26 August 2015

Jewel History: Romanoff Treasures (1922)

"Romanoff Treasures"
(originally appeared in the New York Times on 28 Aug 1922)

Mr. Duranty's account of the Czarist jewels, sent by wireless from Moscow and published in Saturday's Times, was not only a triumph of transmission but a brilliant bit of description:

The imperial crown jewels of Russia -- diamonds as big as walnuts, rubies, emeralds, bright, blooded, 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, blue, white, yellow, even greenish 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.

These jewels have a heightened lustre and brilliance in the contrasting setting they give to the plain, drab, indifferent Bolshevistic regime with which they are now associated. Communist officials handle them with an unconcerned air and with hands that do not itch though they tremble "ever so little" over the crown of the emperor. A Russian peasant in his smock holds for the moment a sceptre that has lost all but its innate beauty and power. Workmen sit down to their lunch in the midst of this surpassing spectacle with no more avaricious wish -- even if this one comes into their thoughts -- than that those stones might be commanded to be made bread.

And the Soviet head of the jewel commission with careless gesture tosses into its place the "most wonderful and historic stone civilization has known," the diamond that hung before the throne of Akbar the Great, Mogul of Hindustan, under whose mild rule (ending in 1630) India was as well governed as France, Spain, Italy, Germany, or Russia [1]. To Akbar every ruby of price was "the magnificent ruby." To the Communist the most magnificent seems to have become the commonplace.

These stones would, heaped together, build such a "cairn of remembrance" as no other collection in the world -- remembrance of glory, of romance, of misery, and of hideous death; for some are such as the Duke of Clarence dreamed of in his imprisonment in the London Tower, all scattered in the slimy bottom of the sea: "Wedges of gold ... heaps of pearl, inestimable stones, unvalued jewels." Some of them lay in dead men's skulls; and in the "holes that eyes did once inhabit" there had crept "reflecting gems." [2] So one cannot look upon these imperial jewels, which the Bolsheviki have guarded so scrupulously, without seeing them all turned to rubies -- not as Akbar's, "to magnificent rubies," but to ensanguined stones.

1. The reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar I (or Akbar the Great) actually ended with his death in 1605.
2. The Times is quoting from Shakespeare here -- specifically, Act 1, Scene 4 of Richard III, where Richard's brother, the Duke of Clarence, tells his jailer at the Tower of London about a vivid dream he had the night before.