Friday, September 25, 2015

Empress Eugenie's Bow Brooch: A Detailed History

 Empress Eugenie Brooch. Photo by Kurt, Travel To Eat Blog.
Empress Eugenie Brooch. Photo by Kurt, Travel To Eat Blog. 

  by Angela Magnotti Andrews

 As of today, the Empress Eugenie brooch holds 19th place on our Top Twenty Diamonds & Jewels Sold at Auction. On April 22, 2008, this stunning diamond-encrusted gem, which was made in 1855 for Empress Eugenie of France, was sold in a private sale negotiated by Christie's to the Louvre for $10.5 million. The week prior, on April 15, 2008, a sales room at Christie's New York was "full of 100 people, 150 more lined up to be on the phone, and all the internet bidders waiting" {10}. As the auctioneer introduced the sale, the anticipation in the room grew to palpable levels. The hammer was about to fall on 115 rare jewels and gemstones "worth many millions" of dollars. Amassed by an unnamed collector who was praised by Francois Curiel, head of jewelry at Christie's, as having a "subtle taste and eye" {10}, these jewels represented decades of careful investment. Collectors and dealers stood at the ready, prepared to acquire some of the most exquisite pieces to come under the hammer at Christie's. Just as the hammer rose, it fell with a heavy clunk and no sale. A phone call, relayed at 6:05pm, ended the whole affair before it could even begin. There would be no bidding wars, no high-priced headliners, no satisfied customers. A court injunction rendered the jewels as inaccessible as the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Collecting More Than Jewelry

The sale, "Rare Jewels and Gemstones: The Eye of a Collector", was arranged with Christie's by Merrill Lynch. The investment and banking conglomerate acquired the jewels as collateral against a series of loans to jewelry magnate Ralph Esmerian. At the time when he secured the loans, Ralph Esmerian stood at the helm of one of New York's finest jewelry empires. He had successfully ushered his family's interests into the 20th century and secured a partnership with Carvin French. For nearly 40 years, Mr. Esmerian systematically used his growing wealth to build a collection of absolutely fabulous antique and vintage jewelry.  Extraordinary pieces from the late 1800s and early 1900s served as the mainstay of the collection, while designer pieces from Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Boucheron, and Tiffany rounded it out nicely. As his influence grew, Mr. Esmerian turned his sights on collecting more than jewelry. After the successful merger with Carvin France, Mr. Esmerian next set his sights upon Fred Leighton. As all good businessmen know, a person must spend money to make it. In a move that must have been both terrifying and exhilarating, Mr. Esmerian chose to lay it all on the line for the new acquisition.

Collateral Damage

He put up his jewel collection as collateral, took the cash, and made his move. Unfortunately, Mr. Esmerian failed to recoup his losses. The day of reckoning came, and Merrill Lynch, in a move to recover some of their own losses, arranged the auction to take place on none other than Tax Day, 2008. The public record is unclear as to how much Mr. Esmerian owed, but it must have been a pretty penny. Ten Art Nouveau pieces by Rene Lalique were expected to realize between $1.9 and $3 million, and there were another 105 lots to sell. Collectors lined the room, likely salivating at the thought of getting their hands on a piece of what might have become the auction of the century. It's easy to imagine the heavy weight of disappointment that must have fallen in the sales room as the hammer fell without a single sale. Mr. Esmerian, who was certain that private sales of the jewels would relieve his debt more thoroughly, had secured a debtor's dream in the last minutes before the sale began. He had to file Chapter 11 before the courts would order an injunction to freeze all Fred Leighton assets, including the 115 treasures sitting in showcases in the sales room.

Homeward Bound

Within the week, the Empress Eugenie brooch would prove Mr. Esmerian's assumption right. Shaped as a bow with five diamond-set cascades and two diamond-encrusted tassels, the entire piece is completely covered in Old European-, old mine-, and rose-cut diamonds. Its provenance alone would account for a high return, and the auction house had estimated a sales price of between $4 and $6 million. However, as Mr. Esmerian suspected, a private sale arranged between Christie's, Merrill Lynch, Mr. Esmerian, and Henri Loyrette, president of the Louvre Museum in Paris, resulted in the Louvre handing over the astronomical sum of $10.5 million for the return of the precious jewel to its homeland. It had been 121 years since the brooch had tasted French air. After having resided among the Crown Jewels of France for only 32 years, the brooch was sold in another highly-publicized auction in May 1887, by order of the Third Republic. According to a newspaper account from January 6, 1894, the auction took place in the Pavillon de Flore adjacent to the Louvre {17}. Richly colored tapestries woven by the Royal dyers at Gobelins Manufactory draped the walls in imperial splendor. Showcases teemed with loose diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, and other gemstones, dotted here and there by a few intact pieces, including Empress Eugenie's bow brooch. Policemen and soldiers guarded the cases day and night, and electrical wires ran between the cases for further security {17}.

