Chaumet: Jeweler of Royals and Romance
To examine the history of Chaumet one must also take into consideration one of France’s most prominent historical periods, the reign of Napoléon Bonaparte, to whom Chaumet had been appointed official court jeweler. Though the association with Napoleon might have given prominence to the French jewelry house, the relationship was a symbiotic one, where Chaumet’s jewelry, in turn, helped to capture and epitomize the stately grandeur of Napoleon’s powerful empire, and thus enhance the Emperor’s allure. This standing secured a place for Chaumet among French nobility, and the House’s reputation was therefore solidified in French society. Today, Chaumet remains one of the oldest jewelry houses in Europe—a testament to the quality of its fine jewelry and watch market.
Of Lords and Ladies . . . and Emperors
Marie-Étienne Nitot was the original founder of Chaumet. Born in Paris in 1750, Nitot realized his calling when he apprenticed under the tutelage of Aubert, official court jeweler to King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette. By 1780 he was ready for his own venture, and consequently opened “La Bijouterie Nitot” in Paris. There, he distinguished himself quickly, and attracted the attention of many aristocrats, including his first patron, Joséphine de Beauhamais.
Over time, Nitot increased his clientele of noblemen and courtiers until the advent of the French Revolution in 1789, when, owing to the upheaval that followed, the elite classes fell into disfavor and the lavish Bourbon monarchy was abolished. After the Reign of Terror, France underwent diverse periods of governance and subsequent unrest, and like other artists and artisans who made a name serving the nobility, the jewelers of the time languished. A decade later, Napoleon assumed control of France by means of a coup d'état upon the Directory and promptly installed the Consulate. With Napoleon’s ascent to power, it wasn’t long before Nitot reached his own pinnacle, having earned the patronage of the First Consul. As a result, Nitot and his son, François-Regnault, were named official jewelers of the crown, and remained so through the Napoleonic periods of the Consulate (1799-1804) as well as the Empire (1804-1814).
In 1796, two days before the commencement of his Italian military campaign, Napoleon married Nitot’s long-time patron, Josephine. During their marriage, he was known to lavish her with extravagant jewelry and tiaras, some created by Nitot & Fils (Napoleon’s favorite), and some from other Parisian jewelers. One model of Nitot’s that stands apart from the rest is the impressive Cameo Tiara, given to Josephine in 1809 as part of a cameo parure (a set of three or more matching pieces). A beautifully feminine construction, the crown, like its companion pieces (earrings, necklace, and brooch), is made of red gold and set with seven carved portrait cameos, the center of which depicts the mythological Cupid and Psyche. The gold filigree is fashioned into scrolling foliage and flora, inside of which sit numerous pearls—larger ones for the flowers, which mimic hydrangeas, and smaller, seed pearls for the leaves. The larger pearls also frame the cameos and rim the base of the crown. This eye-catching tiara was worn by Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria during her wedding to Prince Daniel in 2010, and by Victoria’s own mother at her wedding in 1976, proving that while Empress Josephine possessed innumerable tiaras and diadems, this headdress is most enduring.
In 1802, Nitot & Fils was appointed to create Napoleon’s Consular Sword, into the hilt of which the legendary 140.64-carat Regent Diamond was set. Later, when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, Nitot & Fils transferred the diamond to the pommel of his coronation sword. This particular sword comprised part of the Emperor’s imperial regalia, which Napoleon had restored or recreated, including a chain, ring, orb, hand of justice, scepter, Crown of Charlemagne, golden crown of laurel leaves, and ermine-lined robe. To get a sense of the splendor of the event, one must glimpse the painting The Crowing of Josephine, produced by Jacques-Louis David, who was commissioned to capture the moment in history. The grandeur it evokes (Napoleon’s goal, after all) was most notable in the formality, including the sumptuous clothing and the numerous tiaras adorning the heads of the ladies, tiaras which had been produced by many eminent jewelers of the time, likely including Nitot.
When Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine dissolved in 1810 (as required by law since no issue had been born of their union), Napoleon married Austrian princess Marie-Louise. In celebration of this marriage, Napoleon placed an order with François-Regnault for two magnificent parures. One parure consisted of a stunning eight-piece ruby and diamond set, including a pair of earrings, a necklace, a pair of bracelets, a belt, a diadem, a hair comb, and an impressive coronet, later labeled the Chaumet Crown. In total, the set contained close to 400 rubies and more than 6,000 diamonds. The other parure was comprised largely of emeralds and diamonds, and included a comb, belt clasp, earrings, an elaborately crafted necklace, and a resplendent diadem comprised of 22 large emeralds, 57 small emeralds, 66 rose-cut diamonds, and 1,002 brilliants. The framework on the diadem alone reveals an exquisite craftsmanship that was unparalleled at the time. (It is unfortunate that the emeralds in this particular diadem were later removed by Van Cleef & Arpels for re-setting in other pieces and replaced with turquoise. The refurbished diadem now resides in the Smithsonian Institution). Both parures were furnished to Marie-Louise in January of 1811. In March of that same year, Marie-Louise gave birth to a son and heir, and Napoleon commissioned a beautiful 275-carat diamond briolette necklace for her as a gift. The necklace was so costly, it equaled the annual household budget of the Empress (over 370,000 French francs).
During his time in power, Napoleon sought to reinstate France’s Royal Treasury, obtaining what remained of the French crown jewels following their disappearance during the Revolution. Some of these jewels, including the Regent Diamond, served as collateral to finance Napoleon’s Revolutionary army. More importantly, in procuring these crown jewels, and also augmenting them with new commissions befitting a royal court, Napoleon was bolstering the authority and the regality of his regime. At the same time, Napoleon helped to restore France to its place as a forerunner in fashion and jewelry, one which had lagged during the Revolution. His patronage to the arts, aimed at artists, musicians, and builders, spawned a revival in those areas as well. For jewelers like Nitot, not only did Napoleon’s attention help to revive the trade, even more it set standards, especially for high jewelry, as Nitot’s artistry and unflagging focus on quality distinguished him from all others, and made him one of the most famous jewelers of the time in Europe.
From Nitot to Chaumet
Indeed, the patronage of Napoleon Bonaparte catapulted Nitot’s firm into heights of achievement Marie-Étienne likely never imagined. His son and successor auspiciously possessed the talents of his father, and when Marie-Étienne died in 1809, François Regnault continued the tradition of serving Napoleon and building on the company’s reputation. He had already been responsible for the creation of many of Napoleon’s commissioned pieces prior to that period, and continued in the same vein, designing for Napoleon and his second wife, Marie-Louise until 1815. When the Empire fell in 1815 and Napoleon was exiled from France, François Regnault sold the jewelry house to his foreman, Jean Baptiste Fossin. For much of the 19th century, Fossin and his son, Jules, produced work that reflected the Romanticism of the age, inspired in part by the Italian Renaissance and a change from the noble Neoclassicism of the Napoleonic era, which aimed to echo Ancient Greek and Roman principles, architecture, and specifically Roman Republicanism. Fossin & Fils manufactured jewelry in the same vein as Nitot & Fils, and comparisons were made to them and the masters of the Renaissance. They produced for the elite as well as the crown, including King Louis XVIII and his brother, Charles X, who succeeded Louis in 1824. Jewels were purchased from them by such notables as Duchess de Berri, wife of King Louis’ nephew, the infamous Princess Bagration, a loyal customer, and relations of Napoleon I, including Napoleon III. In 1848, another revolution ensued in France. Incidentally, it was the same year Jean Baptiste Fossin died. Business slowed for Jules Fossin during this period owing to unpaid commissions and bad debt, leading him to establish a boutique and workshop in London, which was managed by Jean-Valentin Morel, and assisted by his son Prosper. Just as Fossin & Fils and their successors had done in France, Morel & Cie produced for an equally elite clientele in London, including Queen Victoria who granted them a Royal Warrant as official court supplier. This standing did much to secure their popularity, as did their attendance at the World’s Fair in 1851, where the firm displayed works that had invoked the enameling tradition of earlier periods, such as that which can be seen in later pieces like the bloodstone chatelaine watch produced in 1850, and the Duchess de Luynes pendant watch of 1853.
In 1854, Prosper Morel returned to Paris overseeing production of pieces, such as the lovely Pansy Tiara crafted in 1860 (the same year Jean-Valentin Morel died), which was fashioned to be divided up into three brooches, and other sumptuous jewelry created for the high fashion world in which Paris had regained its fashion foothold.
