Napoleonic Era Jewelry and Fashion

Napoleonic Era Jewelry and Fashion


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A Newly Ordered World

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Above Sculpture

Portrait of Emperor Napoleon I, 1811
Antoine-Denis Chaudet
Marble from Carrara, Italy
Historisches Museum der Pfalz, Speyer (on permanent loan from the town of Kusel)
Photography by Peter Haag-Kirchner, Historisches Museum der Pfalz, Speyer


Napoleon Bonaparte fundamentally changed the political geography of Europe, radically and lastingly transforming the continent’s civic landscape within a very short timespan. 2019 marked the anniversary of his birthday: 250 years have gone by since the birth of the French general, politician and emperor. Like Alexander von Humboldt, who revolutionised people’s view of nature and developed modern, interdisciplinary scientific perspectives, Napoleon, too, significantly contributed to shaping our modern world.


“Napoleon’s personality and farsightedness are still fascinating. In his Code Civil (back then called Code Napoléon), the equality of all people as declared during the French Revolution was codified – at least for the men – and neither the aristocracy nor the clergy were favoured merely due to their social status any longer,” explained Cornelie Holzach, the director of Pforzheim’s Jewelry Museum.


In 2019, the Jewelry Museum  featured two future-oriented personalities. After the “Unconfined horizons – Treasures Retracing Humboldt’s Travel Routes” exhibition about Humboldt, the show entitled “A Newly Ordered World – Treasures from the Napoleonic Era” spotlighted Napoleon’s influence, as well as the jewelry and fashion of his era, which were undergoing major changes.


The 150 exhibits included pieces created by Nitot, Napoleon’s court jewelr, numerous pictures illustrating how Napoleon presented himself and had himself depicted, as well as documents and both utilitarian and luxury items that provided visitors with an impression of his epoch.

Like Alexander von Humboldt, who revolutionised people’s view of nature and developed modern, interdisciplinary scientific perspectives, Napoleon, too, significantly contributed to shaping our modern world.

Empress Josephine in Coronation Costume
Baron François Gérard, 1807/08
Oil on canvas
Musée National du Château de Fontainebleau

Jewelry created in Napoleon’s era

The jewelry of Napoleon’s era was very different from that created before the French Revolution. It was more unobtrusive, but no less precious and all the more valuable. Its formal idiom was reminiscent of the Biedermeier style: delicate and, unlike the pompous Baroque jewelry, sleekly simple and finely crafted, gilded and oftentimes embellished with intaglios and laurel leaves.


Diadems and representative necklaces created some years ago were on show, as well as a golden dinner service and belt reminiscent of the time enhanced with malachite and intaglios fastened at the wearer’s back with silk bands, gathering the fashionable and gently flowing fabric below the bosom.


“The garments worn during the Ancien Régime, comprising breeches and wigs, corsets and crinoline dresses, were entirely unfashionable and no longer wearable after the political change. The beginning of the Directory in 1795 brought about the development of a distinctive, antiquity-driven Parisian fashion.


“Women were now wearing short-sleeved dresses with a high waistline, whose cuts and designs required new types of jewelry. Napoleon was an aficionado of cameos and intaglios in the classical antique style, which in addition to symbolising his imperial aspirations, highlighted the gemstones’ multi-layered structure to perfection,” said co-curator Martina Eberspächer.


Fabrics were often enhanced with a bee motif that, in a sense, was symbolic of turning away from the royalist lily. Another facet is Berlin Iron Jewelry. During the period of the Napoleonic Wars of Liberation from 1813 to 1815, ladies were asked to donate their precious metal jewelry and exchange it for iron jewelry. In line with the motto “I gave gold for iron,” they regarded themselves as patriots of sorts.


“These interrelationships between the arts and crafts and politics can be appositely spotlighted by this exhibition. That’s what I find particularly exciting about it,” said Martina Eberspächer. “We presented an overview of the Napoleonic era, which brought about fundamental societal changes within a relatively short period of 15 years. During these highly dramatic years, it also inspired the creation of superbly crafted objects. In Baden-Württemberg, particularly, whose precursor states were being contoured back then, the Napoleonic era had far-reaching consequences.”

A Newly Ordered World: Treasures from the Napoleonic Era spotlighted Napoleon’s many influences, as well as the jewelry and fashion of his era, which were both undergoing major changes.

Cameo brooch depicting Napoleon
Agate, diamonds, silver, gold
Nicola Morelli, early 19th century
Albion Art Collection

The life and achievements of the French emperor

Born in the Corsican capital, Ajaccio in 1769, Napoleon Buonaparte was a descendant of an Italian family of minor nobility and had seven siblings. Thanks to a scholarship for impoverished students of noble lineage, he was able to attend a military school, where his strategic skills and his will to power soon led to his meteoric rise.


Napoleon knew how to translate his successes on the battlefields into political power and, by marrying Joséphine Beauharnais, a noblewoman who had close links with Parisian high society, he also climbed the social ladder. In 1799, Napoleon overthrew the revolutionary government and became First Consul. In 1804, he published the Code Civil as the first code of civil law in France, which was soon adopted by other states as well, thus translating the Revolution’s central notion of liberty into a legal form that is still valid today. In the same year, he appointed himself emperor and started his wars of expansion.


In 1809, he divorced Joséphine because their marriage remained childless and married the Austrian emperor’s daughter Marie Louise with whom he had his only legitimate son, Napoleon II. In 1812, his Russian Campaign ended in disaster, and a year later he lost the Battle of the Nations near Leipzig.


Napoleon escaped from his exile on the island of Elba, but he suffered a crushing defeat at Waterloo and was banished to the British island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821. The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote: “Napoleon is not made of the wood used to carve kings – he is made of the marble used to make gods.”


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Napoleon as First Consul, Oil on canvas
Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson about 1800
Napoleonmuseum Thurgau

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Sabre of honour with the coat of arms of the Margraviate of Baden
Paris, probably about 1805
Damascene blade, gold, mother of pearl
Badisches Landesmuseum, Karlsruhe
Photography by Thomas Goldschmidt

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Ears of corn tiara
Gold, silver, diamonds
1st half of the 19th century
Private Collection, Courtesy of Albion Art
Jewelry Institute, Tokyo

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Portrait cameo depicting Napoleon I and Empress Marie-Louise
Rom, about 1810
Albion Art Collection

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Relief portrait of Louise Caroline of Baden, née Hochberg
Philipp Jacob Scheffauer
Stuttgart, about 1805
Original in the Badisches Landesmuseum, Karlsruhe
Photography by Thomas Goldschmidt

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Cradle in the Empire style
Mahogany, metal, silk taffeta
Badisches Landesmuseum, Karlsruhe
Photography by Thomas Goldschmidt

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Cameo tiara belonging to the Swedish royal family
Amsterdam, 1989
Diamantmuseum Amsterdam

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Toilet set that belonged to the Grand Duchess Stephanie of Baden
Martin-Guillaume Biennais
Paris, 1811–12
Silver, gold, enamel, glass
Badisches Landesmuseum, Karlsruhe
Photography by Thomas Goldschmidt

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Jewel casket for Empress Marie Louise
Leather on wooden carcase, velvet and red leather
lining, a mirror on the underside of the lid, brass
Deutsches Ledermuseum, German Leather Museum
Photography by DLM, M. Özkilinc

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Moonstone set of jewellery that belonged to Hortense Bonaparte, Queen of Holland
Opal, opal glass, silver, gilt silver
Napoleonmuseum Thurgau