A Pet Project

This sale had been nearly 40 years in the making, the pet project of the politically active Raspails. In February 1848, Francois Vincent Raspail (1794-1878) entered a tumultuous life of French politics. In his first political action, he joined the successful resistance against the Bourbon-Orleans monarchy. After the fall of King Louis Philippe, a new republic rose in its place, the Second Republic of France. Mr. Raspail soon appealed to the new republic to dismantle the French Crown Jewels, but the National Assembly vetoed his petition. In June of the same year, Paris workers rose up in rebellion against a conservative Republic, and though the rebellion failed, the people were finally heard in the presidential race of December 1848. Pitted against Napoleon Bonaparte III for the office of President of the Second French Republic, Francois Raspail lost and soon wound up in prison for his participation in the February coup. A new Emperor took the throne (and the jewels) and would remain in power for over two decades.

A Vengeful Cause

A cursory glance at historical accounts places Francois's son, Benjamin Raspail (1823-1899), alongside his father throughout the whole affair. Benjamin was even sent to Belgium in exile with his father for his extreme-left views {cited: Wikipedia Benjamin}. Meanwhile, Napoleon Bonaparte III ruled the empire, and a grudge began to fester in Benjamin Raspail's bones. Several years after the Bonapartes fell in 1870, Mr. Raspail, Jr. seized the opportunity to rekindle his vengeful cause. The Crown Jewels had been safely relocated to the Louvre in 1872, by way of Brest, France, where they were kept safe prior to and during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) {15}. In 1878, Mr. Raspail, now a member of the Third Republic of France, set to work securing the sale of the French Crown Jewels. France was far from stable at the time, and the threat of further insurrection loomed as a constant threat. While historically, the sale of Crown Jewels usually finance the bereft cause of displaced royals, this does not appear to be the case in the decisions made by the Third Republic. Officials feared that these jewels served as bait for Royalists or Bonapartists to rise up in an attempt overthrow the new Republic {11 & 17}. It was felt that selling the jewels would dissuade insurrectionists, and the monies could be used to quell the concerns of the working class, further endearing the people to the Republic.

Slated for Dismantling

Prominent members of the Republic would haggle over the decision for four years. After the motion finally passed, they would spend another 4-1/2 years discussing the issue of what to do with the money from the sale. There was one thing everyone agreed upon from the start: Most of the jewels would have to be dismantled before the sale. On December 7, 1886, a bill was finally passed stipulating that those objects from the treasury which served historic, scientific, or artistic purposes would "be preserved in the Louvre, the Natural History Museum, and the School of Mines" {3}. The rest, including the Imperial crowns of Louis XV and Napoleon, a sword belonging to Louis VXIII, items from the Royal and Imperial coronation regalia, and several crosses and stars of knighthood were slated for dismantling. According to an article written in 1894, "It would have grated on the feelings of even the extreme radicals to have seen the wife of someone who had 'struck oil' or successfully 'cornered pork' flaunting at the opera in parts of the ancient regalia," and "the appearance of the foreign orders, entire and identifiable, upon the auctioneer's rostrum might have provoked bitter comment from the descendants of the sovereigns who had been their donors" {17}.

'Doomed Things'

About a month or so before the sale, an elite group of politicians gathered in the "strong barred and grated cellars of the Ministry of France" for a special ceremony to which "a select audience" was invited {17}. Not since Cromwell's day had such a scene taken place. At least this time, the destruction would prove less wanton. It all began with the appearance of "a great chest, holding more wealth than that the grateful Indian potentate once told Lord Clive to choose from, was solemnly produced, opened by three officials who each had a separate key, and its contents turned out under the glare of an electric lamp" {17}. Beginning with the Imperial Crown of Napoleon III, "chisels, pincers, and jewellers' mallets soon did their work. High officials destroyed the first of the doomed things...and then the remaining operations were left to workmen specially engaged" {17}. Benjamin Raspail had waited patiently for this day for over 20 years. His one wish was to personally dismantle the crown of Napoleon. "I myself will break up this crown and send it to the foundry," he is reported to have said {3}. Unfortunately, Mr. Raspail met with an unfortunate accident and was unable to attend the ceremony. He did, however, receive as a gift "the hammer used to demolish the crown" {3}.

