Jewels! Glittering at the Russian Court

Jewels! Glittering at the Russian Court

Background story

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 of the best works shown at Jewels! come from Catherine’s collections, among them the mirror that stood in her boudoir – restored especially for this exhibition – and a stunning golden jewel-box with a blazing array of rubies, emeralds, amethysts, rock crystal and much more.

Men’s fashion
Men in no way lagged behind women in the magnificence of their jewellery. They adorned themselves with precious rings, medals, watches, snuffboxes, buckles and brooches and fine weapons. ‘Amid the several articles of sumptuousness which distinguish the Russian nobility,’ wrote the Reverend William Coxe, ‘there is none perhaps more calculated to strike a foreigner than the profusion of diamonds and other precious stones, which sparkle in every part of their dress. […] ‘Many of the nobility were almost covered with diamonds; their buttons, buckles, hilts of swords, and epaulets, were composed of this valuable material; their hats were frequently embroidered, if I may use the expression, with several rows of them; and a diamond star upon the coat was scarcely a distinction.’

In the posthumous inventory of the property of Prince Grigory Potemkin, Catherine’s powerful favourite, the jewels were valued at the astronomical sum of 1,174,817 roubles: billions of euros in today’s prices.

AMOR and pearls
Ladies wore medallions with portraits of their friends and loved ones. Precious stones might be arranged in rings and bracelets so that their first letters spelled out a name or word (for instance AMOR, which could be formed of Amethyst, Malachite, Opal and Ruby). Sentimentality and sensibility were reflected in the new fashion for putting locks of hair into rings and lockets or weaving hair into jewellery with a gold or silver setting. English cut-steel accessories were also fashionable, from buttons and brooches to the handles of fans and parasols. Pearls remained popular throughout the modern period but they were particularly fashionable at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Elegant ladies wore pearl necklaces and large tear-shaped pearls hung from all kinds of brooches, from turbans and belts. Threads of pearls were wound around sheer shawls that were then woven into the hair; and they edged the sleeves, bodices and hems of formal dress.

From extravagance to refinement
In the early nineteenth century came parures of opals and turquoise, stones previously thought to be insufficiently luxurious for wear at court. Forms also changed and diadems were made in the shape of garlands of lilies, cornflowers and ears of wheat; they were embroidered around hems and bodices. Fashion turned more refined and less extravagant, which in some cases caused quite a stir. In late 1808 a reception in the Winter Palace was held to mark the arrival in St Petersburg of the King and Queen of Prussia. Queen Louise, thought to be the most beautiful woman in all Prussia, appeared ‘drenched from head to toe in gold and diamonds… All the ladies did their best on that day to dress as richly as possible: velvet, brocade, gold embroidery, pearls, diamonds and precious stones glittered everywhere. Then another famous beauty of the time, Maria Naryskhina [mistress of Tsar Alexander I], approached to pay her respects to the Queen. The same breathtaking freshness, the same perfection of form, the same fine features, but with dark hair and utter simplicity of attire: all in white, no gold or diamonds, and on her head a simple garland of cornflowers. The queen straightened up involuntarily, and for a second they looked upon each other in silence. It was impossible to say which was most impressive. Naryshkina’s clever ploy was the very epitome of the art of coquetry. Such contempt of any adornment marked the triumph of beauty.’

Anna Pavlovna
There is a special place in the exhibition for Anna Pavlovna, Queen of the Netherlands. The Russian and Dutch courts were united by  her marriage to  Prince Willem, the later King Willem II. The ceremony took place in the St Petersburg vicinity in 1816. Anna, granddaughter of Catherine the Great, went to the Netherlands, taking with her a dowry that consisted of some of the most fantastic jewels ever made, together with a treasury of reliquary objects with which she could install her own Russian-Orthodox chapel in The Hague.

