Marie Antoinette had several jewel receptacles she used for her trinkets. The ones that were modest in form and size were “covered in leather and lined with satin.” Others that were “monumental [in] proportions.” One monumental one was the armoire à bijoux (jewel cabinet), shown at the right, that is opulent and extraordinary in appearance.
The monumental armoire à bijoux was 8 feet 9 inches high by 6 feet 9 inches wide and 2 feet 2 inches deep. Yet, for its overall size it was probably too small to hold all the Queen’s jewels. The armoire was created in 1787, after the city of Paris commissioned a German cabinetmaker named Jean-Ferdinand-Joseph Schwerdfeger to create it at Marie Antoinette’s request.
Schwerdfeger first appeared in Paris in 1760. By 1786 he was a master in the guild of menuisiers-ébénistes, and, a year later, he received the commission to create the jewel cabinet for the Queen. Of course, patronizing her own countrymen over French artisans did nothing to help shore up Marie Antoinette’s flagging reputation and it likely contributed to further alienating her from the French people.
The cabinet that Schwerdfeger created was a graceful mahogany piece, inlaid and carved. It was also similar to work done by Schwerdfeger’s countryman, Jean-Guillaume Benemann. Benemann had been making furniture for the French court since 1784 but Schwerdfeger’s creations were said to be superior as Benemann’s works were described as “always a little dull and more than a little heavy.”
In this case, Schwerdfeger’s cabinet had “delicate paintings under glass framed in mother-o’pearl which were executed by the miniature-painter, Degault.” The cabinet also showed Pompeian influence, and its gilt figures represented the four seasons having been created by the sculptor, Pierre-Philippe Thomire. The base of the cabinet also rested on “eight eccentric quiversful of arrows, which were then popular as supports for tables, beds, and every sort of furniture.”
Originally delivered to Versailles, at some point, the jewel cabinet made its way to the Tuileries Palace where it remained for a time. This can be ascertained by the sword and pikes abrasions that appear on it. The marks originated during the insurrection of 10 August, after Louis XVI and his family sought protection from the Legislative Assembly and Tuileries was overran by a mob.
For anyone wishing to see this beautiful jewel cabinet, it is presently located in Marie Antoinette’s official bedroom at Versailles. One interesting side note: Next to the jewel cabinet is a hidden and barely discernible door. This was the door through which Marie Antoinette and her ladies escaped on the night of 5/6 October 1789, when the Paris mob stormed Versailles.
- Chisholm, Hugh, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 4, 1910
- Dilke, Lady Emilia Francis Strong, French Furniture and Decoration in the XVIIIth Century, 1901
- Folely, Edwin, The Book of Decorative Furniture, Volume 2, 1912
- “Schwerdfeger, Jean-Ferdinand-Joseph (1734 – 1818), cabinetmaker,” on Oxford Index