Historic Rubies From the French Crown Jewels

A matching suite of ruby and diamond jewelry that Napoleon ordered in 1810 has a history as colorful and brilliant as the gemstones it contained. First worn by Empress Marie-Louise, some of the jewels ended up decorating a New York socialite at a controversial ball in 1897. Now rubies from the suite have been resurfacing at recent auctions

Among the most intriguing jewels in the world are pieces formerly in the collection of the French Crown Jewels.

Nearly all the jewels were sold during an auction the French government conducted in 1887, and only a few of them survive in original condition. Several of the larger items were broken up before the auction so the stones could be sold individually. Others have been dismantled in the years since, and a number of the diamonds have been recut.

Several of the jewels that survived are matching pieces set with rubies and diamonds, originally part of a sumptuous parure (matching suite) that Napoleon bought in 1810. The histories of these pieces are as rich as the rubies themselves. One owner was Cornelia Bradley-Martin, who played a colorful part in New York’s social history during the 1890s. Her story, overlooked by previous jewelry historians, is detailed here.

Napoleon’s wife-pleasers: In May 1993, Christie’s Geneva auctioned a magnificent ruby and diamond necklace that is one of the few surviving pieces from the French Crown Jewels. The necklace, which sold for nearly $13 million, was part of a parure Napoleon ordered in 1810 for his new wife, Archduchess Marie-Louise of Habsburg, the daughter of Emperor Franz I of Austria and niece of Marie-Antoinette. (Napoleon had divorced Josephine the previous year.)

Napoleon decided that Marie-Louise should enjoy sumptuous jewelry, and he began to expand the already extensive collection of crown jewels by adding complete suites of colored stones and diamonds for her use. During the autumn of 1810, Napoleon’s favorite jeweler, Franois-Regnault Nitot, began to construct two new parures, one of turquoise and diamonds, the other of rubies and diamonds. As detailed by Bernard Morel in his book The French Crown Jewels (Antwerp, 1988), both parures were delivered to Napoleon Jan. 16, 1811.

The ruby and diamond parure consisted of a coronet, diadem, comb, earrings, necklace, belt and pair of bracelets. The archives of French jeweler Chaumet contain a drawing of how this parure appeared in 1811; in the original, the necklace has a more intricate design than it does today. In addition, the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, contains an 1811 watercolor portrait of Empress Marie-Louise wearing the necklace, from which is suspended a medallion containing a portrait of Napoleon surrounded by diamonds. The medallion is by the same jeweler.

Napoleon was forced from power in April 1814 and sent into exile on the Isle of Elba. Ten months later, he returned to Paris with a small army of loyal soldiers and seized control again. His second reign ended 100 days later when he was sent into exile after his defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815.

After Napoleon’s defeat, the House of Bourbon and Louis XVIII resumed the monarchy and the magnificent ruby and diamond parure remained in the crown collection. Louis XVIII was a widower, so the parure was worn by his niece Marie-Therese, the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. In 1816, the entire ruby and diamond parure was remodeled. The necklace was reconstructed into a simpler design set with fewer stones, and its appearance became very close to today’s.

Two jewelers worked on the redesign: Paul-Nicolas Mnire and his son-in-law, Evrard Bapst. Mnire, who had been a jeweler to the crown during the reign of Louis XVI, did the actual remodeling using sketches by Bapst. Records of the reconstruction indicate the principal ornaments of the parure were integrated into the new configuration without alteration.

In 1825, Bapst, then the crown jeweler, modified the ruby and diamond suite again in preparation for the coronation of Charles X. The modifications included the addition of several more rubies to the suite. At the coronation ceremony, the parure again was worn by Marie-Therese, who was Charles X’s daughter-in-law. By the end of Charles X’s reign, the parure consisted of a diadem, a coronet, a belt, a pair of bracelets, earrings, a pendant, 14 corsage studs, a rosette-shaped fastener, two accessories, a small necklace and the large necklace.

Napoleon III became emperor in 1852. His wife, Empress Eugenie, was the next royal to wear the ruby and diamond jewels. This time, the parure was left intact as it was considered to be of the finest craftsmanship and in no way outmoded. However, many of the other jewels in the collection were dismantled and remodeled to reflect the fashion of the time.

Ruby parure diaspora: Empress Eugenie was the last royal to enjoy the ruby and diamond parure. In 1887, the French government auctioned the crown jewels. The historic collection was divided into 85 lots, some of which were further subdivided. Several of the more expensive pieces were dismantled, with the larger diamonds being sold one by one. And all seven parures were split up, so each item could be auctioned individually.

The belt, which was the largest piece in the ruby and diamond parure, was dismantled and offered for sale in 10 lots; as a result, this parure yielded a total of 22 items, some of them mere fragments of larger jewels. Interestingly, the auction catalog listed a rosary among the items from this parure. That’s something of a mystery because no such rosary appeared in any existing photographs of the crown jewels.

The auction was a monumental event in jewelry history. Newspapers and magazines around the world covered it extensively, publishing the names of buyers and the prices they paid (Tiffany & Co. was the largest buyer). But once the collection was sold, the histories of the numerous jewels became cloudy, if not lost.