From refinement to extravagance
The fashion for all things Antique came to an end in the early 1820s. Once more attire was magnificently decorated, interweaving flowers and precious jewels. In 1826, for instance, one of the empress’ ladies-in-waiting was married in a dress of iridescent white satin with a pink sheen, decorated down to the knees with ‘horns of plenty’. To the skirt were pinned broad ribbons tipped with bouquets of white roses; her slender waist was encircled with a diamond belt and she wore a parure of turquoises in a diamond setting, with a pearl necklace and a similar agraffe, brooch, ferronière or fillet and arrow-pin in her hair. Such pins were briefly very popular.

Gothic and iron jewellery
Widespread interest in all things Gothic was prompted by literary works by Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott. Necklaces, earrings, bracelets and fans were all adorned with little Gothic pointed arches and tracery. During the latter part of the Napoleonic Wars, in 1813–14, many noble ladies of Prussia donated their jewels to the army, and since they could not possibly appear in public without any jewellery at all, in Berlin production was started of fine pieces made of iron, in no way inferior to gold and silver in terms of craftsmanship.

Even one of the richest women in Russia, Princess Zinaida Yusupova, who had plenty of precious jewels, wore iron jewellery. When she broke her hip falling out of a carriage and had to walk with a cane, she quickly turned it into a point of interest, appearing at a ball in 1837 with ‘some old-fashioned, Old-Testament cane of ebony, the whole of the handle and half of the stick studded with large diamonds. This cane alone seemed magical and fairytale. […] she wore not a light ball dress but a heavy robe of pale blue damask; on her forehead glittered a single but very large diamond star, while she had two gauze scarves interwoven somehow in the back of her hair, one blue with silver stars, the other white with gold stars, and both of them fell right down to the floor.’

Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, the consort of Emperor Nicholas I (r. 1825–55), was a woman of superb taste, in possession of the most luxurious of jewels. Many items from her collections are shown at the exhibition. She liked to come up with new ideas herself. One idea was an outdoors rout party to mark Nicholas I’s birthday, at which she appeared dressed in a ‘white dress adorned with bouquets of cornflowers and the same flowers adorned her head. […] But there were no limits on the use of jewellery […] The flowers were studded with diamonds: attached to the heart of each bloom was a diamond on a silver chain, intended to represent dew, subtly trembling on its flexible stem.’

Lighter fabrics – gauze or tulle or crepe, often adorned with gold spangles or ‘golden dew’ – were the preference for ball gowns. They were accompanied by head decorations of velvet or gauze sprinkled with ‘golden rain’, elongated beads on thin stems, or hairpins of artificial flowers interspersed with pearls and precious stones. Jewellery was worn in abundance, with two or even three bracelets on each wrist and several rows of pearls around the neck.

Jewellers started to produce all kinds of ‘flowers’ in gold and enamel: ‘Around the neck one wears garlands of roses, forget-me-nots and violets, so finely made that they appear to have just been picked.’ Butterflies and beetles of gold, enamel and gemstones (sometimes of the very best quality, specially ordered from Brazil) fluttered and crawled through ladies’ hair, but the fashion was also for jewellery in the shape of larger animals such as deer and horses: ‘last summer, horses caused a furore: they were everywhere, on the buttons of dresses, on brooches and earrings. Now, though, the horse has left the stage, but since for some reason we cannot live without animals’ heads, it is antlered stags that are in fashion.’

A new silhouette
By the early 1860s crinolines had given ladies a totally new outline, one that reached some considerable width: less than two metres in diameter was thought to be ‘narrow’! Skirts were finished with beads and sequins, with glass and gold palettes shaped like anything from butterflies and swallows to stars. Sparkling flowers sat on hats and hair, glittering with frost or scattered with gold and silver hearts, with little pendants of metal or crystal. In 1865 fashion dictated that ‘spheres and pendants of faceted crystal wound round with garlands of flowers serve to adorn the coiffure and dresses of an evening’. The richest ladies wore genuine diamonds on their dresses.

