24 February 2014

Review: Jewels of the Romanovs (1997)

Jewels of the Romanovs: Treasures of the Russian Imperial Court (1997) [1]
The Sochi Winter Olympics came to a close yesterday evening with a ceremony honoring the best in Russian culture, so I thought it was only appropriate that my jewel book review for February should focus on one of the volumes I own that focuses on Russian royal jewels. The Jewels of the Romanovs: Treasures of the Russian Imperial Court, published in 1997 to accompany a museum exhibition, is a slender book, but it highlights some unusual jeweled objects that are often overlooked in our discussions of royal jewelry.

When I say that the book is slender, I mean it: it's paperback, and it only includes 72 pages of content. That said, the content is good -- clear, sharp color photographs and heavy, glossy pages. The book also features a thin piece of waxy plastic as an overlay on the front and back covers, making it slightly more durable than it otherwise might be. You'll only be able to find secondhand copies of the text at this point, as it's over a decade old, but copies can be found readily and inexpensively.

It's easy to confuse this book with another tome on Russian jewels that shares an extremely similar title: Stefano Papi's Jewels of the Romanovs: Family & Court. Be warned: that second part of the title after the colon is significant! Papi's book, now in its second edition, is a much more thorough and lengthy examination of the Romanov jewel collections. In contrast, this smaller exhibition catalogue includes only pieces of jewelry held in the State Diamond Fund of the Russian Federation. 

Many of these jewels, along with jeweled religious objects from the Orthodox tradition and sumptuous items of clothing, were exhibited in America for the first time during the 1997 exhibition, which was held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The exhibit, which marked the 125th anniversary of a state visit by Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich to the United States in 1872, was made possible by the cooperation of American and Russian cultural organizations. Although it was not without its controversy, it provided Americans with a rare chance to view these Romanov jewels up close. For those of us not lucky enough to have attended in person, the exhibition catalogue gives us a chance to share in a small part of the experience.

Alexei Alexandrovich with George Armstrong Custer in Topeka, Kansas [2]
The book, edited by Nicholas B.A. Nicholson, begins with a helpful history of the relationship between America and Russia; the last page of the book also includes a timeline that helps to put the various Romanov tsars and tsarinas in their proper chronological context. In between, there are three major sections. The first presents a collection of jeweled ecclesiastical objects, including elaborate icons, pendants, crosses, and a truly impressive bejeweled kokoshnik headdress made for a Marian statue. These religious objects are not owned by the State Diamond Fund; they belong to the Yaroslavl State Architectural and Historical Museum-Preserve. The last section of the book features photographs of clothing worn by the Romanovs, including two truly impressive court dresses worn by Alexandra Feodorovna, the last Russian tsarina.

But for our purposes, it's the middle section that is the most interesting -- it features the Romanov jewels. There are a number of intriguing pieces here, both original items and a few that have been reproduced as exact copies of jewels sold and lost after the revolution (the famous "Russian Field" tiara is an example of the latter category). My favorites include an extremely early example of a bandeau tiara, part of a diamond floral demi-parure made ca. 1760, and a stickpin from the collection of Maria Feodorovna that features a blue diamond that may have come from the same stone as the Hope Diamond. The pieces here are varied, and they're interspersed with portraits of the Romanovs in all their bejeweled splendor.

So, is this one a must-have for Romanov lovers? I'm not sure. I like having it in my collection, and the photographs are wonderful; it's also relatively easy to find very inexpensive copies of the text, so it's not going to break the bank financially. However, the Alexander Palace website includes an online version of the exhibition that features much of the same content (though not all) as the exhibition catalogue. If you visit that website, and you want to see larger, more detailed images of the objects presented there, I think that you'd enjoy owning this particular book.

1. Book cover image available here.
2. Photograph available via Wikimedia Commons; source here.