A Bertha of Diamonds

The 1894 account relates the fate of one particular piece which suffered not nearly as much as others during this irreligious rite: ...another strange relic of the Second Empire...shared the same end [as the Imperial Crown]. It was a bertha of diamonds which had been made for the Empress Eugenie from the Crown jewels. The diamonds of the bertha had at first been made up for the Imperial lady as a belt. The Empress when attending a performance of 'La Biche en Bois,' saw a diamond belt, of course of imitation diamonds, on an actress, and was so much struck with it that she resolved on a similar ornament for herself of real stones. When her whim was gratified, however, it was found that real stones were inferior for such a purpose to sham ones. The former were of such dazzling lustre that the belt became a magical one. The unfortunate wearer, when in a lighted room, looked from a little distance as though there were a solution of continuity at her waist, as though she had been literally cut in two. {17}.

Empress Eugenie's Bow Brooch

Five years after ascending the throne, on January 29, 1853, Napoleon Bonaparte III married Eugenie de Montijo (1826-1920), the Spanish beauty who would go down in history for her trendsetting style and her adoration of diamonds. At the behest of Napoleon III, many of the stones and jewels in the treasury of the French Crown Jewels were sent out to various jewelers to be reworked into brand new jewels for the Empress. One jewel, completed by Francois Kramer in 1855, was a magnificent diamond belt fitted with an impressive ribbon bow buckle {12}. According to Sotheby's, the buckle "was worn by the Empress as the central piece of a girdle, together with a pair of similarly designed shoulder brooches connected by four chains of cushioned-shaped diamonds" {6}. A true fashionista, the Empress regularly ordered her jewels retooled to suit her fancy. According to the official website of France, in 1864 the Empress ordered the dismantling of the belt with a special request to preserve and transform the bow into a grand brooch, likely with diamonds taken from the belt" {cited: official website of France}. Five diamond pampilles and two diamond tassels were added, and the jewel could now be worn as an elaborate stomacher {14}. Though the buckle of the 'magic belt' described in the 1894 article is not described in detail, it is not much of a stretch to surmise that the 'bertha of diamonds' that writer described is the same belt for which the buckle-turned-brooch was at first fashioned. It seems a little strange that she would have kept such a disconcerting piece of jewelry for almost ten years, but perhaps she was for a time unaware of its effects. I wonder how many times her torso appeared to hover above her legs before someone had the courage to tell her of the startling effect.

Unstated Reasons

After the fall of the Empire in 1870, Empress Eugenie fled to England with her son, where she was granted asylum by Queen Victoria {15}. Though she successfully smuggled many of her own private jewels, those belonging to the Crown, including the stunning bow brooch, were supposedly being held in Brest, France for safekeeping {15}. As the Empress was and remained a woman of style and influence, her jeweled brooch must have been a stunning point of interest for the 1887 auction of the French Crown Jewels. Perhaps the powers that be were unconcerned by the prospect of a new-monied American wearing the Empress's jewels in New York. For unstated reasons, they did not dismantle the jewel.

A Media Heyday

On public display for the first time since the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris, the magnificent brooch sat nestled amid "a heap of glittering things that seemed like a realization of the tales of Sindbad the Sailor" {17}. The sale was the talk of the world, attracting high-profile bidders from New York, London, Belgium, Italy, Russia, Persia, and more. The media had a heyday, reporting widely on the exhibition and the sale itself, including who bought what and for how much. It was reported that Tiffany & Co. "bought 24 lots (including one of Eugenie's diamond necklaces and diamond comb); their competitor Van Cleef and Arpels bought Joesphine's diamond tiara; Peter Carl Faberge successfully bid for [the pearl called] 'La Regente'" {11}. All told, the sale of "51,403 brilliants, 21,119 rose diamonds, 2963 pearls, 507 rubies, 136 sapphires, 312 emeralds, 528 turquoises, 22 opals, and 496 stones of various other kinds," as well as the intact pieces and the melted gold, realized 7,221,360 francs (almost $1.5 million by today's rates of conversion) {17}. This money, "invested in Government stocks bearing 3% interest" {3}, was earmarked by order of the Third Republic for "the superannuation fund for peasants and workmen" {17}.

