Home National museum How turquoise replaced emeralds in this royal tiara | Smithsonian Voices

How turquoise replaced emeralds in this royal tiara | Smithsonian Voices


Turquoise makes a stark contrast to the diamonds in this tiara from the 1800s. But the gemstones were actually added in the 1950s, replacing the original emeralds on the tiara.
Chip Clark, edited by MooseJaw Production Company, Smithsonian

The December birthstone, turquoise, comes in many forms, the most notable being the pristine sky blue.

At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, visitors can see pieces of this type of turquoise, called Persian turquoise, in a tiara that once belonged to Napoleon’s second wife, Empress Marie Louise.

“The Marie Louise tiara is one of the few spectacular pieces of jewelry to have survived from this period. It represents this period in history, showcasing the symbolism and role gemstones played in the early 1800s, ”said Jeffrey Post, mineralogist and curator in charge of gems and minerals at the museum. “But the turquoise pieces were actually stragglers on the tiara.”

During the 1950s, jewelers replaced the original emeralds on the tiara with 540 carats of Persian turquoise, turning it into the piece now on display in the museum’s Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals.

“The gemstones in these pieces of jewelry change over time and these changes are part of their history. Generations of people have seen this tiara with turquoise, and now it’s its own story, ”Post said.

It’s raining turquoise


In its natural and gemstone forms, turquoise is blue-green and can be mottled. The mineral is composed of copper and aluminum.


Turquoise is formed when rainwater streams through the veins of rocks near the Earth’s surface. As water moves, it carries copper and phosphate minerals through these veins. The minerals accumulate over time and become a turquoise deposit.

“Water from precipitation fills cracks and crevices on the surface, seeping in and dissolving copper and other minerals in an area,” Post said.

Some turquoises have a gray web, which happens when other minerals build up in deposits with the turquoise. The other turquoise is pure blue because the copper and the phosphates mix without any disturbance.

While types of turquoise have been used as gemstones and ornamental stones since before the ancient Greeks, the type without gray strap has traditionally originated from Persia. At the end of the Middle Ages, it was marketed via Turkey, which earned it its name of “turquoise” from the French word for the country. For Europeans, the sheer, sky-blue appearance of Persian turquoise has become the standard of quality.

But regardless of the type, all turquoise is quite soft compared to other minerals. This made cutting and shaping easier when jewelers decided to replace the gemstones in the Marie Louise tiara.

“Turquoise is hard enough to polish and soft enough to be shaped or cut. One of the reasons jewelers chose the gemstone to replace the emeralds on the tiara is that they could quite easily shape the turquoise to match the settings and holes in the tiara, ”Post said.

Hand story

While the Marie Louise tiara now sparkles with Persian turquoise, it originally contained 79 Colombian emeralds. Napoleon chartered the emerald tiara, along with a necklace, earrings, and comb, in 1810 as a wedding gift.

“It’s an incredible example of the kind of jewelry work that was done in the late 1700s and early 1800s where it would have been done by hand,” Post said. “Pieces like the tiara often involved thousands of hours of labor to make.”

Since then, the necklace and earrings – with the original emeralds intact – have gone to the Louvre. The comb was taken apart for its gemstones, while the tiara was passed down to the family of Empress Marie Louise until they sold it. During its journey, the diadem lost its emeralds and gained 79 Persian turquoises. His 1,006 diamonds remained.


The tiara was part of Napoleon’s wedding gift to Empress Marie Louise. The gift also included an emerald necklace and earrings, pictured above, which can be seen in the Louvre.

Photo by Frédéric SOULOY / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

“The fact that this tiara has been preserved – aside from its removed emeralds and turquoise in place – makes it a great piece of history that shows you the methods and skills it took back then to create something. thing like that, ”Post said.

A portal to the past

Since 1971, the diadem has rested in the National Museum of Natural History. Although its appearance has changed over the centuries, it continues to offer visitors a glimpse of the beauty of the natural world.

“There are very few things we interact with in this world that will be exactly the same a million years from now,” Post said. “But the turquoise and those diamonds will be just as beautiful and shiny as they are today.”

Besides its beauty, the tiara is just as important because of its global history. It is a rare relic of Napoleon’s tumultuous reign. Being exposed allows people to connect with this time in a tangible way.

“A big part of the story of a piece of jewelry is its provenance or history. The fact that it was a gift to the Empress in and of itself makes it important,” Post said. “Looking at the tiara can give visitors a portal to look back into history and imagine what it was like back then.

Related stories:
The story behind the new 8,000-pound quartz at the Smithsonian
The real story behind making pearls
How the world’s largest aquamarine gem was born
Get to know the Guardian of the Hope Diamond