High jeweller Chaumet reveals its soul amid the splendour of Beijing’s Palace Museum with a glittering exhibition charting its illustrious 237 years of history, Charlene Co writes
The jewelled sword worn by Napoléon Bonaparte when he was crowned emperor of France in 1804 stands resplendent in an unlikely location at present— Beijing’s Forbidden City— on its first trip ever out of France. Adorned with the French crown jewels, including a magnificent 140-carat diamond from India’s Golconda mine, it is just one of 300 historic items on display until July 2 in Chaumet’s Imperial Splendours exhibition at the Palace Museum. The Consular Sword, also known as Napoléon I’s Coronation Sword, is displayed against an 1806 painting of the emperor in his coronation robes.
The exhibition, brought together by Henri Loyrette, who was president of the Louvre for 12 years and director of the Musée d’orsay for two decades, and Béatrice de Plinval, curator of Chaumet’s museum and archives for close to 40 years, spans the history of the jewellery house from the latter part of the 18th century into the 21st century. It features both heritage and recent high jewellery pieces from the luxury maison, sketches and portraits of the house’s most iconic and prominent clients from its 237-year history, and items belonging to the Palace Museum.
When discussions began about staging a heritage exhibition for Chaumet, De Plinval consulted Loyrette. “He told me that there are only two places in the world we should consider for such an important exhibition: the Musée du Louvre in Paris, because of the richness of its archives and Chaumet’s strong ties to the French monarch, and the Forbidden City—the Palace Museum—in Beijing, the cradle of Chinese civilisation,” De Plinval says. Chaumet set its sights on the Palace Museum, which was the imperial palace of the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties from 1368 to 1912. Today, it is where the treasures of the ancient Chinese imperial families are preserved.
It took five years to bring the Imperial Splendours exhibition from idea to reality. “To even be considered to exhibit at the Palace Museum, you have to have the heritage, which Chaumet has,” says De Plinval. “But apart from that, there were other political and diplomatic matters to consider. When we finally got the approval of the Palace Museum, then began the arduous process of negotiating the terms of the loans with museums and private collectors. It was not easy, but then again, great things never are.”
Ultimately, 17 museums—including the Louvre, the Napoléon I Museum of the Chateau of Fontainebleau, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Museum of the Palace of Compiègne, and the National Museum of the Chateaux of Malmaison and Bois-préau—and 45 private collectors agreed to loan exceptional pieces for this exhibition, many of them leaving France or going on public view for the first time. The precious pieces are displayed alongside a selection of exquisite jewellery, crafts and ornaments belonging to the Palace Museum, setting up a dialogue between Chinese and French jewellery and decorative arts.
“We worked very closely with Monsieur Loyrette in selecting the pieces that went into this exhibition,” says De Plinval. “Through the pieces, we wanted to show Chaumet’s history and how it was associated with the golden age of decorative arts, and as well the birth of high jewellery. Chaumet was created at the end of the 18th century and before the French Revolution, and its founder, Marieétienne Nitot, was the personal jeweller of Marie Antoinette. The French Revolution virtually destroyed Paris. Under Napoléon and Joséphine, Paris had to start all over again, and the house of Chaumet was part of this crucial time in France’s history.”
The exhibition begins with a prelude highlighting milestones of Chaumet’s history from 1780 to 2017 through 12 emblematic pieces—from its oldest creation (a memorial box for the Marquise de Lawoestine, 1789) to a contemporary Joséphine ring. This magnificent spread segues to the first section of the exhibition, where the evolution of styles accompanies the history of France and the succession of political regimes. The major creations of the imperial and royal courts—from the Consulate to the Second Empire—are presented, as are the illustrious figures who commissioned them: Napoléon I, who handpicked Nitot to amplify his symbols of power; the Empress Joséphine, whose love of jewellery is reflected in ceremonial parures adorned with pearls and diamonds; and the Empress Marie-louise, the instigator of neoclassical jewellery’s golden age.
The second section evokes the maison’s opening onto an increasingly cosmopolitan world, and the definition of a style that reflects the Parisian taste and spirit. An interplay of different eras is presented here, focusing on four of the themes dear to Chaumet: the art of the necklace; the poetry of nature; an ode to flora and fauna; and sentimental jewels, from the bowknot to the liens motif and the art of the diadem.
The exhibition culminates with the unveiling of the Vertiges diadem, or “the 21st century diadem,” which is the result of a jewellery design competition initiated by Chaumet at Central Saint Martins, a constituent college of the University of the Arts London. The diadem is a fitting end, because as much as the exhibition is a homage to Chaumet’s rich heritage, it is also about what the future holds for the maison.
“For close to four decades, I have enriched, developed and protected the heritage of Chaumet,” De Plinval says. “Personally, I feel that this project is the culmination of all the work and love I have poured into this maison over all those years. And for Chaumet, this exhibition demonstrates that the tradition of excellence continues, and with the wealth of expertise and history it holds, there’s so much more to achieve.”