14 February 2021

A Royal Romanov Souvenir: Queen Mary's Faberge Amethyst Brooch

Royal Collection


A few of our commenters have recently been chatting about a gorgeous amethyst brooch from Queen Mary's collection, so I thought it was an especially appropriate time to fill in some of the piece's backstory for everyone. Here's the story of Queen Mary's Fabergé Amethyst Brooch.


The Romanovs and the Windsors on board the Russian imperial yacht, August 1909


To begin, we'll set our time machines to August 1909. The royal family is gathering on the Isle of Wight for Cowes Week, one of the most important sailing regatta events on the calendar, falling just after Glorious Goodwood. Since the 1820s, boats have been racing during the week-long event on the Solent, the strait that separates the Isle of Wight from England. The event began in part because of King George IV's interest in yachting, and throughout the next century, it continued to be a popular social event attended by the royal family.

Cowes Week in 1909, though, was particularly special. King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra had a special set of visitors that year: Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra of Russia, along with their five children. The Russian royals sailed into Spithead on Monday, August 2, aboard the imperial yacht, the Standart. The boat anchored near the British royal yacht, the Victoria and Albert, and the King and Queen sailed by barge to the Standart to greet their guests. Of course, the Russian imperial couple weren't just foreign heads of state. Emperor Nicholas II was Queen Alexandra's nephew (the son of her sister, Dagmar, who had become Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia), and Empress Alexandra was King Edward VII's niece (the daughter of his late sister, Princess Alice, the Grand Duchess of Hesse).

The Isle of Wight County Press reported that the "two Monarchs embraced with much affection, and the King cordially saluted the Empress. Affectionate greetings were also exchanged between the Queen and the Emperor, and the Imperial children were presented and formed an interesting portion of a happy domestic picture."


The Romanovs and the Windsors aboard the Russian imperial yacht, August 1909


The roster of royalty present on the Isle of Wight during the imperial visit is rather breathtaking, at least from a historical perspective. King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra were accompanied by their daughter, Princess Victoria. The Prince and Princess of Wales (King George V and Queen Mary) were there with their eldest son, Prince Edward (King Edward VIII), and their daughter, Princess Mary (Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood). The King's brother, the Duke of Connaught, was present with the Duchess and their three children, Prince Arthur, Princess Patricia, and Princess Margaret—who was now Crown Princess of Sweden, and was present with her husband, the Crown Prince (King Gustaf VI Adolf). The King's sister, Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, was there with her Duke; so was another sister, Princess Henry of Battenberg, with her sons, Prince Alexander, Prince Leopold, and Prince Maurice. (Her daughter, Queen Ena of Spain, had been due to attend with King Alfonso XIII, but political matters kept them away.)

The royal list went on even further. Another of the king's sisters, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, was on the island with her daughter, Princess Helena Victoria. Prince and Princess Alexander of Teck (later Earl and Countess of Athlone) were there as well, as was Prince Louis of Battenberg (later Marquess of Milford Haven). And, to top it all off, the Russian tsarina wasn't even the only empress in town. Empress Eugenie of France, who had been living in English exile for years, was there with her yacht, the Thistle, too.


Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf and Crown Princess Margareta of Sweden, with the Duchess of Connaught, greet the Russian grand duchesses, August 1909


The visit was full of racing and meals and family greetings, including luncheons and teas and banquets aboard the Victoria and Albert and the Standart. On Tuesday, which was King's Cup day at the regatta, the newspapers reported that the boats sailed in "glorious conditions" on the Solent. The royals visited and ate and sailed aboard a pair of British royal yachts, the Britannia and the Alexandra, where Prime Minister Asquith also joined the party.

Meanwhile, the Princess of Wales (Queen Mary) spent the morning on the island at Osborne, accompanied by Princess Mary and all five of the imperial children. They frolicked on the beach, gathering seashells, and later went on a shopping expedition in Cowes, showing off their English and buying a whole collection of royal picture postcards. There, word slowly got out that the grand duchesses were in town. Crowds gathered, blocking the roads and even following the imperial children into shops. But, the local paper reported, the "children themselves had not apparently been in the least frightened by the excited and rather closely-pressing holiday crowd, and they behaved with complete self-possession, smiling when one or two enthusiasts raised a cheer for them; but some at least of their attendants were a little perturbed by the whole incident."


