Friday, 19 August 2011

La Régente: La Perle Napoléon

La Régente Pearl
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The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:
Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it. ~ (Matt. XIII: 45, 46)

This stomacher or sévigné containing the remounted La Régente pearl at its centre was part of the French Crown Jewels
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References to the sea-born pearl are not only found in the Bible. The princely pearl - long-since affiliated with chastity, beauty and unblemished purity - has been valued in many cultures throughout the passages and pages of history and mentioned in literature pre-dating that of the New Testament. In Hindu literature, for example, the pearl is frequently associated with Krishna - the eighth incarnation of Vishnu - possibly the most popular and beloved god of Hindu worship. One Hindu legend tells of how Krishna drew the pearl from the depths of the sea to adorn Pandaïa, his daughter, on her wedding day. Many ancient Chinese writers credited pearls as originating in the brain of the fabled dragon; as such, pearls were believed to possess special powers and were utilized as amulets or charms against natural disasters such as fires, for instance. And as it is described according to the Qur'an, the Arabs believed that the very stones of Paradise itself are made of pearls and jacinths; the trees are hung with fruits of pearls and emeralds; and each blessed person admitted into the joys of Paradise is provided with a tent of pearls, jacinths and emeralds. 

Possessing pearl resources in rich abundance, the natives of India and Persia found both beauty and value in pearls; they were among the first peoples to collect them in great quantities (since ancient times, the Persian Gulf as well as the Indian Ocean have been rich in pearl-fisheries). In China, pearls were highly esteemed gifts and were often given as tribute by foreign princes to the Emperor. (Source: Kunz, G.F., & Stevenson, C.H., The Book of The Pearl, 1993)

Peculiarly evocative of Oriental luxury and magnificence, the allure of the pearl is that, being totally organic and non-mineral in origin, pearls are perfected by nature and found whole; unlike crystal gems, therefore, pearls are the only gems that require no enhancement by the hand of man. As a complete gem, the value of pearls is directly connected to and dependent upon size, weight, rarity, colour and, most captivating of all, lustre. It is a pearl's lustre that has enchanted men and women throughout the centuries and fueled the desires of connoisseurs in their search for perfect specimens. But of all the qualities sought in a pearl, perhaps the single most beguiling and irresistible attraction for the pearl-hunter/lover is the emotional response or affinity a person experiences in connection with the beauty of pearls - it is an attraction that compels the individual to want to possess them. That value - and visceral reaction - is exponentially enhanced and magnified when a particular pearl or gem has a significant historical - and especially a royal - provenance attached to it. In that context, 'La Peregrina' and its counterpart, 'La Régente' (also known as 'La Perle Napoléon'), are undoubtedly two of the most celebrated pearls.

Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria and Empress of France
(Painting by Robert Jacques François Faust Lefevre ~ 1814)
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The oldest of seven children and daughter of François II (1768-1835), Emperor of Austria, Marie-Louise (1791-1847) was the second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor of France and the niece of the beheaded former queen of France, Marie-Antoinette. In 1810, shortly after his divorce from Josephine and at the height of his power but also for political reasons as well, Napoleon, at the age of forty, was anxious to found a Bonapartean dynasty. For his bride, Napoleon chose to wed the eighteen-year-old Marie-Louise (by proxy in the church of St. Augustine, Vienna, on March 11th and again, in person, on April 2nd in Paris) who was fluent in French and had an affinity for art and music. In celebration of the occasion, Napoleon bought his new bride numerous parures (matching sets of jewellery), the intention of which was to dazzle all of Europe and, thereby, adding to the Crown Jewels of France. These parures were all commissioned from and created by François-Regnault Nitot (1779-1853), the court jeweller, and sold to Napoleon prior to 1813 for the amount of 6,600,000 gold francs (gold francs being the old French currency in use until the onset of World War II). (Sources: Morel, B., Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France, [1988], 2011;, 2009;, 2011)

