La Perle Napoléon - La Régente
'Une perle poire très grosse, forme oef, aplatie en dessous, très bel Orient en dessus'
'A very large pear-shaped pearl, in the form of an egg, flat at the back, very beautiful Orient at the front'
(Description of La Régente from the inventory of the FRench crown jewels, Bernard Morel, Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France, p. 410)
A translated letter dated 21 September 2005 from Bernard Morel, author of the authoritative work Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France (Paris 1988), Honorary Member of the Association Française de Gemmologie, jewellery and precious stone historian:
'On 2 April 1810, Emperor Napoléon I (1769-1821) married Marie-Louise, daughter of Franz I of Austria and niece to Marie-Antoinette. For the occasion, he bought his wife numerous parures with the intention to dazzle all of Europe, thereby considerably adding to the French crown jewels. These parures were all created by the French crown jeweller François-Regnault Nitot and sold to Napoléon prior to 1813 for the total amount of 6,600,000 gold francs. [Gold francs were the old French currency in use up to World War II.] Amongst the collection was a magnificent pearl parure worth 123,429 francs; its tiara was set with 297 pearls weighing 4,097 metric grains, worth 219,547 francs.
The extraordinary central pearl atop the tiara had the shape and dimension of a pigeon egg. It weighed 337 old grains, that is to say 346.27 grains, which made it the biggest natural, regularly shaped pearl on earth. It was bought for only 40,000 gold francs since Nitot had a low-pricing policy for royalty, which assured him great prestige among the richest of Europe. Its purchasing power, however, was the same as about 500,000 euros nowadays. By comparison, 40,000 gold francs was the value of 10kg of pure gold, but the average monthly salary of a worker was 100 gold francs.
Nothing is known about the pearl prior to 28 September 1811, the day Nitot sold it to Napoléon, and it seems likely that it was a recent discovery offered to Nitot on his request to satisfy the needs of his Emperor. Sadly, no portrait of the Empress Marie-Louise wearing the tiara exists to my knowledge.
After the end of the Empire, Louis XVIII (1755-1824) had the crown jewels transformed by Evrard Bapst, then jeweller to the crown. The pearl parure, too, was remodelled and the main pearl was again set in the centre of another tiara, which was delivered to the court on 20 July 1820. Since both Louis XVIII as well as his brother and successor Charles X (1757-1836) were widowers, the royal parures were worn by Marie-Thérèse of France, daughter of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette and wife of the Duke of Angoulême, elder son of Charles X; and also by Marie-Caroline of the Two-Sicilys, wife of the Duke of Berry, second son of the king. Marie-Caroline was the mother of the Count of Chambord, last descendant of the elder Bourbon branch. Again, there exists no portrait of either of the two princesses wearing the tiara.
During the reign of Louis Philippe (1830-1848) the crown jewels were not wornn, but under the Second Empire they were once more displayed in all their glory. On 29 January 1853, Napoléon III (1808-1873) married Eugénie de Montijo, a celebrated beauty. As soon as they were engaged, she had asked to see the crown jewels and started to transform them according to her taste. On this occasion, Gabriel Lemonnier of 25 de la place Vendcome, then jeweller to the court, created a superb pearl and diamond corsage in the style of the 18th century. At its centre shone the splendidly enormous pearl bought by Napoléon I in 1811.
During the Third Republic, the crown jewels were exhibited twice, once during the Exposition Universelle in 1878 and a second time in 1884 at the State Hall of the Louvre for the benefit of the School of Industrial Arts. Here, an octagonal showcase displayed the parures; one of the eight panels was entirely occupied by the pearl parure. In his book accompanying the exhibition, Les Diamants de la Couronne, Louis Enault illustrated the showcase with Eugénie's corsage at the centre right, commenting: "As for the pearl and diamond brooch, it features in the centre a pearl which is thought to be unique in the world..." In the same picture there is also a wonderful tiara created in 1853 by Lemonnier. This was purchased by the von Thurn-und-Taxis family in the sale of the French crown jewels in 1887, which since 1992 has been in the possession of the Louvre Museum.