A Name Change

The stunning bow brooch, described in the 1887 catalog as a "bow set with 2,438 brilliants weighing 140.51ct" {6}, was purchased for €85,000 by Emile Schlesinger, a jewelry representative for the self-proclaimed Queen of New York society, Mrs. William B. Astor (1830-1908). According to Tyler Hughes, Caroline, 'THE Mrs. Astor' as she preferred to be called, wore "her signature diamond stomacher, her 200-stone diamond necklace and her diamond star-shaped tiara" when she greeted guests in front of her portrait painted by Carolus Duran in the reception room of her mansion on Fifth & 65th in New York. Mrs. Astor so favored the diamond stomacher, that Empress Eugenie's Bow Brooch underwent a name change. Now commonly referred to as Mrs. Astor's Diamond Stomacher, the jewel became "known as one of the most famous jewels of the Gilded Age" {12}.

Under the Hammer Again

Following Mrs. Astor's death in 1908, the diamond brooch is reported to have remained among the treasures of the Astor family until the 1990s. None of the accounts this writer read detail exactly when or why the brooch was lost to the family. The subsequent whereabouts of the jewel appear shrouded until 2001, when Empress Eugenie' Bow Brooch went under the hammer once again. It was at this sale of antique jewels at Sotheby's London on June 20, 2001, that Ralph Esmerian must have purchased Empress Eugenie's bow brooch. One account reports that the purchaser paid "just over £4 million ($6.4 million by today's rates of conversion) {5}. Despite his many business failures, Mr. Esmerian made an indelible investment when he purchased the Empress's brooch. In just under 7 years, his investment nearly doubled! Having come full circle, Empress Eugenie's Bow Brooch now rests in its rightful place, among the remaining French Crown Jewels in the treasury of the Louvre. This writer was unable, at the date of publication, to ascertain whether the brooch is currently on display, but if it is it would be in the Galerie d’Apollon with the other French Crown Jewels. For further information, we invite you to visit the Louvre Museum's website.


  1. Balkhi, Amanda. "25 Most Expensive Pieces of Jewelry in the World." List 25, May 16, 2013.
  2. Christie's. "Lot 1096: The Empress Eugenie Brooch, An Antique Diamond Bow Brooch, by Kramer." Accessed September 25, 2013.
  3. Famous Diamonds. "The French Crown Jewels--The Beginning to the End." Accessed September 15, 2013.
  4. "French Crown Jewels, The." The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser, May 31, 1887.
  5. "French crown jewel diamond brooch sold for pounds 1.4m." Birmingham Post & Mail2001.
  6. "French Crown Jewel to Be Sold at Sotheby's." Sotheby's Press Release, 2001.
  7. Hammid, Mary. "Historic Rubies From the French Crown Jewels." JCK Magazine, July 1995.
  8. Hughes, Tyler. "The Mrs. Astor's House." The Gilded Age Era Blog, June 22, 2013.
  9. McCarthy, Cathleen. "Christie's sells Fred Leighton jewels." The Jewelry Loupe, October 22, 2009.
  10. McCarthy, Cathleen. "Ralph Esmerian: lost legacy of jewels." The Jewelry Loupe, April 20, 2011.
  11. Millar, Stephen. "France's Royal and Imperial Crown Jewels: 1792-2005." The Napoleon Series. Last updated October 2005.
  12. Miller, Jeff. "Christie's Negotiates Sale of Empress Eugenie's Brooch." Rapaport Diamonds, April 22, 2008.'s+Negotiates+Sale+of+Empress+Eug%C3%A9nie%E2%80%99s+Brooch.
  13. Official Website of France, The. "The Large 'Noeud de Corsage' Diamond Brooch of the Empress Eugenie, a new acquisition for the musee du Louvre." Accessed September 25, 2013.
  14. "Press Release." Christie's, April 22, 2008.
  15. Redmond, Barbara. "French Crown Jewels: Empress Eugenie." A Woman's Paris Blog, September 17, 2010.
  16. Redmond, Barbara. "French Empress Eugenie and Her Diamonds." A Woman's Paris Blog, September 10, 2010.
  17. "Royal Jewels." Illustrated Sydney News, January 6, 1894.
  18. Wikipedia. "Benjamin Raspail." Accessed September 25, 2013.
  19. Wikipedia. "Eugenie de Montijo." Accessed September 25, 2013.
  20. Wikipedia. "Francois-Vincent Raspail." Accessed September 25, 2013.
  21. Wikipedia. "Franco-Prussian War." Accessed September 25, 2013.
  22. Wikipedia. "French Revolution of 1848." Accessed September 25, 2013.
  23. Wikipedia. "Pavillon de Flore." Accessed September 25, 2013.
  24. Woollard, Deidre. "The Louvre Picks Up A Crown Jewel." Luxist. Accessed September 25, 2013.

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