With the arrival of the natural waistline and bodices made without a stomacher, all kinds of belts and buckles came back into fashion. Cameos made a comeback, along with long earrings, combs and diadems in Roman, Etruscan or Byzantine style, combined with hair à l’ancien, often copied from Ancient Roman sculpture. The trend was set by a style often known as Madame de Pompadour. Large bustles supported a heavy mass of flounces and ruching, ribbons and lace, which was caught up with agraffes, while in their hair ladies wore diamond aigrettes complemented with real feathers and flowers. Complementing such a toilet was a dark velvet choker with an attached medallion, small cross or suitable brooch.

In circa 1880 again a new kind of bodice came into fashion: smooth and tight-fitting, sheath-like and running right down over the hips to the thighs. Ball dresses were often made of gauze and tulle, with gold and silver, sequins and garlands of flowers. With such rich adornment on the fabric itself, jewellery was reduced to a minimum save at balls, where the ladies continued to glitter.

Fin de Siècle, Art Nouveau
The end of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the new Art Nouveau style, its aesthetics defined by soft waving lines, pastel colours and unusual colour combinations. The flowing fabrics of evening dress – velvet, silk chiffon, combinations of velvet and fine lace – were tastefully adorned with superb artificial flowers and embroidery. Skirts fell in soft, natural folds and rippled gently, their trains swooping down in waves: women could catch them up with a quick and skilful movement to create new lines and new effects. On the head, the very latest hairstyles included the Poppy, Iris and Peony, initially created for masquerade balls, with waving curls caught up on top of the head, twisted into a soft knot. Jewellery too was dominated by flower forms but also by insects – butterflies and dragonflies, even beetles, often set on a cobweb sparkling with drops of diamond dew. Jewellery matched the colour of each outfit, sometimes also its details. Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, consort of Tsar Nicholas II (r. 1894–1917) also wore jewellery to match the colour of each outfit: for a pale blue dress she chose sapphires and diamonds, for her favourite lilac tones she picked amethysts and pearls: ‘Their combination changed each day: if the empress wore diamonds then she had them on her head in a diadem and on her arms in bracelets, as well as all kinds of brooches. If it was emeralds then everything was made of them, and the same with sapphires and rubies.’

In the 1890s the collar covering the neck came back into mode. In the eighteenth century it was called esclavage, now simply as a dog-collar or collier de chien. The simplest examples were of fine silver or gold threads attached back and front with two agraffes, worn on a thick velvet or silk ribbon. Empress Maria Fyodorovna (consort of Tsar Alexander III, r. 1881–94) and her daughter-in-law Alexandra Fyodorovna wore luxurious versions with diamonds, pearls and precious stones, often with more jewels suspended from the front, hanging down onto the chest.

End of an era
On the eve of the First World War Russia was awash with luxury, as if there was some presentiment of the tragedy to come: commentators in the press remarked that there had not been such a brilliant season in years. Every evening there were several balls to attend, at which the ladies glittered in fine fashions and jewels. To capture something of the magnificence of such outfits we might cite a description of a court ball held in 1913: ‘Princess A. V. Trubetskaya had a rich train of dark blue velvet edged with sable, with a white sarafan embroidered with pearls and gold; in place of buttons were genuine gemstones. Her kokoshnik was of diamonds and sapphires. The younger Princess Trubetskaya was in a white satin sarafan embroidered with pearls, with a train of silvery fabric adorned with bouquets of pink and tea roses.’

Court culture shuddered dramatically to a halt. Many members of the House of Romanov did not survive the horrors of the First World War and the red terror that followed it. Others managed to escape the country taking their jewels with them but were eventually forced to auction their treasures. Thus the most awe-inspiring jewels that had once glittered at Winter Palace balls, suddenly appeared in antique shops in Europe and North America. We know the location of quite a few of those jewels today but many have vanished without leaving a trace.

