A set of rare early 19th-century tiaras which are thought to have once belonged to Napoleon’s wife Joséphine de Beauharnais, Empress of France, are set to go on sale at Sotheby’s in Geneva.

The two tiaras – each part of a parure – are set with gemstones engraved with classical heads, several of which are possibly ancient, and were believed to endow the wearer with their various depicted qualities such as heroism, faithfulness and love. 

Made in Paris, 1808, Sotheby’s describes them as “embodying the fascination with neoclassical design that reached it’s zenith under Bonaparte’s régime”. 

The set are said to come from a ‘UK private collection’ where they have remained for ‘at least 150 years’ and are expected to fetch £200,000- 300,000 and £100,000-200,000 respectively in Sotheby’s London Treasures sale in December.

A gold, cameo and enamel diadem by Jacques-Amboise Oliveras from circa 1808 with five oval hardstone cameos depicting Zeus, Dionysus (probably 18th century), Medusa, Pan and Gaia (probably late 16th century) estimated to sell for £100,000-£200,000

A gold, cameo and enamel diadem by Jacques-Amboise Oliveras from circa 1808 with five oval hardstone cameos depicting Zeus, Dionysus (probably 18th century), Medusa, Pan and Gaia (probably late 16th century) estimated to sell for £100,000-£200,000

Renowned for their lavish entertainment and appetite for grandeur and luxury, Napoléon and Joséphine’s patronage of the arts was intrinsic to the establishment of design during the regime and provided a much needed impetus to the luxury industries and jewellery workshops following the French Revolution and its aftermath. 

In just six years, Joséphine spent an impressive sum of over 25 million francs on jewellery and clothes, far exceeding her designated allowance. 

Joséphine understood the value of her public image, using her clothes and jewels to evoke the ideals of the ancient world, and linking it with the current Empire to enhance the prestige of her husband’s regime. 

The tiaras’ style reflects the fact that after the French Revolution, Napoléon had sought to legitimise his new government by resurrecting historical and cultural references to ancient Rome, even choosing to stud his coronation crown 2 with a large number of ancient portrait cameos. 

A set of rare early 19th-century tiaras which are thought to have once belonged to Napoleon's wife Joséphine de Beauharnais, Empress of France, are set to go on sale at Sotheby's in Geneva. Pictured: A Carnelian, enamel and gold diadem, circa 1808, some glyptics possibly Ancient estimated at £200,000 - £300,000

A set of rare early 19th-century tiaras which are thought to have once belonged to Napoleon’s wife Joséphine de Beauharnais, Empress of France, are set to go on sale at Sotheby’s in Geneva. Pictured: A Carnelian, enamel and gold diadem, circa 1808, some glyptics possibly Ancient estimated at £200,000 – £300,000

A similar parure is held in the collection of the Swedish Royal family, inherited through Joséphine’s son, Eugène Rose de Beauharnais, Duke of Leuchtenberg.

In just six years, Joséphine spent an impressive sum of over 25 million francs on jewellery and clothes, far exceeding her designated allowance

In just six years, Joséphine spent an impressive sum of over 25 million francs on jewellery and clothes, far exceeding her designated allowance

 His daughter, Joséphine of Leuchtenberg, brought numerous jewels into the Swedish Royal family when she married the future King Oscar I in 1823.

The items can be seen at the Mandarin Oriental in Geneva by those who are interested.

According to Joséphine’s lady in waiting, Mademoiselle Avrillion, who was in charge of her jewellery, her greatest pleasure when at her home, Château de Malmaison, was to sit at a table with her ladies beside a fire, and show them the cameos she was wearing that day. 

The inventories of Joséphine’s jewels drawn up in 1804 and after her death in 1814 list numerous examples of her cameo and intaglio jewellery, though unfortunately provide few precise details of the contents. 

The sale includes a selection of further pieces which are thought to have once belonged to Joséphine de Beauharnais. 

A pair of pendent earrings, each set with a single intaglio and similarly decorated; a hair comb, and a belt ornament, the centre set with a carnelian cameo of Bacchus. In the original fitted case they are offered as part of the tiara set

A pair of pendent earrings set with a single intaglio, each one similarly decorated; a hair-comb and a belt ornament, with the centre set with a Bacchus carnelian cameo. They are included in the tiara set as part of the original fitted case.

Kristian Spofforth, Head of Sotheby’s Jewels department said: ‘These majestic jewels mounted with cameos and intaglios certainly evoke the style of the grand Empress Joséphine – her rank as wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, her impeccable taste and her interest in the classical world. 

‘Empress Joséphine was much more than just a collector of antiquities. She was the first to incorporate these intaglios and cameos into her gown, and she wore them side-by-side with pearls and diamonds. This fashion revolutionized Paris and the rest of the world. 

“The jewels featured here are the result of delicate work by the finest French workshops. There are few comparable pieces today.” The survival of jewellery was made possible by the breaking up and re-modelling of fashion jewellery.  

A belt ornament, circa 1808

A belt ornament, circa 1808

Napoleon and Joséphine’s interest in the arts, design and gem engraving

Napoleon was also fondly familiar with gem engraving, as he had already been a patron of this noble art. 

Images of the Imperial couple were created in many cameos with classic Roman motifs such as laurel leaf crown, crown, and cloak. 

Napoléon’s interest culminated in founding a school in Paris to instruct on their engraving and, from 1805, extending the Prix de Rome (hitherto reserved for painters, sculptors and architects) to engravers too. 

Joséphine herself possessed an extensive and well curated collection of antiquities. 

Advised by Dominique-Vivant Denon, Director of the Musée Napoleon, she learnt to distinguish between the various hardstones used, to appreciate the virtuoso engraving techniques, and to recognise the gods and heroes of mythology, successive Roman Emperors and Empresses, and the significance of the scenes depicted. 

She would choose cameos from her collection to mount into jewellery or into other items in her closet, such as her green velvet riding coat that was reportedly secured with an ornamental gold belt. 

This type of jewellery was popular in Paris during the Consulate & Empire, when there was a shift in collective taste towards classical simplicity and rejection of the previous century’s love for elaborate embellishment. 

The ideal female beauty was to be like the ancient Greek sculptures, in all their simplicity and avoid any fashion that might distract.