The royals share a meal aboard the Russian imperial yacht, August 1909


On Wednesday, the day began with more racing, plus a special Te Deum service in the chapel of the Standart to mark the birthday of the Emperor's mother (and Queen Alexandra's sister), Empress Marie Feodorovna. That afternoon, the imperial couple went ashore on the island for the first time. The couple motored with the King and Queen to the naval college at Osborne, where they were proudly shown around by Prince Edward (King Edward VIII), who had spent time at the college before moving on to Dartmouth.

Next, the royals headed to Osborne House, the beloved home of the late Queen Victoria. While they toured both the state apartments and the private rooms, including the bedroom where Queen Victoria died, the royal children larked about on the grounds outside. The papers reported that "Princess Henry of Battenberg, Princess Victoria, and Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein" accompanied the younger members of the party and found themselves "joining in the games" outdoors.


The families pose for a formal portrait outside Barton Manor, August 1909


The party then moved on to Barton Manor, a farmhouse near Osborne House that had been purchased as a guesthouse by Queen Victoria, and which had been modernized and extended by King Edward VII. They took tea at the house with the Prince and Princess of Wales, and posed for a series of famous photographs taken by Arthur William Debenham. I'll give you a quick ID of the royals in the image above. Standing, from left to right, are: Prince Edward (King Edward VIII), Queen Alexandra, Princess Mary (Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood), Princess Victoria, Grand Duchess Olga, and Grand Duchess Tatiana. Seated in chairs, from left to right, are: the Princess of Wales (Queen Mary), Emperor Nicholas II, King Edward VII, Empress Alexandra, the Prince of Wales (King George V), and Grand Duchess Maria. Seated on the ground are Tsesarevich Alexei and Grand Duchess Anastasia.


Prince Edward, Emperor Nicholas II, Tsesarevich Alexei, and the Prince of Wales, August 1909


During the photo session, Nicholas and George posed together in a famous photograph that's often used to demonstrate the physical resemblance between the cousins. They also posed with their sons, Edward and Alexei—an attempt to show off a continuation of power between present and future, which in historical retrospect, is pretty fascinating and eyebrow-raising.


Royal Collection


The imperial family left Cowes on Thursday, August 5, after an impressive farewell luncheon. They left behind memories of a stellar family and diplomatic visit, as well as some physical souvenirs. The imperial couple had presented the Princess of Wales (Queen Mary) with a gorgeous brooch made of diamonds and amethysts set in silver. The incredible violet gemstone is placed in an open setting and suspended from a diamond-set ribbon. The piece, which is attributed to Fabergé, is also described as a "pendant jewel" by the Royal Collection, and indeed, you'll be able to spot a bale fitting that would allow it to be worn as a pendant.


Sotheby's


I'm particularly intrigued by the similarities between Queen Mary's brooch and a diamond and amethyst necklace owned by her mother-in-law, Queen Alexandra. The necklace features hexagonal amethysts in a belle epoque setting; it was reportedly made for Alexandra around 1900. The necklace and the brooch, though they share similar design features, were never part of the same collection. The necklace was inherited by Queen Alexandra's granddaughter, Princess Maud, Countess of Southesk, and later sold at auction. It comes up for sale again from time to time, including a recent 2007 auction at Sotheby's in New York.


A young Mary of Teck wears other amethyst jewels from her collection


But, anyway, I digress. Mary's own jewelry collection included other amethyst pieces, including the suite of amethyst jewels worn in the portrait above. This set, which you can read more about here, was also eventually sold.


Royal Collection


Intriguingly, I've never seen a photograph or portrait of Mary wearing the Fabergé Amethyst Brooch, either as a brooch or a pendant. (If you have seen one, please let me know where! It's quite a tiny piece, measuring in at around 4x2.5 centimeters.) Sadly, the brooch turned out to be a souvenir of one of the last meetings between the Windsors and the Romanovs. Given what we now know about the futures of each royal house, perhaps the brooch reminded Mary a bit too much of the Russian side of the family?