18th century Russia was under the spell of a most extraordinary figure: a provincial German Princess who became known as Catherine the Great, Empress of All Russia. Born in 1729, Sophie Augusta Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst was selected by Elizabeth I of Russia, who cultivated fond memories of the Princess' family, to become the wife of her nephew and heir to the throne, Peter of Holstein-Gottorp. The Empress knew the family well as Sophie Augusta Fredericka's uncle, Karl, had gone to Russia to marry the future Empress Elizabeth years earlier, but died before the wedding took place. The girl arrived in St. Petersburg aged 14 and immediately began to study Russian and Orthodoxy and converted to the Russian Church, being re-christened Yekaterina - Catherine. Highly intelligent and strong-willed, it seemed she could achieve anything she set her mind to. Well read, Catherine kept up-to-date on current events in Russia and the rest of Europe. She corresponded with many of the great minds of her era, including Voltaire and Diderot. In 1761, her mean-spirited and unable husband ascended to the throne as Peter III. His already unpopular image worsened quickly so that only six months later, Catherine deposed her husband and ascended to the throne as Empress Catherine II. Yekaterina Dashkova, confidante of Catherine, remarked that he seemed rather glad to be rid of the throne, and requested only a quiet estate and a ready supply of tobacco and burgundy in which to rest his sorrows.
Catherine, on the other hand, patronised the arts, music and education and no other Russian monarch appreciated beauty as much as Catherine. Above all, she had a passion for diamond jewellery, which was in accordance with Russian taste, where the court traditionally displayed the most sumptuous and glamorous jewellery of all Europe, since the Tsars were 'fascinated by Asia's barbarian splendour, and proud of their power [they] were wont to parade in jewelled robes, wearing diamond-studded crowns [...] Duly informed by diplomats and travellers as to the doings and "etiquette" of brilliant eastern and western Courts, [Russia's] tsars and noblemen were but too anxious to surpass all rivals.' (A. E. Fersman, Russia's Treasure of Diamonds and Precious Stones, Moscow 1925). In order to distinguish the wealth of the Romanov dynasty, Peter the Great established the so-called Diamond Fund in 1719: no precious stone or jewel was ever to be removed from the 'Diamond Room' in the Winter Palace without a written sealed order and only in the presence of one or more trustees. The State jewels formerly belonging to the Tsars formed the basis of this fund, to which Peter the Great added a large part on account of his wife and daughter. However, the bulk was added by Catherine the Great herself who took the greatest pleasure in her jewels. Fortunately, the art of the jeweller was at its zenith at the time of Catherine's extravagancies and jewels such as the exquisite diamond openwork bracelet are witnesses of the excellence of 18th century jewellery. At the outbreak of the First World War the treasure was moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow where, between 1921 and 1923, the jewels were meticulously catalogued and subsequently published as Professor A.E. Fersman's authoritative catalogue of Russia's Treasure of Diamonds and Precious Stones. In it the bracelet, originally worn as a pair, is described as mounted in 'solid gold, beautifully designed in Louis XVI style. Wonderfully wrought about 1780.' It is one of the few items that were given a quite precise date. Catherine the Great reigned until 1796, and it is very likely that this bracelet once adorned the wrists of one of the most colourful and powerful personalities to this day, Empress Catherine the Great.
Front page of Christie, Manson & Woods' auction catalogue of 1927, when the pair of diamond bracelets sold for ..... 3,400 which roughly corresponds to about ...... 550,000 in today's money.