27 March 2014

Tiara Thursday: The Marie Louise Diadem

The Marie Louise Diadem
As a wedding gift for his second wife, Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria (1791-1847), Napoleon I commissioned a set of jewelry from Etienne Nitot et Fils in 1810. As was typical at the time, the Parisian jeweler (predecessor of Chaumet) provided a full parure for the new Empress of the French: a diadem, comb, necklace, and earrings, all created with emeralds and diamonds set in silver and gold. Napoleon was also said to have commissioned an opal parure from Nitot at the same time. The elaborate tiara we’re looking at today included 79 emeralds and more than 1,000 diamonds (about 700 carats) in a scrolling design of palmettes and medallions. The tiara is still in existence, but – as we’ve seen with other jewels from this era – the parure has scattered, and the diadem hasn’t made it through all these years without a bit of modification.
Empress Marie Louise; the necklace and earrings, on display at the Louvre. The portrait depicts the stones in a red tone, though you will also see them colored green.
The emerald parure left France with Empress Marie Louise when Napoleon’s empire collapsed. When she died, she left the set to a Habsburg relative (her aunt Archduchess Elise, according to the Smithsonian, or her cousin Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany, according to the Louvre), and it remained in that family until a descendant sold it to Van Cleef & Arpels in 1953. Seizing an opportunity to make a profit, between 1954 and 1956 the jeweler removed the original emeralds from the diadem and used the green stones in many separate pieces of jewelry. These individual pieces were then sold off, their provenance advertised as “An emerald for you from the historic Napoleonic Tiara.” The comb from Marie Louise’s emerald parure was dismantled at some point; the earrings and necklace retained their original emeralds and are today part of the collection of the Louvre.
Part of a press release from Christie's auction house. One of the brooches made from the Marie Louise emeralds goes up for auction again in April 2014.
As for the tiara, by 1962 Van Cleef & Arpels had replaced the missing emeralds with 79 Persian turquoise stones totaling 540 carats. The switch to the opaque turquoise constituted a major change to the look of the piece, but the new look found an admirer in Marjorie Merriweather Post. The American collector best known for her taste in Russian imperial objects bought the diadem from Van Cleef & Arpels and wore it herself before donating it to the Smithsonian in 1971.
The tiara, in its turquoise version
The Marie Louise Diadem has remained in the Smithsonian’s National Gem Collection. A museum collection might not offer much of a chance to see the tiara in use, but it does offer the chance to see it on exhibit. Whenever this one has been mentioned in the past, it always results in cries that the tiara was done a great injustice, having its emeralds swapped for the much more polarizing turquoise stone. But these are often countered by comments from readers that have seen this one on display, noting that the turquoise has a beauty that can’t be captured in photos. Perhaps we’ll all have to make the pilgrimage to see it ourselves.

Turquoise or emerald, which do you prefer?

Photos: Van Cleef & Arpels/Wikimedia Commons/Louvre/Christie's