Peter Finer

A French Louis XVI Dress Smallsword and Scabbard, Mounted in Gold, Diamonds and Enamel, Paris, c. 1784

Item Ref: 2099 Price on application

2099 25
2099 21
2099 20


The Princes Hohenzollern
Dietrich Stürken collection

France, Paris. Gold, steel, enamel, diamonds, wood, fishskin.

Pierre Jarlier, Répertoire d’arquebusiers et de fourbisseurs français, together with 2e supplement,  Saint-Julien-du-Sault 1976, p.123, and 1981, p.31
Patrick Lamoureux “Les armes de luxe”, in La Manufacture d’armes de Versailles et Nicolas Noël Boutet, Musée Lambinet, Paris 1993; see pp. 170,   172-3, nos. 83 and 84 for Napoleon’s épée du Sacre
A.V.B. Norman, The Rapier and Small-Sword 1460-1820, London 1980; see p.340 for Charles X’s sword
Dietrich Stürken, “Swords of Honour”, Bulletin of the Portuguese Academy of Antique Arms, vol. 2, no. I, May 2001

The final decades of the French ancien régime were renowned for the material excesses of the nobility, luxuriating within the salons of Paris and about the environs of the royal court at Versailles. By the cultural standards embodied there, this sword is an exemplary achievement of great elegance and genteel taste. The solid gold construction of the hilt and scabbard mounts was, in the late 18th century, a rare level of luxury: a level in fact, reserved for the swords of honoured persons of national importance, foreign dignitaries bearing important treaties, members of the royal family, or the extremely rich. The addition in this instance of an unsparing yet tasteful quantity of diamonds, set off to their full against enamels, further elevates this sword to ownership by a man without pressing material concerns of any description.

A design survives for a sword hilt intended for Louis XVI, made in 1784 by the Parisian goldsmith Pierre- Alexandre Bretet, and set with jewels by Georges-Frédéric Bapst. Unfortunately the sword itself was stolen from the Royal Gardes Meubles in the burglary of the crown jewels in 1792. A later member of the Bapst family, also Frédéric, made the silver-hilted épée à clavier set with diamonds which was used by Charles X at his coronation in 1824. 

In terms of its rare opulence and implicit prestige, the present sword may even also be compared with the ceremonial sword, the so-called épée du Sacre, made for Napoleon Bonaparte by the virtuoso goldsmith Nicolas Noël Boutet. Similar to ours, the hilt of Napoleon’s sword was also of solid gold, as one would expect, and inset with forty-two diamonds. Unlike our sword, the hilt of this example is decorated in the neoclassical taste, an art-historical movement which followed the abrupt ending of the earlier royalist period to which our sword belongs. Napoleon wore it both as Premier Consul and as l’Empereur; the sword is clearly shown in his portrait painted by Robert Lefève, now preserved in the Musée national du Château de Versailles. Napoleon’s épée du Sacre itself is in the Musée national du Château de Fontainebleu.

Regrettably few French pre-Revolutionary makers of Parisian gold and silver sword hilts have been identified, and it is thought that many among them were jewellers specialising in gold boxes, étuis and trinkets for the super-rich, making sword hilts to special order; one such is Joseph-Étienne Blerzy. The late A.V.B. Norman, the authority on decorated swords of the period, has suggested that the majority of these hilts were in fact made by the fourbisseurs (sword cutlers) whose Corporation had obtained the rights for them to make gold and silver hilts in 1627, on the condition that the precious metals were purchased from goldsmiths.  

The conjoined signature of the two fourbisseurs etched on the blade of this magnificent sword includes the address of their place of business and reads:


The sword cutlers, monsieur Bougues & Etienne Giverne, are each first recorded working in Paris separately, Giverne from 1745, and subsequently in partnership. For the period 1774-77 they are recorded as marchandfourbisseur to two companies of the mousquetaires du roy. The present lengthened version of Bougues’s signature was introduced following the marriage of his daughter Catherine Geneviève Bougues, to Etienne Giverne on 8th January 1751. To judge from the style of the blade and the hilt on which it is mounted, Bougues & Giverne must have continued making blades into the 1780’s.  

