26 August 2014

Jewel History: Czarist Jewels in Dazzling Array (1922)

"Czarist Jewels in Dazzling Array"
(originally appeared in The New York Times on 26 Aug 1922)

Walter Duranty, reporting -- This is what two newspaper correspondents saw today in Russia, land of strange contrasts:
An Arabian Nights vision of the Romanoff treasure—the imperial crown jewels of Russia—diamonds as big as walnuts; rubies, emeralds, bright, blood-red or vivid green, large as a pigeon’s egg; pearls like nuts set in row after perfectly matched row; platinum, gold, and flashing diamonds shimmering like running water with the rainbow colors of a fountain in the sunlight. Over all and through all flash the diamonds, rose diamonds, black diamonds, thrilling and throbbing as if alive with inner flames: jewels of Golconda, jewels of Indian emperors for each of whose flashes gallons of human blood flowed like water, jewels of wars of dominion and triumph, jewels without price or equal in all the known world. And with that, all the romance of history and the strange secret fascination that gems hold for some in their squirming depths.
No man can sense what is meant by the almost terrifically concentrated wealth you hold in your fingers, or the almost terror that grips your dazzled brain. Think of all that and now visualize the contrast.
With Samuel Speewak, correspondent of The New York World, in the fifth year of the All Russia Soviet Federation of Socialist Republics, I saw them today in a high, bare, whitewashed room in what was formerly the new Moscow law courts. There are a dozen jewels that lie in the glass case. A big flat table with white paper in squares. Three workmen in gray smocks—pocket-less—one an expert in jewelry, and two officials—Begasheff, who heads the jewel commission, and Soboeof, the Secretary—and the two correspondents in plain sack suits.
In the middle of the room is a big box of tested steel with the stamp of the crown of Imperial Russia on the cover, but secured by the red seals of the new Russia of the Soviets, of peasants and workmen. They lift from the chest a square wooden box and set it on the table.
“Here,” says Begasheff, opening it with hands that tremble ever so little despite his air of unconcern, “is the crown of the Emperor.”

Displays Czar’s Crown

Detail of the Great Imperial Crown from  the Coronation Book of Czar Alexander II  (1856) [image in public domain]
Detail of the Great Imperial Crown from
the Coronation Book of Czar Alexander II
He puts a square foot of incandescent fire on the table. Diamonds, diamonds, and diamonds, with two rows of pearls over the middle milk-white iridescent. Above, a red stone, uncut but surmounted by a diamond cross.
“Thirty-two thousand, eight hundred carats of diamonds,” says the expert. “Please note the unrivaled rose diamonds, twelve of them, averaging thirty carats each. There are fifty big diamonds altogether. The big one which is polished but not cut is Balai, a ruby really, a sort of red diamond. It came from Peking in the seventeenth century and weighs 389 karats.”
“Is it heavy?” asked one of the correspondents.
“No,” said one of the workmen. “Five pounds at the most—try it,” and he placed it straightway on my head.
It wasn’t heavy, but for the moment it felt as if the head were in a balloon into which gas was being pumped under pressure, and when a second later Speewak had the same experience, his face flushed dark, then went ivory pale. For this was the symbol of the world’s biggest white empire, the Imperial Crown of Catherine the Great, designed by Pauzie Mauer, jeweler of Geneva, and without peer in his art today.
The curator in charge of the museum had discovered two pictures of this crown in chalk and charcoal by the Frenchman De Veilly, who was commissioned by Catherine to make a record—unfinished—of her treasures.

