Chaumet's Empress Joséphine collection

A few years back, Chaumet, had a novel idea of putting a tiara on women’s fingers. “Who wouldn’t want to be a princess?” said Claire Dévé- Rakoff, the House’s Artistic Director, the last time we met. For Chaumet, with its rich history as a purveyor of many European crown jewels, creating tiaras, diadems or aigrettes is an integral part of the brand’s history that dates back to the late 18th century. For its latest high jewellery collection, Chaumet once again chose to celebrate its dalliance with the Empress Joséphine.

Joséphine de Beauharnais married Napoléon Bonaparte in 1796. It was his first marriage and her second. Their passionate affair is famed as one of the greatest in history, well-documented through the letters they exchanged during many of his quests. A society lady, Joséphine was famous for her hedonistic lifestyle. In Napoléon, a mere military official during the reign of the House of Bourbon, she saw the true potential of a great leader. Through her own political connections, the flamboyant socialite brought Napoléon to fame. And the rest, as they say,is history.

Chaumet's Empress Joséphine collection

“They were born only eight years apart, yet the vast difference between the bourgeoisie life of Marie Antoinette and empress Joséphine’s modern reign is evident,” says Jean-Marc Mansvelt, Chaumet’s new Chief Executive Officer. “Joséphine was more contemporary in how differently she lived. She was in tune with what was happening in the world as much as she was with nature. An incredible character, she was also in contact with the poor, ready to extend her hand.” Nonetheless, it was her romantic side that became the source of inspiration for Chaumet’s latest high jewellery Joséphine collection.

On a sunny July day this year, Chaumet invited a select group of journalists to witness firsthand its Joséphine orThe Art of Style high jewellery collection—to the place where it all began, Paris. The day started on a high note, literally, as we went on a 30-minute helicopter ride to Château de Fontainebleau. One of France’s largest royal châteaux, this breathtakingly expansive estate once housed French monarchs from Louis VII to Napoleon III.

Chaumet's Empress Joséphine collection

Chaumet had especially planned this tour during after-hours, so a lot of the meticulous detailing in some of the important chambers came to my notice. In Napoléon’s throne room, where the Kings’ apartment used to be situated, the famous bee emblem, the French symbol of immortality and resurrection, is to be found all around. This symbol of French sovereignty finds itself at the heart of Chaumet’s Attrape-moi… si tu m’aimes and Bee my love collections, while the floral motifs in the jacquard panels in Empress Joséphine’s official bedroom runs as a visual leitmotif through Chaumet’s Hortensia collection. It serves as a reminder of the Empress’ penchant for gardening. (Joséphine’s daughter was also called Hortense, after the hydrangea.)

As a highlight of the tour, Chaumet brought us to a little-known chamber that only recently opened post refurbishment: The Boudoir Turc de Joséphine, the Empress’ secret refuge from the imperial life.
Restored to its former glory, the Boudoir Turc, is named as such for its Ottoman-style accoutrements. The room is visible from behind a glass panel that separates the bedroom from its antechamber, its gold panellings and crystal adornments sparkling in the soft candle light. Chaumet’s tour guide referred to this as “a rare glimpse of Empress Joséphine’s jewellery chest”—which was an apt summary of this awe-inspiring vision.

Chaumet's Empress Joséphine collection

My Fontainebleau journey concluded at the garden, where delectable canapés and a smorgasbord of cheese and dessert were being served.The picturesque field was filled with activities to amuse:There was a croquet corner, a florist weaving garlands,an illustrator who drew on request and a harpist playing classical music, as the evening air filled with the sweet scent of summer flowers.The setting did indeed add to the “royal” treatment I was enjoying.

With newfound knowledge and impressions of the Empress, the anticipation of seeing Chaumet’s new high jewellery collection was at a fevered pitch. And I was not disappointed with the 45-pieced Joséphine or The Art of Style collection, comprising four main ranges: The Rondes de Nuit, Aigrette Impériale, Éclat Floral and Aube Printanière.

Rondes de Nuit boasts a platinum suite of ring, earrings and a necklace with diamonds in a variety of cuts. The diamonds are set such that they appear as if they are floating on the wearer’s skin. The in-between-finger ring, in particular, was designed with the love Napoléon and Joséphine shared in mind; it came to represent two seemingly separate beings who are staunchly joined by an unseen connection.

Chaumet's Empress Joséphine collection

The creations in the Aigrette Impériale range took the shape of the tufted crest or head-plumes of a headdress and called to mind the turbaned Ottoman Sultans that I saw in the Boudoir Turc at Château de Fontainebleau.

Meanwhile, cushion-cut sapphires from Madagascar; emeralds from Colombia; and sapphires from Ceylon, among others, in the Éclat Floral range continue the crowned fingers motif of the collection, while the designs in the Aube Printanière range can be likened in their simplicity to the morning dew on the flowers of Empress Joséphine’s garden.

Whether it’s through romance, fashion or passion, the essense of Empress Joséphine runs saliently through this high jewellery collection. “History is the most crucial to the House, for sure. We have been around for 235 years, [and so] we have to pick and choose and make our piece of history interesting and relevant for the people of today,” explains Mansvelt.“I think it is also the question of how do you connect the story [of Empress Joséphine] to make it a source of inspiration. Joséphine was the bridge between 18th and 19th century, and just like her, Chaumet brings the past to modernity.”

On my way out of the Chaumet house at 12 Place Vendôme, where the collection was unveiled, I passed Chaumet historian Beatrice Plinval in the foyer. Recalling our pleasant chat on French history from my visit the last time, I waved to her and she waved back before getting back to pruning the flower bouquet on display—just as how Empress Joséphine would have done all those centuries ago.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Harper’s BAZAAR.

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