Amongst this collection of matching jewel-sets was a magnificent parure of pearls worth 123,429 francs, which included a tiara - set with 297 pearls - with, at its centre, a perfect drop-shaped natural saltwater pearl weighing 337 old grains - the size, shape and dimension of a pigeon's egg - making it the biggest natural, regularly-shaped pearl on earth: La Régente. For the La Régente pearl alone, Nitot charged Napoleon only 40,000 gold francs (about 500,000 euros today), or the equivalent of 10kg of pure gold. Nitot sold the pearl to Napoleon, who acquired it on  September 28th, 1811. A shrewd business man who knew the value of marketing, by offering a low-pricing policy to royalty - thus garnering royal patronage - Nitot ensured not only his own prestige among European nobility and the wealthy, fashionable elite, but, more importantly, generated business among them. (There is no known portrait of Marie-Louise wearing the tiara in existence and nothing is known about the pearl prior to its sale in September 1811.)
(Source: Morel, B., Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France, [1988],, 2011)

Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France, Duchesse d'Angoulême
(Painting by Alexandre-François Caminade ~ 1827)
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After Napoleon was exiled and replaced by Louis XVIII (1755-1824) as King of France in 1814 (a period referred to as the First Restoration; when Napoleon again seized power in March of 1815 and once more was ousted and replaced by the return of Louis XVIII to power, that second reign is known as the Second Restoration), the new king ordered Evrard Bapst, the Crown Jeweller at that time, to remodel the crown jewels. La Régente, along with the remainder of the pearl parure of which it was a part, was set into the centre of a new  tiara  which was dilevered to the king on July 20th, 1820. However, since both Louis XVIII as well as his brother and successor Charles X (1757-1836) were widowers, the newly-transformed parures were worn by their niece, Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France (1778-1851), Duchesse d'Angoulême and surviving daughter of the hapless Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.  (Marie-Thérèse had married her cousin, the Duc d'Angoulême, elder son of Charles X, thus becoming Madame la Duchesse d'Angoulême.) The tiara was also worn by Marie-Thérèse's sister-in-law, Marie-Caroline Ferdinande Louise de Bourbon, Princesse des Deux-Siciles (1798-1870), Duchesse de Berry, wife of Charles Ferdinande, Duc de Berry, second son of Charles X. As with Empress Marie-Louise, there are no known portraits of the two princesses wearing the tiara. (Source: Morel, B., Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France [1988],, 2011)

Marie-Caroline Ferdinande Louise de Bourbon, Duchesse de Berry 
(Painting by Thomas Lawrence ~ 1825)
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During the next reign, that of Louis-Philippe (1830-1848; born in 1773 and died in 1840), King of the French, the Crown Jewels were not worn until the dawn of the Third Republic. In 1853, La Régente pearl found its way into the possession of another empress - that of Eugénia de Montijo de Guzmán, the Spanish consort of Nappoleon III.
(Sources:, 2011; Morel, B., Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France [1988],, 2011)

Eugénia María Ignace Augustine de Montijo de Guzmán, Empress of France
(Painting by Franz-Xavier Winterhalter ~ 1853)
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Eugénia María Ignace Augustine de Montijo de Guzmán (1826-1920), a celebrated beauty in her day, was the daughter of a Spanish nobleman who had fought on the side of the French during Napoleon I’s Peninsular War with Spain. Eugénia arrived in Paris in December 1848, during the time when Louis-Napoléon (1808-1873) - as he was then known until 1852 - was vying for votes for the presidential office of the Second Republic of France (1850-1852). They were married on January 29th, 1853, after Louis-Napoléon had ascended the throne as Emperor Napoleon III (reigned from 1852-1870).
(Source:, 2011)

A lover of jewellery and fashion, Eugénie (as her Frenchified name became known) asked for the Crown Jewels and immediately set about transforming them according to her own taste. (As Empress of France and at the height of her power in the mid-19th century,  Eugénie naturally set the taste of fashion; it is in her role as a trendsetter that she almost single-handedly raised the rank of pearls to the heights of fashion, making them popular and fashionable again: she appeared in Winterhalter portraits bedecked in ropes and diadems of pearls and diamonds.)  On this occasion, Gabriel Lemonnier of 25 Place Vendôme, then Imperial Jeweller to the new court, was called upon to create a superb pearl and diamond corsage in a style that harked back to the18th-Century, at the centre of which shone the enormous - and newly-adapted and remounted - La Régente pearl, originally purchased by Napoleon I for Marie-Louise, the last Empress of France, in 1811. (Source: Morel, B., Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France [1988],, 2011)

