Married to Napoleon III in 1853, Eugnie de Montijo (1826-1920) was the last Empress of France. A woman of great elegance, beauty and charm, she was born in Granada, Spain, was educated at the fashionable convent of the Sacr-Coeur in Paris and contributed immensely to the grandeur of the French court, overcoming her many critics of the time. She was also the leader of European fashion, and together with Charles Worth, developed a whole new range of fashion, which was soon followed by the rest of Europe.
Along with her elegance and splendour, her intelligence was highly regarded. She acted as Regent during her husband's absences from France and was regularly consulted on important questions regarding the welfare of the Empire.
From the beginning of her reign in 1853, Empress Eugenie did much to enhance the reputation of French haute joaillerie, which at that time supplied the whole of Europe. Her love of jewellery being legendary, she had many Crown jewels remounted to suit her personal taste but also ordered some new pieces from the most famous jewellers in Paris.
Her infuence on jewellery has been so important that many of her personal jewels are now referenced as 'Famous jewels': the pearl and diamond crown by Lemmonier, the 'Croix des Andes' emerald pendant, the diamond Sévigné bow brooch by Kramer and, of course, the mythical Parure de feuilles de groseillier, by Bapst.
This magnificent set was commissioned to Alfred Bapst in July 1855 and is still considered one of the most beautiful parures of the 19th Century. Composed of a guirlande (worn as a necklace), a tour-de-corsage (worn directly on the dress) and a devant-de-corsage brooch, its design was inspired by the delicate currant leaves and entirely set with diamonds.
The choice of the famous Parisian firm of Bapst was no surprise. The Bapst family had been Court jewellers for already 200 years at the time, starting with Georges-Michel Bapst, made 'Court Goldsmith' in 1770. Since then, generation after generation, they had been the jewellers of the Royalty and safe keepers of the Crown Jewels. During the Second Empire, Empress Eugenie favoured their very subtle ornaments in the form of foliage from which hung aiguillettes or pampilles: the present brooch being one stunning example of the exceptional quality of Alfred Bapst's designs executed by Frédéric Bapst.
Following the fall of the Second Empire and the advent of the Third Republic in 1870, Empress Eugenie and her husband moved to England. Nearly all of their jewels were sold during a 12-day auction the French government conducted from 12th to 23rd of May 1887, and only a few of them survived in original condition. Several of the larger items were broken up before the auction so the stones could be sold individually. The Parure de feuilles de groseillier was dismantled and sold as different lots. The guirlande was sold as 8 parts in lot no. 11. The present brooch was purchased by Tiffany & Co., who was the largest buyer at this legendary auction.
A few years later, with the advice of famous American jeweller Paul Flato, the brooch was selected by the Metropolitan Opera of New York as a farewell gift to famous opera singer Lucrezia Bori (1887-1960). A Spanish soprano who had sung at La Scala in Milan, Madame Bori made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1910, singing the title role of Puccini's Manon Lescaut. Since then, and for more than 20 years, she appeared 654 times, singing the leading role in 39 operas, also acting as a fundraiser since 1932. Her immense contribution to the Metropolitan Opera and famous portrayals as Mimi in 'La Bohème' or Violetta in 'La Traviata' led her to be the first performer to be elected to the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Opera Association.
On the night of her farewell gala, the 29th of March 1936, the 'Feuilles de groseillier' brooch was presented to Madame Lucrezia Bori by Mrs Vincent Astor, in the name of her colleagues on the Opera board and a large group of friends. Deeply touched by the prolonged cheering and numerous tributes, Madame Lucrezia Bori thanked everyone and said 'My heart is in such turmoil that I do not know how to express the varied emotions I am feeling. I am supremely happy, supremely grateful, and yet supremely sad. Au revoir.'.
A devoted member of the Board of Directors, Madame Lucrezia Bori continued to work actively for the Metropolitan Opera until her death in 1960 and in her will, she bequeathed the brooch to the Metropolitan Opera where it has been exhibited since.