Orloff Diamond Exhibited

Detail of imperial sceptre from Alexei Antropov's portrait of Catherine the Great (ca. 1760s) [image in public domain]
Detail of imperial sceptre
from Alexei Antropov's
portrait of Catherine the
Great (ca. 1760s)
Then they showed us Catherine’s golden sceptre, a yard-long rod of fine gold encrusted with diamonds, with a knob of glittering brightness—the historic Orloff diamond, the third-greatest in the world, set six inches from the top. Orloff, on his return from Persia, gave it to Catherine as a New Year’s gift when the rest of the horrified courtiers gave bouquets of flowers. It won back for him the waning favor of his Imperial Mistress, who repaid the gift in honors and palaces that made the Orloff family one of the mightiest in Russia.
It is more than probable that this gem of 194 carats is the famous “Grand Mogul” of Indian legend which disappeared one day in far-back ages in one of the sudden welters of murder that used to convulse the court of Delhi. The stone is pure blue-white, big as pigeons’ eggs, and was bought by Orloff for $2,000,000 in Persia, whither he traveled “underground” from India.
There sat opposite me at the table one of the smock-clad workmen, who fondled and polished the sceptre in his huge hands, with long, spatulate fingers and what chirologists call “murderer’s thumbs.” His cranial development was akin to that of a gorilla, with a pointed skull, a prognathous jaw, and outstanding ears. A novelist might have made a romance of revolution around this low physical type, handling the sceptre of a great Empress, with its jewel of destiny. But the man was not a communist or a revolutionary, just a simple workman taking the naïve delight of the Russian peasant in a beautiful object, with no lust of avarice—indeed, nothing but mild pleasure in his soft blue eyes.
No. 3 was an ordlasie gold ball, six inches in diameter, surmounted by a sapphire of 100 carats supporting a diamond cross, 173 carats in all. A crown of 1,933 diamonds made for Catherine the Great—who wore it on many occasions on days of real importance—was shown. There are 487 carats altogether in this crown, set with diamonds so as to quiver like a mass of giant jelly.

Splendid Imperial Necklace

The fifth was a necklace worn by the Emperor of the orders in diamonds of ancient Russia. Five years were spent in collecting and matching old Indian stones, numbered by thousands, veritable gems of Golconda, at the command of Czar Alexander I. With it there was worn a star flaring with fifty carats’ weight of diamonds around a blue enamel core, on which in gold Russian letters were the words, “Faith and Honesty.”
“We hardly know the history of most of these stones,” said the expert, “although the clerical staff is busy investigating here in Petrograd. For some reason the royal family never allowed photographs of them or gave facilities for public exhibition. You can imagine you are the first in the world to see the cream of the treasures.”
They are so little known that the eye of the great Orloff diamond was falsely estimated until quite recently. It was eighty-four carats, but in 1913 the court jeweler properly arranged the setting for ten carats more.
Composed of pearls as big as birds’ eggs in a double row was a diadem of the Dowager Empress. It is shown in a portrait painted by a French artist, with a big diamond in front and hundreds of smaller diamonds to offset the pearls, 700 carats of diamonds and 2,800 carats of pearls altogether.
A seventh piece was a truly imperial diadem of the style one sees as a laurel wreath gracing the brows of royal Caesars, but here the laurel leaves’ weight was as of leaves on the trees of jewels Aladdin saw in the wonder garden beneath the earth. In the centre there was a pear-shaped diamond an inch and a half long of seventy carats, with a round stone of twenty carats above it. Of all the jewels we saw this was the most regal.

Empress Elizabeth’s Diadem

Ears of Wheat tiara [image via alexanderpalace.org]
Ears of Wheat tiara
The next was the diadem of the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, which was worn by the late Empress at her coronation. One huge oblong rose diamond in the centre weighs 125 karats and is without peer outside the fabled treasures of an Indian Rajah. Its full fire is lost because it is set in a gold locket, which the tradition of the imperial dynasty forbade to alter. Above it there is a row of diamonds as big as a fingernail, and below a second row of pear-shaped pendants, of which one is missing.
The ninth piece aroused the communist officials to enthusiasm, for it [was] the true emblem of agricultural Russia, a diadem formed of ears of wheat in diamonds with one big stone of thirty-seven carats in the centre. Scattered among the wheat ears are fat chunks of diamonds gleaming in the harvest sun.
“This is the true wealth of Russia,” said Begasheff, “not platinum, or diamonds wrung from the sweat of workers, but Russia’s own natural grain—her noblest jewel.”
The next—what a shock of wonder—emeralds an inch long, eleven of them, in a pendant diamond necklace, hanging loose in their gold and platinum setting. The smallest weighs 20 carats, the largest 45. Uncut, just polished and pierced with gold pins, they gleam with green fire as a smiling workman spreads them across his chest.
Catherine the Great spent millions of dollars to collect these stones from India. Since the days of the Egyptian pharaohs, they and the rest of the Russian imperial emeralds have known no equal.