Grand Pearl Diadem of the French Crown Jewels
Eugénie's tiara created by the Crown Jeweller, Lemonnier, using the Napoleonic pearls
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During the Third Republic, the Crown Jewels of France were exhibited only twice: once during the Exposition Universelle in 1878 and a second time, in 1884, at the State Hall of the Louvre in 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 the middle of which sat Eugénie's diamond-and-pearl corsage. In the same showcase, there was also a fabulous tiara (see above photo) - also created in 1853 by Lemonnier using the Napoleonic pearls - which was eventually purchased by the von Thurn-und-Taxis family in the sale of the French Crown Jewels in 1887. (Since 1992 the tiara has been in the possession of the Louvre Museum.) (Source: Morel, B., Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France [1988],, 2011)

Close-up of Winterhalter's portrait of Empress Eugénie wearing the Grand Pearl Diadem

Although no one knows with any certainty the origin of the pearl's name, La Régente or La Perle Napoléon, it is believed to be due to the fact that two Napoleonic empresses were elevated to the rank of Regent during their consorts' absence: Empress Marie-Louise's elevation to Regent by Napoleon Bonaparte during his absence while campaigning in Germany in January 1813; similarly, Empress Eugénie was also appointed regent by Napoleon III when he was in the front line during the Franco-German War of 1870. At any rate, in 1887, a disaster befell the French Crown Jewels: by parliamentary decision of the Third Republic and for eleven days, between May the 12th and the 23rd, a public auction sale - Vente des Diamants de la Couronne - was held in which some of France's national treasures were sold to the highest bidders and were scattered to the four corners of the world. (Source: Morel, B., Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France [1988],, 2011)

Portrait of Princess Zénaïde Youssoupov
(Painting by Valentin Serov)

Prior to the sale and by demand from some of the most prominent and prestigious jewel firms in the world, the Administration of State Properties issued a catalogue; but the catalogue illustrations were found to be far too small and therefore, inadequate. At the request of the jewellers, actual-size photographs of the most important pieces in the collection were taken by the photographer Berthaud. Included in the sale and amongst Berthaud's photographs was Empress Eugénie's famous pearl and diamond corsage -  lot number 42. It was sold for 176,000 gold francs to a Frenchman, M. Jacques Rossel. For the sake of discretion, Jacques Rossel was in fact acting on behalf of Peter Carl Fabergé, Imperial court jeweller to the Tsar and the Imperial Family of Russia, the Romanovs. Fabergé had shown the auction catalogue to Prince Nicholas Youssoupov, a member of the wealthiest and most aristocratic families in Russia, who was interested in the enormous La Régente pearl; Prince Nicholas wanted to give it to his only daughter, the exquisitely beautiful Princess Zénaïde (1861-1939). (Princess Zénaïde's younger son, Prince Felix Youssoupov, would become famous for the notorious role he played in the assassination of Gregory Efimovich Rasputin on the night of December 16th-17th, 1916, in St. Petersburg.) (Source: Morel, B., Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France [1988],, 2011)

Portrait of Princess Zénaïde Youssoupov With Her Two Sons At Arkhangelskoe
(Painting by François Flameng ~ 1894)
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At that time, in addition to numerous palatial estates throughout Russia, each amassed with artworks, objets d'art and other invaluable treasures beyond compare, the Youssoupov family owned the most fabulous privately-owned jewellery collection in all of Russia; the Youssoupov jewels were rivalled only by those of the Romanovs. Having inherited the historic La Régente, Princess Zénaïde must have been proud of owning a pearl larger than the largest one in the Russian Crown Jewels: although of a perfect oval egg-shape, the 'Empress of Russia,' as the Russian pearl was named, weighed a sizable 308 old grains but it was still smaller than the La Régente (which was 337 old grains or 346.87 new grains).
(Source: Morel, B., Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France [1988],, 2011)

Princess Zénaïde Youssoupov

Princess Zénaïde, finding La Régente too large to wear as a brooch, was in the habit of wearing it as a head ornament, counter-balanced by another  extraordinary and historically important  pearl, 'La Pellegrina' (not to be confused with the 'La Peregrina' pearl), hung from a rope of pearls, just above her forehead.  Zénaïde also wore La Régente suspended as a pendant at the end of a long pearl sautoir necklace around her neck, sometimes diagonally across her bosom.

