Paris, the City of Love, reports our globetrotting chronicler Ashley Dobson, has never been so invigorated with life’s greatest pleasure than now at the chic Place Vendôme’s Chaumet venue. It’s where sparkling, bejeweled amour reflects the timeless gift of love: jewelry
Marmirolo, July 17, 1796
…Ever since I left you, I have been sad. I am only happy when by your side. Ceaselessly I recall your kisses, your tears, your enchanting jealousy; and the charms of the incomparable Joséphine keep constantly alight a bright and burning flame in my heart and senses. When, free from every worry, from all business, shall I spend all my moments by your side, to have nothing to do but to love you, and to prove it to you? … I thought I loved you some days ago; but, since I saw you, I feel that I love you even a thousand times more…
Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte’s letters to his beloved Joséphine de Beauharnais abound with passion, fervor, and love. But while it’s not uncommon to find romance in letters, it’s rare for a museum to inspire those same feelings.
That’s exactly what jewelry designer Chaumet has done with “Une Éducation Sentimentale,” its latest pop-up exhibition at the Ephemeral Museum in Paris, located within its flagship Place Vendôme store. As Chaumet’s first customer back in 1780, Napoléon put the jewelry designer on the map when he commissioned Chaumet’s founder, Marie-Etienne Nitot, to design a wedding tiara and collar for Joséphine. When Joséphine wore the tiara, it became the status symbol for young brides.
Since that time, Chaumet has created more than 2,500 tiaras and dazzling headpieces. To show off these exquisite creations, the design house has started opening themed pop-up exhibits. While past exhibits have shown off more intricate jewelry work, “Une Éducation Sentimentale” is illustrative of Chaumet’s crowning glory. It’s as if the entire Place Vendôme was designed for this exhibit. Featuring an imposing statue of Napoléon in the center of the luxury shopping square, you have already been transported back to the right era as you walk toward the white Chaumet awnings.
Once inside the museum, you get to feel as though you are royalty yourself, picking out your own tiara for a coronation. You are greeted at the door personally by a member of the Chaumet staff. I was given a personalized tour by an employee who was overjoyed to walk me through the exhibit and to share the story behind each of the lovingly handcrafted pieces on display.
Along with the famous tiara and link necklace that started it all, an impressive collection of other tiaras, ceremonial jewels, and iconic pieces can be found inside the museum. These antique treasures are accompanied by photographs and jewelry design sketches. Napoléon’s love letters to Joséphine are splashed on the walls, themselves painted various shades of red and pink to match the mood of the exhibit.
Though Napoléon and Joséphine are the stars of the show, the exhibit also features six other famous couples through the centuries that have been an integral part of Chaumet’s history. Chaumet assembled the “corbeille de marriage” — wedding gifts meant to symbolize a fiancé’s commitment to his bride – for Felix Yusupov to give to Irina of Russia. This gift included the Polar Star diamond and several nest gems of the 19th century. But their love was star-crossed from the start. She was a niece of Tsar Nicholas II and he helped plot Rasputin’s assassination in 1916. When they left Russia for Paris in 1917 they had to leave behind most of the family jewelry, much of which was commandeered by the Russian state.
In 1911, the Maharaja of India, Tukoji Rao Holkar III, asked Joseph Chaumet to make him a signature piece of jewelry. The jeweler used a pair of diamonds, each weighing 47 carats, to create a necklace for the Maharaja. The Maharaja’s son inherited his sense of style and when he married, the couple became devoted customers of the Parisian jeweler.
French lyrical soprano and actress Yvonne Printemps and director and playwright Sacha Guitry married in 1919. Their creative marriage also collaborated well with Chaumet and together they left a sparkling legacy. Printemps’ favorite gift from Guiltry was an Art Deco bracelet set with a 111-carat emerald cabochon created in 1924. Sixte de Bourbon-Parme, the last Duke of Parma, married French aristocrat Hedwige de La Rochefoucald in 1919. Her parents commissioned the famous Bourbon-Parma tiara from Chaumet to commemorate the occasion.
Australian actor Errol Flynn and French movie star Lili Damita wed in 1935 and, for a time, they were Hollywood’s golden couple. Chaumet created a series of bracelets and a pearl necklace for Damita. Most recently, Chinese actress, singer, and model Angela Yeung—best known by her stage name, “Angelababy”— brought Chaumet’s celebrity status back into the limelight. She wed actor Huang Xiaoming in 2015 while wearing multiple Chaumet pieces. “Angelababy” is often called the “Chinese Kim Kardashian” and she made headlines for drastically outspending her American counterpart on her wedding. Yeung’s extravagant wedding cost about $31 million. Yeung was even allowed to use the original Chaumet tiara and collar – the pieces created for Joséphine – for a wedding photo shoot, which is on display at the museum.
The first section of the exhibit focuses mostly on the origins of Chaumet’s famous link pattern and its celebrity wearers. The first set of links were incorporated in the design of the collar for Joséphine. Links have always been important to Chaumet because they represent two lives coming together as one and the interconnectedness of love. Though the style of the links changes with each collection, the symbolism and importance does not.
As you move to the next section of the exhibit, you walk through a red keyhole-shaped cutout inside a larger heart on a wall – a literal representation of the key to your heart. Inside the hallway, you can hear heartbeats – ba-bum, ba-bum, ba-bum. This section showcases Chaumet’s famous wings. Wings are among the most symbolic of Chaumet’s creations. Hair ornaments, broaches, and collars carrying the motif are immediately eye-catching. According to my museum tour guide, the wings symbolize the fragility of love, the victory of love over destiny, and the ability of spirits to soar on the wings of love.
One of most striking wing pieces on display belonged to American heiress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Vanderbilt Whitney had a “fearless” taste in jewelry. She studied art and loved Chaumet’s wings. She owned multiple pairs of the diamond encrusted broaches. The final section shows off the jewelry designer’s current collection that builds on these same themes. With modern updates to pieces worn by Joséphine, the new Escapade de Chaumet collection was created especially for the exhibition. Instead of crisscross links, these pieces are sculpted to imitate an unravelling ribbon while still interconnecting.
Chaumet designers say that they have always found inspiration in emotion, the greatest of which is love. After exploring this exhibit, it would be hard not to agree. The beauty and the stories behind each piece have the power to turn even the most hardened heart into one full of hopeless romance.
Le Musée Ephémère is open from Monday to Saturday from 10:30 a.m.to 7 p.m. Chaumet Boutique, 12, Place Vendôme, Paris, France The “Une Éducation Sentimentale” exhibit runs until Sept. 24.