In 1885, Joseph Chaumet, a talented jeweler from Bordeaux, married Prosper’s daughter, Marie, and Prosper relocated to the countryside of France. Over time, Prosper slowly permitted his son-in-law greater charge of the firm, and once Chaumet had proven himself, Prosper named him his successor, thus enabling him to rename the company after himself, a name that still stands today. For his part, Chaumet was regaled for his skill in crafting beautiful tiaras, still a high fashion accessory for royals and aristocrats as an emblem of wealth and status in what was known historically as the Belle Époque, or Golden Age. Production in this period amounted to over 1,500 different models, his skill evidenced in the beautiful lines and scrollwork inspired by nature. His firm also produced many beautiful watches, and jewelry such as brooches, often inspired by bows and garlands. His extraordinary skill led him to an assignment to the Russian Imperial Order in 1900. Then in 1907, he moved the workshop and boutique to 12 Place Vendôme, where it stands today as company headquarters. This was followed by the opening of the Fifth Avenue boutique in New York in 1910. In 1911, Chaumet purchased a pair of pear-cut diamonds for the maharaja of Indore, who became a loyal customer. He also mounted the hilt of a sword for the maharaja of Cooch Behar with diamonds, rubies, and pearls, as well as a diamond and emerald crown. Earlier he had sold a diamond necklace to the Shah of Persia, demonstrating the growing Eastern interest in Chaumet’s talent.
Though the restrictions of World War I made it difficult to maintain the clientele and the level of production the firm had maintained, Chaumet still outperformed. When he died in 1928, his son Marcel assumed control of the firm, and with the approach of the Modern Age, adapted his styles to meet the interest of fashionable women who were embracing the newer, unconventional styles of the era. Art Deco was all the rage, as were geometric shapes, and Chaumet was bustling to keep up with demand.
When the Wall Street Crash of 1929 ensued, the firm was deeply affected. The firm closed in 1934, partly due to the global ramifications of the Great Depression and the subsequent onset of World War II. When the war had ended, Chaumet re-opened and slowly rebuilt its clientele. In 1958, Marcel appointed his sons, Jacques and Pierre, executive directors. By 1970, they acquired, Breguet, a legendary Swiss watchmaking company known for the development and subsequent patent of the tourbillion mechanism, which helped to improve timepiece accuracy by thwarting the effects of gravity in a watch escapement. This partnership helped position Chaumet as a high-end horologist. As for jewelry, once again the unconventional was in during this period, and it wasn’t uncommon to see precious stones paired with semi-precious gems, rocks (turquoise, for example), and organic stones (like amber and coral), and an insurgence of yellow gold. A number of important parures were produced during this period. Incidentally, in 1972, the Louvre entrusted Chaumet with the task of resetting the infamous Sancy diamond.
In the 1980s, René Morin, Chaumet’s artistic director since 1962, looked for a resurgence in precious objects, such as the bull’s head he carved from lapis lazuli, but his focus largely rested on earrings and rings during this period. Then in 1987, Jacques and Pierre Chaumet filed for bankruptcy (for a debt of 1.4 billion francs) due to major losses in their diamond resale business; however, they were later convicted of fraud and related illegal banking activities. In 1991, they were sentenced to five years in prison, but as a result of the appeals process, saw their sentences reduced to six months, which had been served.
At the time of the bankruptcy, Chaumet was bought by Investcorp (an investment banking company in Bahrain). By 1998 the company was earning a profit, and in 1999, LVMH purchased the firm. In an effort to spur growth, the company penetrated the Asian market (which remains a strong market for Chaumet today), and expanded their watch and jewelry brands, with the acquisition of some notable names such as TAG Heuer, Montres Christian Dior, and DeBeers, among others. They also expanded into the fragrance market.
Indeed Chaumet was, and still remains, a profitable entity, owing to the talent and direction of its many holders. Marie-Étienne Nitot initiated that early success on account of his extraordinary craftsmanship and fixation on excellence, and set the benchmark for others in the trade. Nonetheless, he owed a debt of gratitude to one of history’s most enigmatic leaders, who as the consummate romantic, showered his loves with gifts of sumptuous extravagance, offerings that in many instances Nitot & Fils aptly produced, and which still exist at least for posterity (if not for all the fine jewelry lovers out there) in the archives of history—in paintings, photography, and museums. In doing so, Napoleon helped to boost Nitot’s commissions and reputation, and placed him among royalty and the nobility. Still, credit must be given to Chaumet’s founder, for accomplishing what he had, largely through talent, innovativeness, and foresight, in creating a company that well over two centuries later, after suffering political revolutions, war, financial hardship, and financial scandal, still stands the test of time.