But Fabergé was not the only jeweller of note at the 1887 sale; the firm of Louis Comfort Tiffany, New York, also acquired many important jewels. However, Jacques Rossel, representing Fabergé at the auction, was only interested in Empress Eugénie's pearl-and-diamond corsage. This indicates that Fabergé may have been primarily after the La Régente pearl. While there is no record or account of what became of the pearl's former setting, the pearl-and-diamond corsage, after Fabergé had acquired it, it is believed that since the overall style of the corsage was out of fashion by then and having sold the pearl separately to Prince Nicholas Youssoupov, Fabergé used the rest of the stones and pearls for the fabrication of other jewellery. (Source: Morel, B., Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France [1988],, 2011)

Princess Zénaïde Youssoupov wearing the magnificent La Régente on a long pearl sautoir
(Painting by François Flameng ~ 1894)
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Learn from yon orient shell to love thy foe,
And store with pearls the wound that brings thee woe.” ~ Hafiz (Persian poet)

From Zénaïde Youssoupov, La Régente entered the turbulent 20th Century through her younger and only surviving son, Prince Felix Youssoupov, who presented the magnificent pearl to his own bride as a wedding gift in 1914: Princess Irina Alexandrovna, niece of Tsar Nicholas II. In the latter part of 1917, Russia was in the throes of revolutionary turmoil as the Red Terror swept through the country; drunken soldiers plundered properties, looted possessions and murdered estate owners without secondary thought or remorse. To save his own life and the lives of his wife and their young daughter, Prince Felix fled St. Petersburg for the Crimea - where the Youssoupovs had an estate - taking with him only a minute fraction of the Youssoupov treasure (mostly jewellery and a few paintings), including the beautiful 'La Pellegrina' pearl weighing 133.6 grains (sold by Christie's Geneva on May 14th, 1987, lot no. 556). When Felix, Irina and their daughter, also named Irina (known as Bebé in the family), finally fled Revolutionary Russia for good on April 11th, 1919, aboard the British dreadnought HMS Marlborough, they did so from Yalta, on the north coast of the Black Sea, along with the last surviving members of the Romanov clan.  Felix and Irina at first settled in London (where Felix had a house since his days at Oxford University, before the Great War, at 15 Parkside Street, overlooking Hyde Park) and then in Paris; as with most refugees, they believed their exile to be only a temporary displacement. And so, like many of their fellow White Russian exiles, the Youssoupovs always longed for the day when they would be able to finally return to Russia and reclaim their possessions. (Sources: Morel, B., Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France [1988],, 2011; King, G., The Man Who Killed Rasputin, 1995)

With that thought present in his mind and before leaving Russia just ahead of the advancing Red Army, Prince Felix took the precaution, in 1917, of concealing many of the Youssoupovs' prized heirlooms in the basement of his St. Petersburg residence, the Moika Palace (the same palace where Rasputin had been murdered), as well as in the walls of one of the five Youssoupov mansions situated around Moscow: Felix divided his mother's and his wife's jewels and stored some of the cache in one of a number of secret rooms of the Moika Palace in St. Petersburg; the rest were hidden at the Moscow residence. Deposited in the Moika Palace rooms were forty-seven thousand items that ranged the spectrum from paintings, musical instruments, snuffboxes, coins, tapestries, silver, antiques, weapons and, of course, jewels. The stash of jewels walled up in the Moscow palace remained concealed; until, that is, their discovery in 1925 when the Soviet government began a restoration project of the Moscow house. In his determination to outwit the Bolsheviks and preserve his family's priceless heirlooms, Felix had built a false wall beneath the main staircase, thereby enclosing what had once been a cloakroom. For years, the Bolsheviks had searched the house for hidden treasure but to no avail - until an acquaintance of Felix's disclosed the fact that there had once been a room below the staircase. Here at last, in the secret room, the Bolsheviks discovered a veritable Aladdin's trove: 255 diamond brooches; 42 bracelets; 13 tiaras and 462 pounds of assorted objet d'arts, among which were gold dinnerware and some very fine examples from the Fabergé workshop. It was in one of these troves - uncovered in either the Moika Palace or the Moscow mansion - that the superb La Régente pearl came to light. (Source: King, G., The Man Who Killed Rasputin, 1995)

The treasures uncovered by the Bolshevik Regime were laid out on a table and photographed; then the contents were sold at different times and in various cities, including Paris, London and Berlin. For this very reason, the prospect of ever finding the La Régente pearl again was next to nil. (Sources: King, G., The Man Who Killed Rasputin, 1995; Morel, B., Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France [1988],, 2011)

