the plush square. It certainly counted among empress Joséphine’s favourite addresses, supplying her with sumptuous parures: matching sets of jewellery featuring tiaras, necklaces, earrings, bracelets and brooches.
Her favourite stone cut was the pear-shape and she often insisted that the highly faceted stone be the centrepiece of a design. Arguably, she had her younger husband (Napoleon was her second and six years her junior) to thank for this preference: in 1796, the emperor presented her with an engagement ring that featured two such cuts: a pear-shaped diamond alongside a pear-shaped sapphire, huddled together in an 18th century setting called “toi et moi” (for “you and me”).
Joséphine’s daring spirit and beguiling style have continued to influence the house of Chaumet for decades with jewellery collections that champion different aspects of her personality. A complex character, the empress had grit, cunning and the gift of confidence, as well as a pressing sense of modernity which often revealed itself through a sensitivity to nature. For example, she insisted that her gardens at Malmaison be designed à l’anglaise, much to the disapproval of the architects that had been enlisted to remodel the Parisian chateau.
No jewellery tribute to the empress has been as extensive as the Chaumet’s current offering which includes two high jewellery collections called “Valse Impériale” and “Duo Eternel”, counting delicate diamond tiaras as well as diamond and sapphire rings inspired by the empress’s original engagement ring. There’s even a unisex diamond brooch in the shape of an arrow, which may just be a little clin d’œil to Napoleon’s own words: “The gentle emotions of love, Cupid’s treacherous arrows, are poisoned, it is said, but we take pleasure in pain, we do not want to be cured.”
The house has also released a new fine jewellery line called “Joséphine Ronde d’Aigrettes” which comprises youthful styles that are intended to be worn day to day, including diamond stacking rings with zig-zag settings, serpentine bracelets and pretty diamond drop necklaces, all embellished with her favourite pear-cut stones.
Lastly, the headliner in Chaumet’s existing “Joséphine Aigrette” range takes the pear-shape to new extremes: a new fine jewellery watch with a teardrop face comes in a variety of finishes including white or rose gold, pavé or plain with either a white or black dial; one special iteration comes dressed in diamonds too.
The timepiece’s unfussy, sleek design has that special soupçon of contemporary edginess, one which the Empress would surely have approved of.
From 8 May, Chaumet will be presenting a free access exhibition called Joséphine & Napoléon: Une Histoire (Extra)ordinaire at its Paris flagship boutique at 12 Place Vendôme, a sumptuous address which underwent an extensive renovation last year.