Lavish in excelsis: The jewellery of Catherine the Great

Lavish in excelsis: The jewellery of Catherine the Great

The longest serving Empress of Russia transformed an entire room in the Winter Palace to house her magnificent collection of jewels

CATHERINE THE GREAT, CIRCA 1780

PICTORIAL PRESS LTD / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Catherine the Great was Empress of all Russia and their longest ruling female leader, reigning over the mighty empire for 34 years until her death in 1796. Although Catherine had come to power by over-throwing her husband, Peter III in 1762, leading to his death eight days later, the Catherinian Era is considered to be the Golden Age of Russia. She supported the ideals of the Enlightenment, was a patron of the arts, literature and education, reorganised the administration and law of the Russian Empire and successfully extended its territory stretching it from Poland to Siberia.

Catherine, the recent subject of a brilliantly extravagant Hulu TV series, was dedicated to the collection and commission of the decorative arts, including magnificent jewellery. Many believed that she wore multiple layers of gems at one time to demonstrate her power and rank and as a symbol to justify her position (sometimes even bejewelling her hair when more space was needed). Not a believer in the ‘less is more’ concept, eventually there was no jewellery box big enough for her profligate treasures, so in 1764 she transformed an entire room at the Winter Palace, calling it the Brilliant Room, just to house her collection.

The Orlov diamond
Found in the 17th century in Golconda, India, this magnificent diamond weighed nearly 190 carats. It was bought by Grigory Orlov in an attempt to rekindle his dwindling romance with Catherine. Unfortunately she had already moved on to Grigory Potemkin but accepted the stone nonetheless and incorporated it into the Imperial Sceptre in 1774. It can be seen today on display in the Kremlin Armoury, Moscow.

Emerald necklace
Part of Catherine’s treasured emerald collection, this stone was originally 107 carats and rectangular in shape. Upon her death, the stone was passed down the generations until Tsar Alexander II gave it to Duchess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin upon her marriage to his son, Grand Duke Vladimir in 1874. A notable collector of jewellery like Catherine, the Duchess was the last Romanov to leave Russian soil with her jewellery being smuggled out shortly after. The emerald was sold by her children in the 1920s to Cartier. Re-cut and re-mounted, the stone passed through the ownership of John D Rockefeller Jr and esteemed gem dealer, Raphael Esmerian, eventually being sold in 2019 by Christie’s for £3.37 million to a private collector.

The Great Imperial Crown of Russia
Catherine decided that the royal regalia needed an upgrade for her own coronation in 1762 so she commissioned court jewellers Ekhard and Pauzié to make a new Imperial Crown. Designed as two hemispheres, the crown features nearly 5,000 white diamonds, bordered with 37 pearls resting on a circlet of an additional 19 diamonds each weighing over five carats. There is a diamond encrusted arch between the hemispheres – made in the design of acorns and oak leaves – which supports a central red spinel weighing nearly 400 carats. The crown is surmounted by a cross of five diamonds to represent the God-given power of the monarchy. It was worn at the coronation of every Russian monarch since Catherine and is now on display at the Kremlin Armoury (and its removal would be an illegal act).

Diamond and ruby watch
A well known collector of pre-revolutionary Russian objet d’art was Marjorie Merriweather Post. Aged 27, she had become the wealthiest woman in American having inherited the equivalent of approximately £400 million upon the death of her father in 1914, founder of The General Food Corporation. Many of these treasures can be seen at her Hillwood Estate Museum in Washington DC including this ruby and diamond watch belonging to Catherine. Hanging from a diamond encrusted star, sunburst and key is a pavé case with a ruby cipher for Catherine II surmounted with the imperial crown.

Bow Necklace
This necklace consists of an articulated band mounted in silver with a row of 27 graduated cushion cut diamonds. It has a boarder of smaller stones and a ribbon shaped diamond encrusted clasp. It is believed to have been specifically commissioned by Catherine between 1760 and 1780. The necklace was first sold at the infamous 1927 Christie’s ‘Russian State Jewels’ auction and again by Sotheby’s in 2005 for $1.5 million. It was seen one last time in 2016 at the Sotheby’s ‘Magnificent Jewels’ auction, but did not sell.

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