Prince Felix & Princess Irina Youssoupov of Russia
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No one knows exactly when the famous La Régente pearl was sold by the Bolsheviks; all that is known with any amount of certainty is that between the years 1950 and 1987, the pearl remained in the possession of one family (who wish to remain anonymous). On June 16th, 1987, the family decided to auction the La Régente at Christie's New York (lot no. 385). There is every indication that this same family was completely unaware of the pearl's legacy and its fabulous history (this is deduced from the fact that the pearl was presented anonymously in the auction catalogue without any mention of its weight or name; only its Russian origin was acknowledged). At the time, the pearl was mounted as a pendant suspended from a delicate tour de cou (choker) set with eighteen brilliant-cut coloured diamonds. However, the pendant supporting the pearl was older and comprised of a diamond Russian Imperial Crown atop four old-cut diamonds. It is likely that this is the very same pendant as it was offered by Prince Felix Youssoupov to his bride in 1914, who, as the only Russian niece of the Tsar, had every right and entitlement to wear the Romanov coat of arms.

Less than one year later, on May 12th, 1988, La Régente came up for auction once more at Christie's in Geneva (lot no. 701); at this sale, the pearl was sold for the first time under the name 'La Régente.' There was some doubt, among historians, as to the authenticity of the pearl's origin. The foremost objection being the pearl's weight (302.68 new grains instead of 346.87 new grains [337 old grains] - a weight difference of 43.59 grains).  The  pearl, after analysis at the Gübelin Gem Lab, (headquartered in Lucerne, Switzerland), appeared to have been peeled and re-polished although it is unknown when exactly this was done. (Pearls can lose their lustre and become dull over time, especially if they are exposed to acidic sweat through regular contact with skin. The solution would be to peel off one layer of the nacre, as one would do with an onion, before re-polishing it, which may explain the diminished weight of La Régente.) The other objection was the pearl's setting, which appeared to be an obvious copy of the diamond mount from which it used to be suspended from the 1887 corsage of Empress Eugénie. Nonetheless, the flattened back, the lustre and the shape were very much compatible with earlier descriptions of the pearl as noted in the inventories of 1814, 1832 and 1875.
(Source: Morel, B., Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France [1988],, 2011)

Princess Irina Youssoupov, niece of Tsar Nicholas II 
(Painting by Zinaida Serebriakova ~ 1925)
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Allotted number 354, La Régente was put up for auction yet again on November 16th, 2005, at Christie's Magnificent Jewels (Sale 1331, Hotel Richemond, Geneva). With an estimated value of between $532,062 and $836,097; La Régente actually realized $2,483,968, exceeding all expectations. (Source:, 2011)

La Regénte or 'La Perle Napoléon' - as it is also referred to - remains to this day the biggest known regularly shaped pearl in the world. There are other beautiful pearls of note, but none surpass La Regénte in size, shape or weight. The 'Pearl of Asia,' (estimated to weigh 2,500 grains) is, in fact, a baroque (irregularly shaped) pearl - as is the 'Hope Pearl' of 1,800 grains, which is, moreover, a freshwater pearl. There exists in Iran a white pearl, set in a gold flower, estimated to weigh 600 grains but it is also baroque just as is another pearl without name, weighing 303 grains. With regards to the drop-shaped Shah Sofi pearl of Iran, discovered in the 17th Century and mentioned by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier - one of the most celebrated travellers of the 17th Century who pioneered trade with India and is especially famous for his connection with the notorious and mythical 'Hope Diamond' - as being sold to the Shah of Persia and weighing 500 grains, it has long since disappeared and no longer features in the treasure of Iran. The only pearl left to compete with La Regénte is the 'Empress of Russia' pearl, weighing 308 old grains as noted earlier. However, no one presently knows its whereabouts. (Source: Morel, B., Les Joyaux de la Couronne de France [1988],, 2011)

The La Régente pearl as it appeared in the pearl-and-diamond corsage of Empress Eugénie ~1887
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Heaven-born and cradled in deep blue sea, it is the purest of gems and the most precious.” ~ S. M. Zwemer

Suggested reading:

The Book of The Pearl (1993), by George Frederick Kunz & Charles Hugh Stevenson: Dover Publications, Inc.

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