14 September 2019
— 16 October 2020
The Glitter of the Russian Court
One of the Hermitage’s greatest treasures is the fabulous jewellery collection. Hundreds of them superbly sparkle in Jewels!. Together with many portraits and a profusion of richly decorated gowns and ensembles once worn by the highest echelons at the Russian court in St Petersburg, they represent two centuries in fashion and jewels. Meet the country’s flamboyant empresses – Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine the Great – as well as grand dukes and duchesses, tsarinas and noble fashionistas of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. For balls and parties they wore dazzling costumes, set off by bijoux carefully selected to demonstrate identity, taste, breeding and wealth. Jewellery might also be designed to provoke or convey secret messages. Pieces were ordered from leading houses like Cartier and Fabergé. Many pieces were lost following the Russian Revolution. Jewels! presents a glittering array of surviving masterpieces, situated in ballrooms and boudoirs like those of the tsars’ Winter Palace.
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Background story
An Imperial collection of 200 years jewels and fashion

An Imperial collection of 200 years jewels and fashion

In the exhibition Jewels! we will present 300 dazzling jewels and more than 100 paintings, accessories, dresses and costumes. Together they give an astonishing impression of the wealth and extravagance of the Russian tsars and the St Petersburg high society over the course of 200 years.

Russian court culture knew no counterpart anywhere in the world. French ambassador Maurice Paléologue wrote: ‘Thanks to the brilliance of the uniforms, superb toilettes, elaborate liveries, magnificent furnishings and fittings, in short the whole panoply of pomp and power, the spectacle was such as no court in the world can rival. I shall long remember the dazzling display of jewels on the women's shoulders. It was simply a fantastic shower of diamonds, pearls, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topaz, beryls – a blaze of fire and flame.’

This extravagance, this overwhelming splendour in jewellery and fashion that sparked the imagination of so many, was introduced by Anna Ioannovna (r. 1730–40), a niece of Peter the Great. During her reign 'luxury in dress exceeded all bounds’. After many years of comparative austerity, she avidly purchased jewels and objets de virtu. It is she who can truly be said to have laid the basis for the rich collections of plate and jewels that were to fill the palace stores. The exhibition features awe-inspiring objects from her collections, perhaps the most striking of which is the solid gold toilet service that after her death was used during the ceremonial dressing of brides of the royal house.

Anna’s successor, Peter the Great’s daughter Empress Elizabeth (r. 1741–61) greatly extended the Hermitage jewellery collections. Many of the new objects were diplomatic gifts, which she exchanged with European and Oriental courts. But she also purchased many jewels. Among her most significant acquisitions was an array of gold pocket-watches set with precious stones. She also purchased all kinds of snuffboxes, the use of which reached previously unheard-of heights. These were often used not only to store tobacco but to pass on love letters. Sometimes the lids contain a second, hidden lid, to be opened only by someone aware of its secret mechanism. Today the Hermitage’s collection of snuffboxes is magnificent in both size and scope. A representative selection of them will be presented during the exhibition. Elizabeth’s reign marked the climax of the use of coloured precious stones that glittered, for instance, in the jewel bouquet made by court jeweller Jérémie Pauzié, also in the exhibition. This bouquet was acquired by the Empress herself. It contains some 400 brilliant-cut diamonds, more than 450 small rose-cut diamonds, as well as blue and yellow sapphires, rubies and emeralds. It is one of the outstanding pieces on show at Jewels!.

Elizabeth’s magnificent robes – thousands of them – were literally swamped in precious stones. Pauzié recalled: 'I cannot think that there was any other European queen who had more precious jewellery than the Russian empress. The crown of Empress Elizabeth, which was vastly expensive, consists – like all her parures – of coloured stones: of rubies, sapphires and emeralds. Nothing can compare with these stones in size and beauty.' She even issued decrees encouraging luxury at court. In 1753, for instance, one personal decree stated that 'the adornment [of courtier’s costumes worn at masquerades] should not include glass or tinsel'. Ladies were thus permitted to appear at court wearing only genuine jewels.

Elizabeth wanted no competition in the magnificence of her own attire. She reserved for herself the droit du seigneur on all new imports in ladies' fashions. She had her brocade and velvet dresses ornamented with gold and silver and with silk. Headwear did not escape her attention and she absolutely forbade court ladies to wear any jewellery on the right side of the head – whether precious jewels or flowers or hairpins. But 'the empress’ head was always loaded with diamonds’.

With the accession of Catherine the Great (r. 1762–96) the ladies of the court could at last dress and adorn themselves as they pleased. Catherine ordered magnificent parures of pearls, diamonds, sapphires and rubies and for special occasions her dressmakers worked in tandem with jewellers to create her clothes. They made numerous items for her, including several sets of diamonds, rubies and garnets, usually including ribbons or bands that could be attached to the front of a bodice (the échelle de rubans), earrings, bracelets, pins and necklaces.

In the last quarter of the eighteenth century multi-coloured stones gave way to a taste for monochrome. The preference was increasingly for diamonds and pearls. An interest in the art of Ancient Greece and Rome was increasingly reflected in both male and female attire. Cameos came into fashion – Catherine’s great passion – and indeed were prized as highly as precious stones. They were set with diamonds or made into necklaces, bracelets and rings, into buckles and earrings. Modern cameos were cut from precious and semi-precious stones, from mother-of-pearl and glass, from cornelian and all kinds of agate.

From 1795 came the development of the chemise dress, simply cut rather like a blouse or shift, but often accompanied by gold chains of different length that were wound several times round the neck (they were known as esclavage necklaces, since they had an unfortunate likeness to the chains worn by slaves). Arms were increasingly left bare, with pairs of gold bracelets around the wrist or even below the short sleeves.

Catherine’s ceremonial bed chamber was transformed into the Diamond Room, which could ‘be seen as the richest of cabinets of precious objects’. A showroom with an explosion of jewellery and other prestigious objects. Various items from this exhibition are likely to have come from among Catherine’s private collections. These include, for example, an awe-inspiring jewelry box laid with nearly 400 gems including rubies, sapphires and amethysts. The box also includes a silver double-sided mirror which, courtesy of the Friends of the Hermitage, has been fully restored specifically for this exhibition. 

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Photo Lara Scot
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