FABULOUS JEWELS THE COLLECTION OF CATHERINE THE GREAT
Catherine the Great was born Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst of Prussia in 1729. With not a single drop of Russian blood in her veins, for her contemporaries and for successive generations, she was to become the very embodiment of Russia, ruling a mighty empire for 34 years. Selected at the age of 14 as a suitable bride for her cousin Peter, the future Tsar Peter III of Russia, Princess Sophie set off for St Petersburg. In 1745 she converted to the Russian orthodox religion in Moscow taking the name Ekaterina, and was married to Peter, becoming a Grand Duchess of Russia.
Catherine the Great soon found herself as sole mistress of the world’s largest and wealthiest empire. The empress understood perfectly the demonstrative effect of a glittering court and she was conscious of the fact that in the eyes of European monarchs a great jewellery collection was as important as a great army.
Catherine was one of the greatest collectors of all time, in both scale and quality. She took great pleasure in the jewels that proclaimed her power and her rank as empress. Uniquely precious and suited for imperial elegance, Catherine the Great was particularly fond of emeralds. Lot 269 was cut from a rectangular-cut emerald weighing over 107 carats, rumoured to be the second largest in her collection by its size and quality.
This magnificent emerald, mounted in a brooch surrounded by diamonds, was to remain in the private collection of the Tsars of Russia until the end of the 19th century. Inherited from Catherine the Great, passing through the hands of 5 Tsars, the emerald and diamond brooch was given in 1874 by Tsar Alexander II to Duchess Marie of Meckleburg-Schwerin (who became Maria Pavlovna, Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia), on the occasion of her wedding to his son, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich of Russia.
THE JEWELS OF GRAND DUCHESS MARIA PAVLOVNA OF RUSSIA
The Romanov dynasty is famous for its splendid collections of jewellery and precious objects, but it was Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna who became a legendary figure in the world of jewellery collecting. As the consort of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, son of Tsar Alexander II, she received some of the most beautiful gems in the imperial collection. But it was her own great sense of style, her knowledge of precious stones, and, undoubtedly, her royal bearing and awareness of her regal responsibilities that were the foundations on which she built her dazzling collection. The Grand Duchess received from her father-in-law, Tsar Alexander II, the most beautiful emerald in all the Romanov treasures, comprising a necklace with a hexagonal-cut emerald of 100 carats and a brooch with an exceptional 107.72 carat emerald. These jewels were greatly admired in all the European courts.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 saw an explosion of riots, strikes and violence that marked the end of Tsarist Russia; St Petersburg was in a growing state of anarchy and at the mercy of the Bolsheviks. Most of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie tried to flee the country with whatever they could carry, hiding the most precious objects in their palaces and mansions in the hope that one day they would return. Their now empty homes were easy prey for criminals and revolutionaries acting on the orders of the Bolsheviks, who swiftly ransacked them.
Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna had moved to her villa in the southern Russian border town of Kislovodsk, leaving her jewellery in the safe of her St Petersburg palace. She confided her fears of looters breaking in to the Hon. Albert Stopford, a well-known high society Englishman in St Petersburg, who unofficially acted as a secret agent, reporting the situation in the capital to the British Government.
Stopford decided to embark on the dangerous journey to the Caucasus to see the Grand Duchess in Kislovodsk and arrange a plan to rescue the jewels. Back in St Petersburg, following Maria Pavlovna’s instructions, with the help of the loyal palace caretaker he reached the safe, concealed between her wardrobe and the dressing room, and rescued the jewels. The most difficult task was smuggling them out of Russia.
Thanks to his connection at the British Embassy Stopford organised a scheme that allowed him, with a false identity, to return to Great Britain with the jewels hidden in his suitcase. Once in London he deposited them, under the Grand Duchess’s name, in a safe in the Cox & Co. bank.
Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna was the last Romanov to leave the Russian soil in 1919. After a long journey by ship she arrived in Venice, where the devoted Stopford was waiting for her on the dock with the money to pay for her passage from Constantinoples.
Soon afterwards the Grand Duchess fell ill with a kidney problem and moved to her favourite spa town of Contrexéville in France, where her condition worsened. She died on 6 September 1920 in the Grand Hôtel de l’Etablissement.
In her will, her collection of jewels was divided between her four children. Grand Duke Cyril received the sapphire jewels, Grand Duke Boris the emeralds, Grand Duke Andrei the rubies, and Grand Duchess Helen the pearls and diamonds.
Grand Duke Boris sold the emerald necklace to Cartier who unmounted the stones and set them in a sautoir for Edith Rockfeller McCormick. Upon her death, Cartier bought it back and sold it to Barbara Hutton. Later in 1927, the Grand Duke sold the spectacular emerald brooch with its 107.72 carat step-cut emerald to Cartier. He kept the emerald drop pendant for his wife Zinaida
In 1947 Cartier bought from the renowned lapidary and dealer Raphael Esmerian an emerald and diamond necklace composed of seven step-cut stones that originally belonged to the Payne Whitney family. To this the 107 carat emerald was attached. On the suggestion of Esmerian, in order to remove a flaw the emerald was recut into a drop of 75.63 carats. The now perfect drop was reattached as a pendant to the necklace, to which one more emerald was added. In this form it was sold in 1954 to John D. Rockefeller Jr. It was later sold at auction in Zurich in November 1971.
This pear-shaped emerald is not only an extraordinarily beautiful stone, with a saturated brilliant green colour and amazing purity, a rarity gemologically for an emerald of 75 carats, but it is unique for its imperial provenance, reflecting the splendour of the Romanov dynasty, and a rare gem to survive the Russian Revolution.
Stefano Papi Author of The Jewels of the Romanovs. Family and Court (Thames & Hudson)