The jewellers
Visitors to the exhibition will come across familiar names: jewellery companies like Bolin, Cartier, Lalique, Tiffany and official court jeweller Fabergé.

Carl Fabergé was by far the most famous Russian jeweller. His watches, rings, necklaces, bracelets, Easter eggs and costly knickknacks, fashioned out of gold and silver with guilloche enamel and subtly cut stones, recalled the jewels of the late eighteenth century. But he had a way of effortlessly transcending historical styles and creating his own ‘style Fabergé’.

The Romanov house had a personal attachment to a number of jewellery houses, especially in France. In the mid-nineteenth century, Cartier was keen to attract more commissions from outside France. He acquired his first Russian client, Prince Nikolay Saltykov, as early as 1860. Cartier’s fame quickly increased within Russia as Russian émigrés took to sending his jewellery as gifts to people back home. From 1899 onward, the Romanovs and other prominent Russians were part of Cartier’s regular clientele. Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (‘the Elder’) purchased a breathtaking choker composed of six rows of natural pearls and embellished with two diamond-studded imperial eagles. This at a time when a single high-quality natural pearl might fetch as much as a canvas by Rembrandt! In 1907 the House of Cartier held its first show in Russia and Nicholas II appointed the jewellery company an official court supplier.

Many Russian aristocrats had art nouveau items in their jewellery collections. The undisputed leader of the art nouveau movement was René Lalique. Although his creations were rather exuberant for the time, they were admired not only by members of the artistic elite, but by Nicholas and Alexandra themselves. Among the Lalique objects to be displayed in Jewels! is an outstanding ‘tangle of snakes’ pendant made of gold, pearls and enamel. The design of the exhibition will also be inspired by the fin de siècle, a period that coincides with the end both of the tsarist era and of the belle époque.

The exhibition
As soon as they enter the main exhibition hall, visitors will find themselves in a dream world. As if by magic, the space will be transformed into a monumental ‘ballroom’ filled with countless items of personal adornment that once belonged to the Romanovs and other members of Russian high society. The pieces of jewellery will be surrounded by majestic costumes, ball gowns, evening dresses and accessories, all selected ‘with a jeweller’s eye’. In the vast portraits of the celebrated figures who originally wore these clothes, visitors will spot pieces of jewellery actually on show in the glass cases nearby – a veritable feast of ‘jewels in fashion and fashions in jewels’. Like guests attending Russian court balls of the past, visitors will then proceed from the main hall to the treasury rooms: intimate spaces showcasing the most extravagant, dazzling and intriguing pieces of jewellery in the rich collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Finally, the exhibition route will lead them past a number of tableaux:

  • Catherine the Great. The Grande Dame of the Russian court and a major purchaser of jewellery. The tableau shows her sumptuous boudoir crammed with absolutely top pieces.
  • Male boudoir. It wasn’t only women who showed off their jewels. Men flaunted pocket watches, signet rings, jewelled walking sticks and medallions set with diamonds.
  • Female boudoir. The kind of elegant, intimate room where women spent hours making themselves beautiful.
  • Eroticism. Jewellery concealing hidden messages – a favourite of the tsars.
  • Little princes and princesses. The children of tsars were given jewels from infancy. The presents took the form of toys but were, ‘of course’, made by major jewellers.
  • Wedding. Not just a magnificent wedding dress and rings symbolising love, but fans set with precious gems and sometimes even adorned with depictions of the dowry.
  • Remember me. Jewellery holding souvenirs of loved ones. Not only portrait medallions, but lockets containing hair from the deceased.
  • Dandy. The most eye-catching figures at court, perfectly turned out and richly arrayed with a profusion of watches, card holders, cigar cases, etc.
  • Fin de siècle. The end of an era, the last Romanovs at the Russian court. The turn of the century and the emergence of renowned jewellery companies like Cartier and Fabergé.

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But we're reopening on saturday, January 29. See you soon!