It’s been shaping up to be a landmark auction season for royal jewels, and the fascinating pieces just keep on popping up in sale catalogues! Today, we’re shining a spotlight on a suite of Romanov sapphires that will be sold next week at Sotheby’s.
Sotheby’s is billing the jewels as a “historically important sapphire and diamond brooch and a pair ear clips, circa 1900.” They note that the set comes from “a European Princely Family,” adding that they were “formerly from a European Imperial Family.” The imperial family in question is the House of Romanov, former rulers of Russia.
The lot notes for the jewels also provide a description of the pieces: “a brooch of plaque design, set at the centre with an oval sapphire weighing 26.80 carats, the border set with cushion-shaped and rose diamonds” and a “pair of ear clips en suite, set with step-cut sapphires weighing 6.69 and 9.36 carats respectively, within a border of rose-cut and cushion-shaped diamonds.” The pieces feature Russian assay marks and are signed by their maker: Sophia Schwan. She was one of the jewelers who worked for Bolin, the Russian imperial crown jeweler. At the firm’s St. Petersburg headquarters, Sophia crafted incredible jewels alongside her husband, the goldsmith Robert Schwan. Sophia made several other important pieces for the imperial family, including Empress Alexandra Feodorovna’s emerald tiara and necklace.
The sapphire and diamond brooch and earrings being sold at Sotheby’s belonged to another member of the family: Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, better known to history as Grand Duchess Vladimir. She owned spectacular sapphire jewels, including a grand tiara and an imposing necklace. Her collection also included a gorgeous Fabergé star sapphire brooch, which was later owned by the comedian Joan Rivers.
She also owned an incredible sapphire devant de corsage, as well as a grand sapphire and diamond kokoshnik, which had been made for her by Cartier in 1909. Above, she wears the kokoshnik with other pieces from her sapphire collection in a 1911 portrait by Boris Kustodiev. Only a few years after Grand Duchess Vladimir acquired the kokoshnik, however, the imperial family was removed from power in Russia. She managed to escape into exile, but she left so hurriedly that her jewels remained behind in the Vladimir Palace in St. Petersburg.
We’ve often told the story of the daring retrieval of the Vladimir jewels. Grand Duke Boris, her son, worked with a British diplomat, Bertie Stopford, to sneak back into Russia. Dressed as workmen, they made their way into the Vladimir Palace and loaded up the imperial jewels into a pair of plain brown bags. The Vladimir Tiara, now worn by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, was famously part of that rescued collection. According to the information provided by Sotheby’s, so were these diamond and sapphire earrings and their coordinating brooch. (The catalogue includes a lengthy and informative essay, very much worth reading.) Stopford made his way out of Russia with the jewels in the autumn of 1917, making his way to London via Sweden and Scotland. The jewels were placed in a safety deposit box for a time. After Grand Duchess Vladimir died in 1920, the jewels were assessed by Cartier and then divided among her descendants.
According to Sotheby’s, the sapphire brooch and earrings went to Grand Duchess Vladimir’s only daughter. Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna of Russia had moved to Athens in 1902 following her marriage to Prince Nicholas of Greece and Denmark. (She was usually known as “Princess Nicholas” after the wedding.) Other pieces of sapphire jewelry from the collection were dispersed differently; the Cartier kokoshnik, for example, was purchased by Queen Marie of Romania.
Princess Nicholas had Cartier make a new fitted case for the brooch and earrings after they arrived in her jewelry box. The case, made in the traditional red leather of the jewelry firm, is stamped with the Greek royal crown. The case is being offered for auction along with the sapphire jewels.
Prince and Princess Nicholas had three daughters, all of whom married into other royal families. After a failed engagement to King Frederik IX of Denmark, the eldest, Princess Olga, married Prince Paul of Yugoslavia (a first cousin of King Alexander I). The second, Princess Elisabeth, married Count Carl Theodor of Törring-Jettenbach, a nephew of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. And the youngest, Princess Marina, famously wed Prince George, Duke of Kent.
The lot notes from Sotheby’s indicate that the jewels were inherited by one of Princess Nicholas’s daughters, but they don’t clarify which one. (I’d wager it was either Olga or Elisabeth, given the reference to a “European princely family,” but that’s just a guess.) The brooch and earrings appear to have stayed with the family until 2009, when they were sold at Sotheby’s in Geneva.
This time around, the auction house will again offer the jewels in Geneva, during their upcoming Magnificent Jewels and Nobel Jewels sale. The auction is scheduled for November 10, and the jewels are estimated to bring between 280,000-480,000 Swiss francs (or approximately $306,000-525,000 USD).