Jewelry Gallery, on view through November 1, 2014


Charles Louis Napoléon (1808-1873) was the third child of a marriage arranged by Napoléon I (1768-1821) between his younger brother Louis (1778-1846) and Hortense de Beauharnais (1783-1836) daughter of Empress Josephine (1763-1814) and her first husband. In 1806 Napoléon made Louis and Hortense, King and Queen of Holland, thus allowing their youngest son the distinction of being the first member of the Bonaparte clan to be born a Royal Prince when he was delivered on April 20, 1808.

After the final collapse of the First Empire following the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, the young Prince followed his estranged parents into exile, living principally with his mother in Arenenberg Castle on the banks of Lake Constance in Switzerland.


The young Prince was politically active and, after the death of Napoléon I’s only son, the Duke of Reichstadt (1811-1832 – briefly proclaimed Napoléon II in 1815), considered himself to be the Imperial heir apparent. On October 30, 1836, he launched an abortive coup in Strasbourg against the government of King Louis Philippe I and was promptly exiled to the United States, returning to Switzerland the following year to attend his dying mother. After her death, he relocated to London from whence he launched his second coup attempt on August 4, 1840 in Boulogne. Louis Philippe’s government took sterner measures on this occasion and Louis Napoléon was sentenced to “perpetual imprisonment at the Fortress of Ham” in Picardy. Six years later he escaped wearing the clothes of a worker named Badinguet. He made his way to London where he became highly visible in both social and political circles.

In February 1848 the tables turned on the man who had had Louis Napoléon incarcerated and it was Louis Philippe’s turn to seek refuge in London having been chased from France by a revolution which resulted in the creation of the Second Republic.


The ambitious scion of the Napoléon dynasty wasted no time in returning to France and was promptly elected to the newly created constituent assembly. After a turbulent and sometimes violent summer, Louis Napoléon became France’s first elected President receiving over 74% of the votes cast.

The constitution of the Second Republic limited the President to one four-year term. Having succeeded in becoming France’s Head of State, Louis Napoléon had no intention of voluntarily relinquishing the post. Frustrated by the Assembly in his efforts to have the constitution revised, the Prince President and a small group of supporters executed a coup d’etat on December 2, 1851 – not coincidentally the anniversary of Napoléon I’s greatest victory, Austerlitz, as well as of his coronation. Although there was some resistance to the suspending of the Assembly, which resulted in some deaths, Frenchmen, in a plebiscite held on December 31st, overwhelming elected Louis Napoléon, President for Life.


After almost a year touring the regions of France, Louis Napoléon returned to Paris in triumph in October. A second plebiscite was scheduled to “re-establish the hereditary Empire under Napoléon III”. Over 7,800,000 voted “oui” with only 253,000 casting ballots marked “non”. On the 2nd of December 1852, Louis Napoléon was officially proclaimed “by the Grace of God and the Will of the People” Napoléon III, Emperor of the French.

Now it remained for the new Emperor to find an Empress. Given the precarious nature of the French throne (of the five previous occupants, one had been beheaded and three had died in exile), there was a distinct lack of interest on the part of Princesses from other reigning houses. So Napoléon III decided to follow his heart and marry for love.

The ultimate object of his affection was an auburn-haired beauty from an aristocratic Spanish family, Maria Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox-Portocarrero de Guzman y Kirkpatrick, 16th Countess of Teba and 15th Marchioness of Ardales known as Eugenie de Montijo after her father succeeded his older brother as the 9th Count of Montijo. The future Empress was born in Granada on May 5, 1826 and had first come to the attention of the then Prince President at a reception which he hosted at the Élysée Palace on April 12, 1849. She was not interested in becoming his mistress and eventually won the crown after the new Emperor’s efforts in other courts were spurned. The two celebrated their marriage mass in great splendor in Notre Dame on January 30, 1853.

Their reign, which would come to an abrupt end after a disastrous war with Prussia in 1870 would mark one of the most prosperous – and glamorous – periods in French history. Huge infrastructure projects, including major railroads, canals and ports, as well as the rebuilding of Paris, created a massive number of jobs, while innovations, such as the creation of the first department stores, provided a burgeoning middle class of new outlets to indulge their growing demand for a broad range of products.

The birth of Napoléon Eugene Louis Jean Joseph, Prince Imperial, on March 16, 1856 assured “continuation of the dynasty” and the Empress’s patronage of the House of Wirth ushered in the age of the crinoline. Eventually the Emperor and the Empress were embraced by their fellow sovereigns, most notably Queen Victoria (who would remain a life-long friend of Eugenie’s).

Things began to unravel starting in the mid 1860’s when Napoléon III’s attempt to establish an Imperial regime in Mexico ended with the Emperor Maximilian (1852-1867) (brother of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph (1832-1916) falling in front of a firing squad after the withdrawal of French troops. Then in 1870, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) manipulated the Imperial government into a disastrous war over the question of the succession to the Spanish throne. The French army was ill prepared and after the Emperor himself was captured at Sedan, the Empress was forced to flee and a Third Republic was proclaimed on September 4th.

The Imperial family resided in exile in England where Napoléon III died on January 9, 1873, after complications from gallstone surgery. His only son, the Prince Imperial, while on patrol in South Africa, was speared to death by Zulu warriors in an ambush on June 1, 1879. In an ironic postscript to the Napoléonic saga, the only Napoléon to die facing the enemy did so in a British uniform.

Image above: Alexandre Marie Colin (1798-1873), Napoléon III, Oil on canvas, 44 ¼ x 33 in.
Inscribed, lower left: A. Colin
The frame is surmounted with the Imperial coat of arms.