Within the elaborate gilt decoration on the blade there are brief and somewhat corrupt Latin inscriptions etched repeatedly, alluding to gentlemanly conduct, one obscure, and reading:


and another:


(sic, for spernit humilia virtus, “worth spurns lowly things”).

 The inscription etched at the base of the blade in addition to the maker’s signature reads: 


 this is in effect a trade mark inscription present on other Parisian blades of the period.

 By repute, our sword has a significant connection with France exists through the Swabian line of the Hohenzollerns. Amalie Zephyrin von Salm-Kyrburg, Princess zu Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (1760-1841), was married to Prince Anton Aloys zu Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (1762-1831). Princess Amalie lived in Paris from 1786 until her death. Between early March to the end of July 1794 she gave protection to Eugène and Hortense de Beauharnais, the children Joséphine, Vicomtesse de Beauharnais, following the imprisonment of both parents during the “Reign of Terror”. The children’s father was guillotined on 23rd July, Joséphine was saved by the fall of Robespierre and the ending of “The Terror”. Joséphine subsequently became first the mistress of Napoleon Bonaparte and then his wife in March 1796. Hortense in turn married Louis Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon and became the maternal grandmother of the Emperor Napoleon III. For her great service it seems entirely possible that the Princess Amalie would receive a fitting gift of recognition. It is therefore quite plausible that this is the sword of the executed Vicomte de Beauharnais, and by extension an iconic artefact of the Napoleonic line.

At some date within the 19th century the sword was returned to France, and the French gold import marked accordingly on the hilt. The sword was then re-exported to Germany, presumably following the death of Princess Amalie in Paris in 1841, where it was returned to the collection of the Princes Hohenzollern, and subsequently placed in their castle at Sigmaringen.

DESCRIPTION                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     The hilt formed entirely of gold, finely cast in low relief, with recessed shaped panels filled with royal blue translucent enamel and profusely studded with arrangements of different-sized diamonds throughout. The symmetrical double shell-guard is decorated with a matching design on each face, the borders formed entirely of bands of very close-set diamonds diminishing in size towards each end and forming small rosettes at their centres, enclosing kidney-shaped panels enamelled over a raised trellis pattern, studded with small diamonds at the trellis points, and the panels in turn framing an oval of relief scrollwork set with further diamond rosettes. The rear quillon and knuckle-guard are each decorated en suite and issue from a cartouche-shaped block cast in low relief, which is decorated on each face with a larger diamond-and-gold rosette contrasting against an enamel ground, and carrying a pair of enamelled arms seated over the shell-guard. The elegant elliptical pommel is diamond-studded en suite with the shell-guard, and the grip is bound with a pattern of gold wire and ribbon set between a pair of collars each studded with bands of diamonds.

Mounted with a slender tapering hollow-ground blade of triangular section which, except for the tip, is etched and fire-gilt over all surfaces with an elaborate series of decorative motifs and emblems, Including the figure of Victory, emblems of Peace, trophies and a series of repeated Latin mottos. The majority of the designs contrast within lustrous blued panels over the length of each face. Etched on one face below the hilt is a brief French inscription and on the other face is the signature of the two cutlers with their shared address written out in full.

The wooden scabbard covered in white fishskin, with modern full gold mounts expertly replaced exactly in keeping with the original hilt, comprising a locket decorated with a mirrored pattern of alternating bands of burnished gold, enamel and matted gold set with diamonds; the middle-band is decorated with burnished bands enclosing a broad enamel band sown with diamonds. The gold chape is inset with an enamelled band, and the uppermost mounts each with a gold ring for suspension. The entire sword preserved in near-pristine untouched condition. Struck with Paris gold marks, the maker’s mark not legible, and a French 19th century gold import mark.

Size: Overall length 98.4 cm / 38¾ in, Blade length 81.7 cm / 31⅝ in