Along with the legendary French Crown Jewels, the sparkling jewelry masterpieces of the Russian Imperial Family conjur images of the extraordinary opulence and grandeur established by the Romanov Imperial Family beginning in 1613. Peter I first established the Imperial Treasury in 1719 with his magnificent collection of gems, which continued to increase in size and significance with each of his successors’ hunger for more impressive jewels. Recognizing the importance of lavish jewelry as part of her imperial court, Catherine sought to expand the collection with even more grand jewels that signified the enormous wealth of her growing empire.
Named The Diamond Fund, the imperial regalia of the Romanov family is a marvelous collection of jewels spanning from 1613 to 1917. Iconic jewels of the collection include the 189-carat Orlov Diamond, famously stolen from the eye of statue of a Hindu deity in southern India, and the Great Imperial Crown, first used in the coronation of Catherine the Great. The magnificent crown holds the second largest spinel in the world, a precious red spinel weighing an impressive 398.72 carats. Every piece in the collection symbolizes the unbridled power and wealth of Imperial Russia and the Romanov family, whose reign suffered an abrupt and tragic end during the Russian Revolution in 1917.
The new government, led by the Bolsheviks, disputed as to what they should do with the imperial treasures: some felt the gems ought to be sold to benefit the country’s struggling workers while others were convinced by curators at the Kremlin to preserve them because of their enormous historical significance. Agreeing to compromise, the Bolsheviks ultimately sold some of the lesser pieces from the collection at auction in 1927 while a few other more devious Soviets smuggled the precious gems in their luggage.
Recently in December 2012, a never before seen inventory of the Russian Crown Jewels, dated 1922, reveals four previously undiscovered photos of undocumented jewels in the official documentation of the Imperial collection, “Russia’s Treasure of Diamonds and Precious Stones,” published in 1925. Considered the most complete inventory of the Russian Crown Jewels, “Russia’s Treasure of Diamonds and Precious Stones” includes 22 of the photographs from the 1922 album and appear to be the same images used in the official Russian 1925 publication. “The four pieces portrayed in the album discovered by the USGS that do not appear in the later publication include a sapphire and diamond tiara, a sapphire bracelet, an emerald necklace, and a sapphire brooch in the shape of a bow.” (source)
This unprecedented discovery, uncovered in the rare book room of the USGS library, was serendipitously found by Richard Huffine, the library’s director who happened to come across the over-sized volume with no outside markings or spine label. Believed to be the only copy in existence, the album features a beautiful hand-colored title page followed by 88 photographs of the Romanov jewels.
While I’m not certain this article’s exquisite diamond bow necklace is included in this newly found document, I can say that it was part of the Russian Crown Jewels and a favorite of Catherine the Great. Sold at Sotheby’s Magfinicent Jewels sale in Geneva on November 17th, 2005 for CHF2,036,000 ($2,164,115 USD), this historic jewel represents the splendour of Imperial Russia during Catherine’s rule. Sotheby’s included highly detailed catalogue notes and literature along with the necklace’s description, which I hope you find as fascinating as I did.
AN IMPRESSIVE AND HIGHLY IMPORTANT DIAMOND ORNAMENT FROM THE COLLECTION OF THE RUSSIAN IMPERIAL FAMILY, RUSSIA, SECOND HALF OF THE 18TH CENTURY
Designed as necklace consisting of an articulated band mounted in silver with a row of twenty-seven graduated cushion-shaped diamonds in open settings within a border of stylised foliate motifs close set with smaller similarly cut stones, embellished with a ribbon bow clasp close set in silver with cushion-shaped diamonds in an open-work floral and foliate pattern.
The Russian State Jewels, Messrs Christie, Manson & Woods, London 1927.
A History of The Crown Jewels of Europe, Lord Twining, B.T.Batsford Ltd, 1960.
Famous Diamonds, Ian Balfour, N.A.G. Press, 1992.
Gems, Robert Webster FGA, Butterworths, 1975.
Blue Mystery, The Story of The Hope Diamond, Susanne Steinem Patch, Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1999.
Joyaux du Trésor de Russie, La Bibliothèque des Arts, Paris, O Gorewa, I. Polynina, N. Rachmanov, A.Raimann, 1990.
The Necklace from Antiquity to The Present, A Triossi & D. Mascetti, Thames & Hudson, London 1997.
Friedriech der Grosse Sammler und Mäzen, Exhibition Catalogue, Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung Munchen, Munich 1992.
This diamond necklace with bowknot clasp is not only a remarkable jewel in itself, but its Russian royal provenance puts it in a class of its own. It evokes the blinding splendour of Catherine II, Empress of Russia: the magnificence of her court, her parks, her palaces, her art collections, and monuments. The most striking and colourful figure on the stage of European political life, for thirty four years she ruled a mighty empire which stretched from Siberia to Poland and left it stronger, larger and richer than when she came to the throne in 1762. After her death in 1796, her friend the Prince de Ligne, who had named her Catherine the Great, declared that this title- which has never been lost- resumed all her genius, courage, sense of justice, and force of character.
