How Do You Reconcile Beauty and Truth? by Barbara Steinberg

How Do You Reconcile Beauty and Truth? by Barbara Steinberg

In 1789, the French Revolution started a political pendulum that swung sharply between Republic and Empire. The 1848 Revolution installed a democratic republic, whose electorate put Prince Louis-Napolèon Bonaparte and his Imperialist party into power. Napolèon III adopted the earlier revolution-motto Liberté, égalité, fraternité, but in 1851, he staged a coup and proclaimed the Second French Empire. Two years later, he married Eugènie de Montijo, who became Her Imperial Majesty The Empress of the French.

She passionately supported papal authority in French politics and was an ardent admirer of Marie Antoinette. Marie loved to attach arch-shaped pendants to her jewelry, but Bapst made Eugènie’s pendants hang. In the legendary Grand Peigne à Pampilles, they draped her chignon and neck, reflecting colors in the natural light of Notre Dame, when she walked down the aisle for her son’s baptism ceremony in 1856.

Bapst placed the Hortensia Diamond at the center of the comb’s tiara above the pendants. At 21.32 carats, the pink-orange diamond from the Indian Golconda mines was one of the most famous in the world.

However, if Eugènie’s diamonds did not come from India, they came from Brazil.

By the mid-18th Century, Minas Gerais province became the world’s largest diamond producer. The Portuguese monarchy monopolized supply to keep prices high. (1) African slaves were worked to death after a few years and fed on a crude diet of beans and jerked beef. (3)

When French troops occupied Portugal from 1807-1808 under Napoleon I, the Portuguese court fled to Brazil, and the French army confiscated the diamonds they left behind and sent them to France. (2)

In 1760, a diamond weighing about 100 carats was found in Minas Gerais (4). It was cut into a 52-carat pear-shaped stone. Napoleon III bought it from Russian Princess Bagration and renamed it the Eugènie Diamond for his bride. She made it the centerpiece of a necklace.
When Napoleon III lost the Franco-Prussian war in 1870, the family fled to England. Short of cash, she sold it.

And I wonder…

How do you reconcile beauty with the industrial death of millions? How do you love the art of Empires without walking around with beauty and politics glued to disconnected compartments? Beautiful jewelry should awaken social awareness, not blind us to it. We cannot keep a moral identity by choosing to see only parts of a picture. We’ve got to assimilate it all. Then a transcendence emerges that frees people to choose the art they love, rather than be bound by historical, ethnic, or racial lines.

Back in France, a failed coup lost royalists their parliamentary majority. Deputies of the Third Republic decided to dismantle and sell the French Crown Jewels. “Without a crown, no need for a king,” said a member of the National Assembly.

Capitalists then bought everything to make other things for rich people, while Republican idealists solidified power and converted the proceeds into government stocks.

Art is often the collateral damage of politics. Jewelry that survives in tact from events like this becomes priceless because truth is stranger than fiction.

At the legendary sale in 1877, Charles Lewis Tiffany was rumored to have walked away with a third of the collection. He bought four of the pendants from the Grand Peigne à Pampilles and sold two of them to banker Junius Spencer Morgan. Morgan left them to his granddaughter Mary Burns, who became the Dowager Viscountess Harcourt.

She had Tiffany & Co. remount them into a necklace. Given what was destroyed, and how many people died to get the materials, the necklace can be described as illegally uninspiring.

Some of the Crown Jewels were preserved for display at the Louvre and the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle. Smaller pieces from Bapst’s Parure de feuilles de groseillier were sold at auction.

But Eugènie’s tasseled diamond bow-knot brooch made by François Kramer in 1855 was bought for Mrs. William B. Astor. It  remained in the private collection of the family for more than a century. When Christie’s listed it in 2008, the Friends of the Louvre obtained a court order to cancel the auction at the last minute. Then François Curiel, president of Christie’s Europe, negotiated the sale to the Louvre with the owner’s consent. The Louvre paid $11 million and brought the brooch back to France, where its magnificence has inspired Stendhal syndrome ever since.

So how do you reconcile beauty and truth?

John and Oscar were discussing just such a matter. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” said John. “The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” replied Oscar.

(1) Lets Corporation, Singapore. Jan. 11, 2010. House Wall: Diamond and Gold Wars: Brazil’s Diamond Fields. “By the mid-18th Century, Brazil overtook India as the world’s largest diamond producer, which also caused a market collapse. Thus, the Portuguese monarchy used political means to restrict output and maintain a high price. They became the first monopoly in the diamond industry.”
(2) Oxford University Press: The Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History, Edited by Joel Mokyr, page 77. “The Napoleonic Campaigns disrupted the diamond trade worldwide, especially after French troops occupied Portugal from 1807 – 1808. The Portuguese court escaped to Brazil in 1807, carrying to Rio the larger part of the diamond stocks deposited in Lisbon. The French Army confiscated and sent to France most of the stones left behind in Portugal.”
(3) Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: Prof. Angus Maddison, The World Economy: a millenial perspective. “At the end of the colonial period, half the population [of Brazil] were slaves. They were worked to death after a few years of service, and fed on a crude diet of beans and jerked beef.”
(4) Esmeraldino Reis: Os Grandes Diamantes Brasileiros, Published by Ministerio da Agricultura, Rio de Janeiro, 1959.  A rough diamond weighing about 100 carats was dug in 1760 from a mine in Minas Gerais. The diamond was then shipped to Lisbon and cut in the Netherlands.