After years of discussions, the parliament of the Third Republic decided that a major part of the crown jewels were to be sold by public auction between 12 and 23 May 1887 - a disaster for the national collection. Prior to the sale and on demand of the greatest jewellers worldwide, the Administration of State Properties issued a catalogue with illustrations which were far too small. At the request of the jewellers, actual-size photographs of the most important pieces were taken by the photographer Berthaud, amongst them also the famous pearl and diamond corsage, lot 42 in the sale. It was sold for 176,000 gold francs to a Mr. Jacques Rossel.
Jacques Rossel was in fact acting on behalf of Carl Fabergé, jewellers to the Russian Crown, who wanted to exercise discretion. Fabergé had shown the auction catalogue to Prince Nicolas Youssoupov, who was interested in the enormous pearl weighing 337 old grains and wanted to give it to his only daughter Princess Zénaïde. (Her son Felix Youssoupov was to become famous for the assassination of Rasputin.) At that time, the Youssoupov family owned the most fabulous jewellery collection of Russia, second only to that of the Imperial family. No doubt Princess Zénaïde must have been proud of owning a pearl larger than the largest of the Russian crown jewels, which was of a perfect oval egg-shape weighing 308 old grains, and which I named the 'Empress of Russia' pearl.
[Princess Zénaïde used to wear 'La Régente' as a head ornament suspending 'La Pelegrina' pearl and also on a long pearl sautoir.]
The experts of the 1887 catalogue made historical errors, which were denounced at the time by Germain Bapst, successor as crown jewellers, in his book Histoire des Joyaux de la Couronne de France published in 1889. The authorities had probably named our pearl 'La Régente' analogous to the largest diamond in the crown collection [which is known as 'Le Régent', weighing 140.50 carats, now in the Louvre]. Having been told this, Prince Youssoupov himself wrote to the French Administration of State Properties to obtain more information concerning the pearl's name. They had to explain that nothing justified this name since the pearl was bought in 1811 by Napoléon I and that it was described without any name in the inventories as follows: "A very large pear-shaped pearl, in the form of an egg, flat at the back, very beautiful Orient at the front". For this reason I decided to name this pearl in my book 'La Perle Napoléon', which appeared to be so much more justified.
However, I do acknowledge the fact that the name 'La Régente' could be linked to the name 'La Perle Napoléon'. In fact, both empresses were elevated to Regent in the absence of their husbands: Marie-Louise in January 1813 by Napoléon I during his campaign in Germany, and Empress Eugénie by Napoléon III when he was in the front line during the 1870 war.
In the 1887 sale, where Tiffany New York bought many important jewels, Jacques Rossel was only interested in the pearl and diamond corsage. This shows that Fabergé wanted the pearl in particular. It is highly likely that he sold the pearl separately to Prince Youssoupov, using the rest of the corsage for the making of other jewels, since the corsage as a whole was then out of fashion. In any case, Prince Felix Youssoupov presented the magnificent pearl to his bride Princess Irina Alexandrovna, niece of Tsar Nicholas II as a wedding gift in 1914. In 1917, Prince Felix fled Russia, which was under the spell of the Russian Revolution, taking with him part of the Youssoupov treasure including the beautiful 'La Pelegrina' pearl weighing 133.6 grains (sold by Christie's Geneva, 14 May 1987, lot 556). Hoping he would one day return to Russia, Prince Felix had hidden the rest of the Youssoupov jewels including 'La Perle Napoléon' or La Régente' in a wall of his palace at St. Petersburg. Alas, the jewels were discovered by the Bolsheviks! Everything was laid out on a table, photographed and then sold at different times in various places, which have never been disclosed. For this reason, I had no hope of ever finding this pearl when I was finishing my book in 1987.