Using her court as a stage, she played the part of an autocratic but enlightened ruler to perfection, imposing in her public appearances, kind and charming in private. The French ambassador, the Comte de Ségur who noticed how “her majestic head and brow, proud look and dignified deportment made her seem taller than she was”, was also impressed by her feminine grace “ her aquiline nose, well shaped mouth, Saxe blue eyes beneath dark lashes, gentle glance and seductive smile”. In spite of her success, she once confided to the Prince de Ligne that she could have served Russia better if she had been born a man. Ever the courtier, he assured her that being a woman was a positive advantage. “Believe me, you are so much more impressive in your beautiful embroidered orange red velvet dolman or tunic than a man decked out in boots and shoulder sash can ever be. In addition the five huge diamonds blazing out from your hair are far more effective than a man’s hat which is either ridiculously small or ridiculously big”. He was right. Her diamond jewellery proclaimed her power and her rank as Empress and appealed to the Russian taste for sumptuous goods. It impressed the Rev. William Coxe, visiting St. Petersburg in 1778: “the glory and the splendour of the clothing of the court and abundance of precious stones leave the opulence of other European courts far behind” and his opinion was shared by the acute Madame de Stael who observed, “ this people prefers magnificence to domestic tranquillity”.
In 1764, recognising that grand jewellery was an integral part of the Russian court tradition she transformed the Imperial Bedchamber in the south east corner of the Winter Palace into the Brilliant Room described by the German visitor Johann Georgi, “Her room is like a priceless jewel case. The regalia is laid out on a table under a great crystal globe through which everything can be examined in detail … the walls of the room are lined with glass cabinets containing numerous pieces of jewellery set with diamonds and other precious stones as well as insignia and portraits of her Imperial majesty, snuff boxes, watches and chains drawing instruments, signet rings, bracelets, sword belts and other priceless treasures among which the Empress chooses presents for giving away”.
Throughout her long reign the collection was continually increasing by purchase and by gifts, including diamonds, coloured stones, pearls, Chinese filigree and Indian Mughal ornaments. All new acquisitions, which were supervised by two men Glazumov and Aduarov, were either brought in from abroad, or ordered from the colony of Russian and foreign jewellers and goldsmiths resident in St. Petersburg. The four main suppliers to the Empress were Leopold Pfisterer, engaged by Prince Dimitri Michailovitch Golitsyn, Russian ambassador to Vienna in 1763, who signed a 6 year contract but remained in St. Petersburg for 34 more years, Jerome Pauzier of Geneva and his compatriot Louis David Duval who, in 1789 with Jacob David Duval founded the firm Louis David Duval and Son.
Those jewels, such as this necklace which have survived from this display demonstrate that during the second half of the eighteenth century the art of jewellery in Europe reached a summit of elegant design and execution never equalled since. Although those made in St. Petersburg for a Russian clientèle are that much grander, with bigger stones and ordered in larger quantities than elsewhere, yet the standard of refinement was high enough to satisfy the most fashionable and exacting European taste. Commanding huge revenues and the mineral wealth of the Urals there was no limit to what Catherine II could afford, and in 1792 she decided to transfer her jewels for display in a new, more spacious Brilliant Room decorated in classical Russian style, hung with paintings by Antony van Dyck and with the celebrated Peacock clock of James Cox in the centre. But Catherine II did not concentrate all her interest in brilliant gem set jewellery to the exclusion of other types of craftsmanship. As she adored tobacco, under her patronage the goldsmiths of St. Petersburg. Paris and Berlin perfected their skills of enamelling and chasing while producing innumerable exquisite snuff boxes for her pleasure. An inventory of 1789 lists the various items which add up to a collection of the some of the most exquisite jewels and objets de vertu created during the eighteenth century.
The necklace conjures up a picture of the Empress, escorted by six pet greyhounds choosing jewels for a state occasion in the Brilliant Room, then moving next door to her Chambre de toilette. There a hairdresser might crown her piled up hair with a Russian style kokochnik tiara, aigrette, or jewelled pins, perhaps those designed as bowknots like the clasp of the necklace, which are still in the Kremlin. Afterwards, dressed in her picturesque loose sleeved Muscovite style gown she would proceed to a reception. a gala dinner or court ball. Even in her final years, her stately appearance continued to fascinate, as the artist Elizabeth Vigée Lebrun describes “although not tall, with her erect head, eagle eye and countenance so used to command, all was so symbolic of majesty that she looked as if she were queen of the world. She wore the ribbons of the three Orders over a dress of noble simplicity. It consisted of a red velvet dolman over a gold embroidered white muslin tunic with wide pleated sleeves, turned back in oriental fashion. Instead of ribbons, the most beautiful diamonds were scattered over the cap covering her white hair”. Similarly a diamond necklace such as this, worn as part of a parure drawing all eyes towards her, would also have enhanced that incomparable aura which set the Empress Catherine apart from her subjects. With such a history the possession of a jewel of this quality and rarity would surely be the glory of any modern collection.
Photo, description, literature and catalogue note courtesy of Sotheby’s