Tuesday, February 12, 2013

French Royal Jewels: The Duchess of Angouleme's Emerald Tiara

The history of this exquisite tiara is almost as complicated as that of its famous owner, the Duchess of Angouleme. It’s value is immense not only because of the exceptional stones used for its creation but also because of the fact it is one of the few pieces of jewellery of the period that remain in their original state – a wonderful example of craftsmanship of the early 19th century.

The Duchess of Angouleme Tiara
This tiara (which is, I must say, one of my single most favourite tiaras ever) was commissioned in 1819 by Louis-Antoine, the Duke of Angouleme for his wife Marie-Therese, the Duchess of Angouleme. The Duchess was the only surviving child of the tragic Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, while her husband was the eldest son of Charles X of France (Louis XVI’s younger brother).

The tiara was created by the famous French jewellers - the Bapst brothers, and is a true triumph of French jewellery craftsmanship of the time. It features a symmetrical design of scrolling foliage mounted with 1,031 diamonds set in silver, and 40 emeralds set in gold. 

Marie-Theresa, Duchess of Angouleme
According to Bernard Morel’s masterpiece “Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France” (Crown Jewels of France), the final work on the tiara was completed in late 1819 or early 1820. The Bapst brothers used 14 of the largest emeralds from the Crown Collection that had remained unmounted during the Napoleon era. 

In 1824, Louis XVIII died and was succeeded by his younger brother who ascended to the Throne as Charles X. The Duke of Angouleme, as his eldest son, became the Dauphin of France while Maria Theresa was now Madame la Dauphine. In 1830, Charles X was forced to abdicate, making Louis Antoine and Maria Theresa King and Queen of France, albeit for a very short time. Just 20 minutes after his accession, Louis XIX formally abdicated in favour of his nephew, upon which he and his Maria Theresa left France to never return again. They settled in Britain before moving to Italy. 

The Duchess of Angouleme  Tiara from he front, side and back. Source: Louvre Museum
Because her tiara was created using Crown Jewels, Maria Theresa felt it rightfully belong to France and not her personally, and so as they went into exile in Britain, she left the tiara behind. When Napoleon III established the Second Empire his wife, Empress Eugenie gained access to the jewels in the treasury. Eugenie was very fond of emerald jewellery because she believed they suited her fair skin and red hair, so unsurprisingly Marie-Therese’s tiara became a firm favourite of hers: the Empress occasionally wore it for formal occasions. 

When the second Empire was overthrown and the Imperial Family had to escape to Britain, they only took their personal jewels with them, leaving the “official” (Crown) jewels behind. The next appearance of the Duchess of Angouleme’s Tiara was in the Paris World Fair of 1878, where it was one of the highlights of the exhibition. Soon afterwards, the tiara was moved to Louvre or display. 
Empress Eugenie
Then for inexplicable (and inexcusable) reasons, the French National Assembly decided to dispose of the Crown Jewels to sever all ties with monarchical past. Despite many protests, the sale was conducted on May 1887. Marie-Theresa’s Tiara was sold to a private buyer but it was almost certainly a British one for the next appearance of the tiara takes place across the la Manche. 

At some point, it was in the possession of the Wartski’s. According to Geoffrey Munn’s “Tiaras: A History of Splendour , the tiara was still in the safe of the firm in 1970s. Munn should know since he's the managing director of the Wartski’s. According to Munn, no one in the firm was aware of the historical value of the tiara at the time: as far as they were concerned, it was just an ordinary tiara of emeralds and diamonds. 

The Duchess of Angouleme Tiara (bottom right) on display in Louvre
Soon, however, everyone found out the significance of the tiara and it was put on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Unfortunately, when a decade later the owner decided to sell the piece, Victoria and Albert Museum was unable to raise sufficient funds to buy it.

The Louvre did manage it, however, and after over a century the Duchess of Angouleme Tiara returned to France; it is now one of the centrepieces of Louvre's French Crown Jewels display. 

Picture and Photo information: Louvre, Geoffrey Munn’s “Tiaras: A History of Splendour”, internetstones.com, Bernard Morel’s “Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France”.


  1. Not a fan of green yet this is very very beautiful tiara, I love how open it seems and like the swirls. Glad to see that some of the French Royal Jewels are back in France where they should be. Would love to just try it on with my red hair, it would go beautifully. Can I please? LOLOLO

    1. I agree with you; French Crown Jewels must in France. I love emeralds so this tiara is my dream come true. And when you think it was created in early 19th century without the benefit of te technology of today (the cutting of stones alone was a tremendously complex process), it's just amazing!

      The tiara would probably look great on you: one of the reasons Empress Eugenie loved jewels with emeralds because she thought they look gorgeous on her red hair. Mind you, if it ever becomes available (we can dream, can't we?), you'll have to wrench it from my hands first. ;)