Jewelry & Watches

Christie's is Auctioning Jewels Belonging to Eugénie, the Last Empress of France

The wife of Napoleon III was ultimately exiled to England, but at least she had a pair of 19th-century natural pearl earrings.
IMAGE DESIGNED BY ARIANNA CANELON
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Stolen, smuggled, and sometimes found again, the journey of royal treasures is one of the jewelry world's great fascinations. The French Crown Jewels, in particular, have had a turbulent history. After Napoleon III’s defeat in 1870, the Second Empire was overthrown and the government began to dismantle royal crowns. Some stones were kept on display in Paris museums, but other pieces were auctioned off in a historic—and controversial—sale in May 1887.

Up for auction are a pair of natural pearl earrings and a ruby locket with Napoleon III's hair.

Though personal jewels belonging to French rulers fared better than the Crown Jewels, it's still just as exciting when they emerge at auction. As part of the Important Jewels sale on November 27, Christie's London will offer jewels from the personal collection of Eugénie de Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III and the last empress of France. On the block will be a pair of 19th-century natural pearl earrings and a mid-19th-century ruby and diamond heart locket pendant, which is rumored to contain a lock of her husband's hair.

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A heart locket pendant with circle-cut rubies and old and rose-cut diamonds from the personal collection of Eugenie, the last empress of France.
Photo by COURTESY OF CHRISTIE'S.

Born in Granada, Spain in 1826, Eugénie came to France in 1834 and was educated at the Convent of Sacré Cœur. She met Prince Louis Napoleon (the nephew of that Napoleon) at a reception at Élysée Palace in 1849. They wed in 1853 after he had become Emperor.

In addition to having her pick of the French crown jewels and working with court jewelers like Christophe-Frédéric Bapst, the Empress had an extensive personal jewelry collection and championed designers like Cartier and Boucheron early in their careers. She also had some of the Crown Jewels reset to contemporary designs of her own liking.

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Portrait of Napoleon III who declared himself emperor in 1852, with Empress Eugenie & son Eugene Louis Jean Joseph
Photo by COURTESY OF CHRISTIE'S.

When the empire collapsed in 1870, following France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, Napoleon and Eugenie were exiled to France (he died just three years later.) She left behind the jewels that were paid for by the State but retained some of her personal favorites, like the two pieces being offered at Christie's this month.

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A pair of 19th-century natural pearl earrings belonging to Empress Eugenie

It is the pair of natural pearl earrings that have auction-watchers most excited. Natural pearls, which are created organically inside an oyster, are quite rare and have been almost entirely harvested. Thus, they tend to command multi-million dollar prices at auction: a suite of natural pearls belonging to the Maharaja of Baroda went for $7 million in 2007, and in 2011 a natural pearl known as La Peregrina (which once belonged to Elizabeth Taylor) sold for $11 million. Eugénie's earrings are expected to fetch $66,000-$88,000.

We may never get a glimpse of all the French Crown Jewels that Eugénie would have worn; indeed, all but a few have not been seen in the 142 years since they were sold. But sometimes, Crown Jewels get a second (or third) life: this spring, French police recovered a historic ring, now belonging to Countess Olympia von Arco Zinneberg, that contains a 40-carat diamond from Eugénie's crown, after it was stolen out of a parked car.

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*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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