But what a surprise when in early 1988 I was told that Christie's were selling this pearl in Geneva on 12 May (lot 701) under the name 'La Régente'! On receiving the cataloue I was suspicious of the historical authenticity of this pearl which, at the last minute, led me to add one page entitled "Real or False Perle Napolèon?" to my book Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France. My two objections were its weight (302.68 grains instead of 346.87 grains) and especially its setting, which was obviously a copy of the diamond mount from which it used to be suspended in the corsage of 1887. However, I did acknowledge the fact that the pearl could have been peeled and repolished in the mean time, which would explain the weight difference of 43.59 grains. Moreover, that the flattened back, the lustre and the shape were not incompatible with the description mentioned earlier in the inventories of 1814, 1832 and 1875.
Now that the pearl is being offered at auction again, I was of course contacted by Christie's Geneva. They supplied me with more information, which allows me to claim without any possible doubt that the present pearl is 'La Perle Napoléon' or 'La Regénte'.
Firstly, not knowing when exactly it was sold by the Bolsheviks, it is now proven that the pearl stayed in the same family (who wish to remain anonymous) between 1950 and 1987 when it was sold at auction at Christie's New York (16 June 1987, lot 385). This family must have been completely unaware of the pearl's history, as indeed it was presented in the catalogue without any weight or name, only its Russian origin was mentioned. At the time, the pearl was mounted as a pendant suspended from a delicate tour de cou set with eighteen brilliant-cut coloured diamonds. However, the pendant supporting the pearl is older. It comprised a diamond imperial Russian crown atop four old-cut diamonds. I am convinced that this is the pendant as it was offered by Prince Felix Youssoupov to his wife in 1914, who as a niece of the Tsar, was entitled to wear the Romanov coat of arms.
Secondly, it was the buyer of the sale in 1987 who identified the pearl but unfortunately decided to remount it with a diamond mount similar to the 1853 original before selling it at auction one year later in Geneva. This explains my principal doubt in 1988.
Finally, the Gübelin Gem Lab have recently analysed the pearl and it appears that it has been peeled and repolished as I supposed it had. However, it is not known when this was done: at the time of the Youssoupovs? Between 1950 and 1987? Or even by the 1987 buyer? Indeed, pearls can get dull over time especially if they are in contact with acid sweat. The solution would be to peel off one layer of the nacre, as one would do with an onion, before repolishing it.
There is another historic pearl, which had gone through the same process, namely the famous Peregrina, formerly the property of the King of Spain. Its history reaches back as far as the 16th century and it was bought in 1969 by Richard Burton for Elizabeth Taylor. In 1913, when the pearl belonged to the Marquis of Abercorn, the weight of the pearl decreased from 234 old grains to 203.84 metric grains.
At last, when comparing the pearl, unmounted for the purpose of the present sale, with the life-size image of 1887 one can easily see that it has the same shape and curves despite one millimetre lost in thickness. No doubt is any longer possible.
To conclude, I would like to add that 'La Perle Napoléon' or 'La Regénte' is to this day the biggest known regularly shaped pearl worldwide. In fact, the 'Pearl of Asia', estimated to weigh 2500 grains is a baroque pearl just as is the 'Hope Pearl' of 1800 grains, which is moreover a freshwater pearl. The treasure of Iran possesses a white pearl estimated to weight 600 grains set in a gold flower but it is baroque just as is a pearl without name, weighing 303 grains. With regards to the drop-shaped pearl mentioned by Tavernier as being sold to the Shah of Persia Sofi and weighing 500 grains, it has long since disappeared and does not feature in the treasure of Iran anymore. The only pearl left to compete was the 'Empress of Russia' weighing 308 old grains as mentioned above. However, no one knows what has happened to it: perhaps it was also repolished...'
"As for the pearl and diamond brooch, it features in the centre a pearl which is thought to be unique in the world..."
(Louis Enault commenting on La Régente in his book Les Diamants de la Couronne accompanying the 1884 exhibition.)
Post Lot Text
Christie's would like to thank the renowned historian, Bernard Morel, Roubaix, France for his kind assistance with the research of 'La Perle Napoléon' or La Régente'.