The Wedding Crown

Detail of Alix of Hesse wearing the nuptial crown from Laurits Tuxen's Wedding of Nicholas II and Alix of Hesse (1885) [image in the public domain]
Detail of Alix of Hesse
wearing the nuptial crown
from Laurits Tuxen's
Wedding of Nicholas II
and Alix of Hesse 
Then a small “wedding crown,” with a gold pin to hold it in the Empress’s hair. Diamonds surmounted a cross—six big stones. Its 280 carats are scattered over a base of royal purple velvet in six half hoofs.
As we examined it we were amazed to see two of the workmen sit down at the desk to their lunch of bread and cheese, utterly and comfortably indifferent to the jewels that wrecked nations and dethroned kings.
For now we see the Shah diamond, the most wonderful and historic stone civilization has known. It looks like the cut-glass stopper of a decanter, this inch and a quarter long stone with the queer Arabic inscriptions. Otherwise it is uncut and unpolished, rough and ordinary as a piece of rock crystal. But this is the diamond that hung on a silken cord before the Peacock throne of Akbar the Great, Emperor of all India. A quarter of an inch from the end is a groove made to hold the Akbar’s cord, and above and below Arabic letters that date back to the year 1,000.
It is a funny feeling to slip this stone into your pocket and jingle it with your keys. For its value cannot be estimated, and it, and it alone, caused three wars.
“Put it back,” said Begasheff, and he threw it across the table as you would throw a pencil.
Evidently these people are used to handling jewels of priceless value, but just the same, his careless gesture made everyone in the room jump. It seemed somehow like a sacrilege—it is not human to fool lightly with something worth millions of dollars. Begasheff felt this himself.
“One forgets,” he said apologetically. “They seem to lose value if you see too much of them and anyway” – he shrugged his shoulders.

Catherine’s Wonderful Jewels

The Shah Diamond on a Soviet postage stamp (1971) [image in public domain]
The Shah Diamond on a Soviet
postage stamp (1971)
They showed Catherine’s stomacher of glittering diamonds linked in two pieces, and then came the work of Pauzie of Geneva, bouquets and sprays of colored gems arranged to imitate flowers. The expert literally danced with excitement.
“It is the climax of the jewelers’ art,” he cried. “There never was anything like it before and never will be again.”
A great bouquet for a girdle had rose diamonds as flowers and green emeralds as leaves, then a ruby hairpin of flowers and a comb of colored stone. Of the same style was a tabatière of the fifteenth century, probably Italian, of black enamel on gold with perfectly harmonized flowers, sprays, and insects on rose, white, yellow, and blue diamonds. Taken all in all, it is perhaps the most beautiful of the lot.
Then two brooches, each of diamonds round an enormous sapphire. The largest was oblong, an inch and a half by an inch, 250 carats; the smaller nearby an inch square, 142 carats, and deep azure blue.
A neck ornament of Empress Elizabeth shone with rubies “big as the signal lamps of a liner,” as one workman put it, but outshone by an emerald brooch with two huge oval stones like giant green eyes. One hundred and seventy-four carats they measured, and another beneath them as a pendant, 226. They were offset by a mass of diamonds, and their green depths were flanked with a cloud no synthetic emerald can imitate. The biggest was estimated to be worth 20,000,000 rubles.
The next piece was late romantic history. It was a belt and pendant of diamonds given by Catherine to her lover, Potemkin. In those days, royalty and royal favorites were literally covered with jewels. There was a coat made for Czar Paul I when he was only twelve years old which contained 13,000 diamonds, worth 90,000,000 rubles. Later Paul elaborated it into a suit of 22,000 diamonds in Cossack style, with a total weight of over 5,000 carats and a value of upward of $100,000,000.
Two matched bracelets of diamonds that shot rainbow flames, and then a collar of emeralds and pearls, thirty-seven deep, dark green stones perfectly matched in a setting of diamonds.
Finally there were two brooches, the first a light water green aquamarine of the Urals as big as the palm of the hand, and the second item a larger Brazilian aquamarine, the blue of the sky and sea, both set in diamonds.
Even the professional unconcern of officials and workmen is not proof against these stones. They held them up and gazed at them across the room to admire them properly.
“For such as these men go mad,” said the expert, adding with an obvious effort at calm, “the blue stone is over 1,000 carats. We cannot compute its value, for it is utterly unique.”
Then, suddenly thrilling with enthusiasm: “Just look, look, how it gleams! It is more beautiful than diamonds, the first stone of the world.”
What we saw was but the cream of the thousand-odd pieces of imperial jewels which are now being catalogued. Of many, absolutely nothing is known. Of the majority, the history must be dug from moldering archives.
How vast and priceless the treasure of Czars was may be judged from the fact that the historic Shah diamond of Akbar’s glory lay for a hundred years after its acquisition unknown and unconsidered in the cellar of the Imperial Palace of the Kremlin at Moscow.