In 2023, renowned director Ridley Scott released his epic biographical film ‘Napoleon’.
Starring Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix, the film recreates the life and events of the legendary French General, Napoleon Bonaparte with Vanessa Kirby portraying Joséphine de Beauharnais, a minor French aristocrat and Napoleon’s first wife.
A pivotal scene of the film depicts the couple’s coronation in Notre-Dame de Paris on December 2nd 1804 where Napoleon shocked the attendees by first crowning himself Emperor of France and then crowning Joséphine, proclaiming her to be his Empress.
Although the director has chosen to recreate this iconic scene as it was painted by Jacques – Louis David (itself not true representation of the event), the tiara worn by Kirby is based on a controversial headpiece, still in existence, that may or may not have been worn on that very day.
Viewed as an upstart and a usurper by the crowned heads of Europe, Napoleon wanted to emulate the style of Ancient Rome in order to establish his new, Imperial status. He embraced Neo Classicism, a new art movement that had sprung up to counteract the excesses of Baroque & Rococo.
Returning to the fashions of the ancient past, motifs of laurel wreaths, wheat sheaths and cameos were used in the jewels of the new court. In doing so, Josephine was the catalyst behind the modern tiara & parure. Many of Josephine’s jewels survived through the centuries and are still being worn by her descendants today, most notably in the Scandinavian monarchies
In 1949, The French Jeweller Van Cleef & Arpels purchased this Tiara from the estate of Violet Mond, Baroness Melchett. It had previously been in the collection of Angela Burdett Coutts (said to the richest woman in Britain at the time).
During the 1960s, Van Cleef & Arpels featured it heavily in their marketing campaigns, emphasising that this was the tiara that had been worn by Josephine at her coronation.
In an interview for French TV, Jacques Arpels stated that
“You see the diadem in the vitrine behind me, I bought it at the end of World War II from an aristocratic English lady. It’s the one that Empress Josephine wore on the day of her coronation. It was passed to the Empress Eugenie,, who sold it when she was in exile after the fall of the Second Empire in 1870. It was bought by an English lady who knew the Empress Eugenie. Subsequently it was left to the lady I bought it from”
In 1966, during the Century Ball in Monte Carlo, Princess Grace of Monaco was filmed wearing the tiara atop an elaborate hairstyle. The event was held to commemorate Monte Carlo’s 100th anniversary which coinciding with the reign of Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie.
As the theme of the ball was the Second Empire, Princess Grace elegantly embraced the outlandish fashion of that era, embellishing her attire with the imposing headpiece.
Jacques Arpels loaned the headpiece to the Grand Palais from June to December 1969 for the exhibition “Napoleon”.
The tiara was last photographed being worn during the 1988 Wedding Ball of Duchess Mathilde of Württemberg, and Prince Erich of Waldburg zu Zeil und Trauchburg.
It was worn by the bride’s grandmother, Isabelle, Comtesse de Paris – the wife of the French pretender to the throne. It was an interesting choice given that this was the family that Napoleon had superseded to the French throne.
It was after this last appearance that Bernard Morel, author of ‘The French Crown Jewels’ was compelled to comment:
Van Cleef & Arpels owns a 1040-diamond tiara mounted on yellow gold, and totaling 260 carats, which is reputed to have belonged to Empress Josephine and which was displayed at the Grand Palais from June to December 1969 at the exhibition “Napoleon”. This tiara would have been presented by Napoleon to the Empress, who would have bequeathed it to her daughter Queen Hortense. It would then have gone by inheritance to Napoleon III and would have been sold in London in 1872 by Empress Eugenie at the beginning of her exile.
Yet it is certain that this tiara did not exist in the inventory [of Josephine’s private jewels] made in 1804, nor in the one made in 1814, in which the only diamond tiara was partly dismantled and included briolettes, which is not the case of this tiara. It can not either be the diamond tiara delivered by [Crown jeweller] Nitot in 1807, which was made of 2882 diamonds. Of course, it could have been acquired and given away by the Empress between 1804 and 1814, but despite all our researches we could not find any proof of this supposal, nor any proof of the sale of this tiara by Empress Eugenie in 1872. Besides, Mr Serge Grandjean, head curator of the department of artefacts of the Louvre Museum, told us his doubts about the attribution of this tiara to Josephine: his doubts were based on the shape of the frontal part of the tiara, with a downward spike which looked to him incompatible with the style of the Napoleonic time, opinion which I fully share.
After this, Van Cleef and Arpels quietly sold the tiara and it has not been seen since.
So could this be the Tiara that Empress Josephine wore to her Coronation?
It is not out of the realm of possibility that Empress Eugenie would inherit some of Josephine’s jewels. Eugenie’s husband, Napoleon III was the son of Josephine’s only daughter Hortense de Beauharnais. And we know that Hortense received some of mother’s jewels when Josephine passed away in 1814. Her will stipulated that Hortense would inherit a share of her diamond collection, along with a parure of rubies and a parure of sapphires.
However, prominent jewellery historians have examined the Tiara and noted several inconsistencies in the composition of the piece. The diamonds on the side elements are claw set with a silver backing, which is typical of diamond set jewellery of the 19th Century.
But the middle section and diamond base are completely different and of poorer quality. The pear shaped element at the top and the foliate scrolls beneath feature simple pave claw set stones that are not set onto silver backings as the side elements are.
So is this the tiara worn by Empress Josephine?
Could be but not really…
Jacques Arpels would not be the first (or the last) jeweller to embellish a piece with historical provenance in order to achieve a sale or promote his company. Parts of the Tiara could be from Josephine’s collection and reset into this headpiece. But what is clear is that this tiara in it’s current form was not the one worn to the coronation of Napoleon