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Chaumet – Joséphine & Napoléon: An (Extra)Ordinary Story

A close up photo of the program for the Chaumet exhibition Joséphine & Napoléon: Une Histoire (Extra)Ordinaire. The booklet is blue with green writing.

I used to think that it was possible to know about everything that there is to experience in Paris. However, I have long since given up that notion, because it is simply not possible. There’s just too much to discover, too many museums to explore, too many exhibitions and shows to experience. And the best part is that you never know what you’ll hear about next. For example, I recently came across a link for an exhibition about Joséphine and Napoléon at the Maison Chaumet. At the time, I wasn’t entirely sure what the Maison Chaumet was, but entry was free, so I signed up anyway. Turns out, this exhibition is the perfect example of how this city will never stop surprising me. But first, what exactly is the Maison Chaumet?

Jewellers to Royalty and Empires

The Maison Chaumet was founded in 1780 by Marie-Étienne Nitot. He was an apprentice to the jeweller for Marie-Antionette at the court of Versailles, before moving to Paris and starting his own high end jewelry house. Miraculously, Nitot’s association with the royal family did not lead him to the guillotine during the French Revolution, and in 1802, he was appointed official jeweller of Napoléon Bonaparte. In 1805, Nitot became the official jeweller of Empress Joséphine as well, a job he held until his death in 1809.

Nitot designed hundreds of pieces for the Imperial couple, including the jewelry for their wedding. As Joséphine’s official jeweller, he designed countless tiaras, necklaces, and crowns. He also famously designed the coronation crown and ceremonial sword worn by Napoléon during his coronation as Emperor of the French on December 2nd, 1804. This unprecedented occasion was presided over by Pope Pius VII, and as a thank you, Napoléon later asked Nitot to create the infamous Napoléon Tiara as a gift to the Pope. This lavishly decorated papal tiara was deliberately designed to be too small and too heavy (it weighed over 18 pounds!) to be comfortably worn on a human head. Needless to say, it was presented to the Pope as a not so thinly veiled insult.

After his death, Nitot left his business to his son, François Regnault, who ran the company until 1815. The maison then changed hands several times before finally coming under the leadership of Joseph Chaumet in 1885. In 1907, the Maison Chaumet opened a boutique and workshop at 12 Place Vendome in the first arrondissement of Paris. Today, both the name and location remain, and the Maison Chaumet continues to produce high end jewelry and watches.

Joséphine & Napoléon at Chaumet

As previously mentioned, this year marks the 200th anniversary of Napoléon’s death. As such, there have been numerous retrospectives and exhibitions throughout the city in honour of this occasion. However, what intrigued me about this particular presentation was the fact that it focused on Napoléon and Joséphine as a couple. The exhibition was divided into five sections, each showcasing pieces from the different periods of their relationship. And it wasn’t just jewelry that was on display. There was artwork and historical artefacts, including original copies of both their marriage and divorce certificates. There even was a lock of Napoléon’s hair. Because why not?

However, what I loved the most was how the exhibition focused on Joséphine’s legacy, and not just her husband’s. As Empress, she was enormously influential in the high society of the First French Empire. She set social and fashion trends, and was not afraid of carving her own path. Joséphine and Napoléon never had any children, but both of Joséphine’s children from her first marriage married into European royal families. As a result, Joséphine is a direct ancestor of the current heads of the royal houses of Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, and Luxembourg. Jewelry that was created by Marie-Étienne Nitot over 200 years ago is still worn by royalty today.

An Extraordinary Maison

Unfortunately, I was not allowed to bring my camera into the exhibition, so you will just have to trust me when I say that the rooms it was housed in were just as impressive as the pieces on display. Stunningly beautiful, in fact. I later learned that the Maison Chaumet at 12 Place Vendome recently underwent a complete restoration, making my visit all the more special. I don’t know how often these rooms are open to the public, but I know that I am extraordinarily lucky to have had the chance to see them in person.

Joséphine & Napoléon: An (Extra)Ordinary Story is open at the Maison Chaumet until July 18th. If you find yourself in Paris in the next couple of weeks, I highly recommend a visit. And if not, don’t worry. There are countless other experiences just like this one waiting for you. That’s the magic of Paris.

Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.


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