This artefact brings together two of the greatest names in 19th-century French jewellery and miniatures.
The hexagonal gold box was made by the jeweller Marguerite, as evidenced by the inscription, “Marguerite Joaillier de la Couronne de Lrs Majtés Imples et Rales”, which appears on the edge of the box.
Bernard-Armand Marguerite only held the title of jeweller to the Crown from 1811, which shows that the Isabey miniature was not specially created for this artefact. Marguerite worked in Rue Saint-Honoré at Vase d'Or, where he had succeeded his father-in-law, Edme-Marie Foncier. The latter had already been Joséphine’s jeweller under the Directory. He also created some of the jewels during the coronation of 2 December 1804 for the Empress.
The miniature adorning the upper plate is signed and dated Isabey, 1807; it was originally surrounded by 25 diamonds, which were subsequently replaced, as was customary for this type of gift, by valueless glassware.
Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1767–1855), who was originally from Nancy, arrived in Paris in 1785 where he was briefly a student of Jacques-Louis David. He quickly attached himself to the Beauharnais family and, from there, quite naturally to the Emperor himself. He is generally considered the master of the early-19th-century French miniature.
There is another piece in the Musée de Malmaison, a candy box, that is attributed to the combined talent of these two masters. It depicts four portraits of the Beauharnais family and was offered to Napoleon by Joséphine.
According to tradition – which there is no reason to doubt – our snuffbox was offered by the Emperor to Count Charles d'Argenteau d'Ochain (1787–1879), perhaps even in person, when he was handed the cross of the Legion of Honour (1813). The latter, who would end his life as archbishop in partibus of Tyre and doyen of the cathedral chapter of Liège, had been a brilliant soldier for France and the Netherlands and an established Freemason, before launching, in 1824, an ecclesiastical career following the death of his fiancée.