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Jewels of two empires

Jewels of two empires : an exhibition at Malmaison of jewellery of the First and Second Empires is a poignant as well as an engrossing experience

It is always a pleasure to visit Malmaison, where the principal actors on the stage of the First Empire, Napoleon and Josephine, seem to haunt the rooms, which have been restored to their original State.However, to celebrate the bicentenary of the coronation of Napoleon as emperor at Notre Dame in 1804, Claudette Joannis has added to the chateau’s charms with an exhibition of jewellery and personal souvenirs associated with him and many other personalities from the First and Second Empires.

A collector and authority on French regional jewellery, Mme Joannis has concentrated on displaying pieces chosen not so much for their intrinsic worth but for their personal and sentimental significance. Instead of diamonds, demonstrating imperial glory and grandeur, she shows jet, cut steel, coral and the hair of beloved individuals, living and dead. Thus she evokes the tragedy of General Charles de la Bedoyere (1786-1815), sentenced to death by Louis XVIII for welcoming Napoleon to Grenoble on his escape from Elba, and thereby turning the tide in his favour. The La Bedoyere group includes miniatures of Charles and his wife, Georgine, as well as items he wore on 19 August, 1815 as he faced the firing squad: a watch, a cravat pin containing a lock of Georgine’s hair inscribed with the date of their marriage, 13 November 1813, and a ring, inscribed VALEUR FIDELITE, enclosing some hair of their son. Afterwards, Georgine placed hair cut from his head in a silver locket inscribed PLUS DE BONHEUR QU’AVEC LUI: this she wore every day until her own death, in 1871. As the family was staunchly Bonapartist, in the next generation the Comtesse de La Bedoyere was one of the thirteen ladies in waiting appointed by the Empress Eugenie, who gave her a very fine watch and chatelaine bearing the crowned imperial cipher.