Today, several of the jewels are displayed at the Louvre museum in Paris. However, the vast majority are in private collections, occasionally resurfacing at auctions. In December 1980, Christie’s New York offered an antique ruby and diamond necklace and a pair of earrings without provenance, but the ornaments closely resembled the design of the small necklace in the ruby parure of the French Crown Jewels. As a jewelry historian, and based on comparisons of the two necklaces (one of which I have physically held), I feel strongly it may be the same piece with the motifs rearranged. Because there is no absolute record, it must be left as an open possibility. (At the auction, bidding did not reach the confidential minimum of $58,000-$62,000 so the pieces were “unsold.”)

The large ruby and diamond necklace was acquired at the 1887 auction by Bapst and Son, the same company that had done the remodeling in 1814 and 1825. The necklace then disappeared for many years, but reappeared at Christie’s Geneva auctions in 1982 (when it sold for $458,000) and 1993 (when it sold for nearly $1.3 million).

Also at the 1887 auction, the ruby and diamond diadem was sold to a Mr. Hass and the matching bracelets were sold to Tiffany & Co. Within a year, these jewels were resold to Mr. Bradley-Martin of New York City, an original member of the “Four Hundred,” a term coined for New York City’s high society. (He and his wife attracted some scorn among their contemporaries when they hyphenated his first and last names to give the impression that they were English aristocrats following a trip to London in 1892.)

Mrs. Bradley-Martin’s grand fete: In 1896-’97, New York was in the midst of an economic panic. Thousands were unemployed and long bread lines formed on the streets. Cornelia Bradley-Martin was distressed over the misery she saw around her and suggested to her husband that an extravagant party might help to lift New York out of its slump. It not only would lift spirits, she thought, but also would employ out of-work florists, hair stylists and dressmakers. She decided the party should be a costume ball, with invitations sent on short notice so guests wouldn’t have time to buy their costumes overseas.

Her husband readily agreed, setting in motion plans for what would become one of the most publicized and controversial society events in New York history.

The Bradley-Martins selected Wednesday, Feb. 10, as the date and asked guests to dress “appropriately for the court of Versailles at the time of Louis XIV.” As soon as the party was announced, newspapers around the world began to print detailed accounts of the preparations. The New York Times told readers in detail how carloads of orchids and roses arrived to transform the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria – site for the great party – into the Great Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

At 11 p.m. of the appointed evening, the first of 700 guests began to arrive. The guests were ushered into cozy dressing rooms where professional costumers and makeup artists stood ready to assist with the finishing touches. Then the guests were escorted into the throne room where the Bradley-Martins were seated, he costumed as Louis XV and she unexpectedly dressed as Mary, Queen of Scots, who ruled two centuries earlier. She complemented her costume of black velvet and white lace with a stunning collection of jewels, including some former French Crown Jewels. Three confirmed items were the pair of ruby and diamond bracelets dating from 1810 (which she wore joined together to form a dog collar), a large diamond brooch known as the Sevigne brooch dating from 1856, and the center plaque from the piece known as the great girdle set with diamonds, pearls and colored stones dating from 1864. On her right shoulder was a quatrefoil pendant set with rubies and diamonds, possibly part of the ruby and diamond rosary included in the 1887 auction.

In addition to the royal pieces, she wore an impressive diamond tiara, a necklace designed as a line of ruby and diamond clusters, a large diamond sunburst brooch, a belt set its entire length with large diamonds, and three additional diamond strands draped from her shoulder to her waist. She was a picture of extravagance.

The next day, many major American and European newspapers described the event in detail, calling it a social triumph. But in the weeks that followed, several ministers condemned the lavish display of wealth during a time of economic hardship. Soon the story of the ball erupted into a full-blown controversy. Collier’s magazine printed critical editorials and a political cartoon lampooning the ball. The New York City tax authorities doubled the Bradley-Martins’ tax assessment and, by the end of the year, the couple moved to England. Though their motives may have been otherwise (their married daughter lived in England), gossips said they left town because of the controversy over their ball.

New owners: The daughter, also named Cornelia, married the Fourth Earl of Craven and acquired the title Lady Craven at age 16. During the Gilded Age, a number of American heiresses married members of the British aristocracy, a trend chronicled in the book To Marry an English Lord by Gail McColl and Carol Wallace (Workman Publishing, New York City, 1989). The Earl of Craven fell off his yacht and drowned at age 53 in 1921. His death was said to be an example of the curse on the Craven title (whereby all who inherit the title die young).

Lady Craven died in 1961. That November, Sotheby’s sold her jewelry at an auction in London. Her collection contained a number of important pieces inherited from her mother, including the diadem and the pair of bracelets from the ruby and diamond parure of the French Crown Jewels. A private collector bought the diadem and loaned it in 1962 for an exhibition at the Louvre titled “Ten Centuries of French Jewelry.” The diadem is still privately owned.

S.J. Phillips, a London jewelry firm, bought the bracelets and later sold them to Claude Menier, who bequeathed them to the Louvre. Today, they are displayed at the museum in the same showcase as the 140.50-ct. Regent Diamond.

Every jewelry historian dreams of identifying an antique piece as a “lost” item from the French Crown Jewels. Fewer than half of the jewels that comprised the ruby and diamond parure have been identified in recent years. This means finding one of the companion pieces remains a real possibility.

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