Rocky Road

The legendary Romanov jewels, like many things Russian, are more than meets the eye. Not merely pretty baubles, they’ve been used more than once to shore up the national economy. The disastrous Russo-Japanese War and 1905 Revolution so depleted the national treasury that Tsar Nicholas II, unbeknownst to all but a few officials, sold off millions of dollars’ worth of unmounted stones to ease the deficit. India was a big customer, as evidenced in the dazzling diamonds flaunted by, among other Indian families, the Nizam of Hyderabad. Gemologists are certain that many of His Exalted Highness’s rocks are Russian.

Did Princess Elizabeth's wedding gift from the Nizam contain Russian stones?

Did Princess Elizabeth’s 1947 wedding gift from the Nizam contain Russian stones?

After the October Revolution in 1917, the victorious Bolsheviks seized the Romanov crown jewels, which had been crated and stashed in the Kremlin Armory for safekeeping during World War I, and declared them the property of the people. Anxious to finance their fledgling government, they followed the tsar’s actions and put certain jewels up for sale.  To attract foreign investors, they engaged mineralogist Alexander Fersman to evaluate the staggering collection of diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds and pearls and list them in a catalogue published in 1925. The first official sale took place that year in Moscow, and eyewitnesses described “clandestine and sometimes dangerous negotiations surrounding the Soviet sales.” It’s no surprise that not every purchase went where intended or that all monies lined the right pockets.

After the 1917 revolution, Russia's new rulers debated what to do with the crown jewels. This 1925 photo shows the collection. However, a 1922 album at the U.S. Geological Survey includes photos of four items that are not described in the official 1925 inventory.

Russia’s fabled crown jewels amassed and displayed by the Bolsheviks.

A far more civilized event occurred in March, 1927, at Christie’s in London. Billed as “Magnificent Jewelry—Part of the Russian State Jewels,” its preview was a cause célèbre drawing the rich, the curious not-so-rich and one very special lady. At the end of the day, Christie’s closed its doors to all but someone arriving in an inconspicuous limousine. Out stepped none other than Queen Mary who spent half an hour perusing the room which, according to the London Evening Post, “presented the appearance of a fairy palace, resplendent with…brilliant jewels, pearl tiaras, necklaces, and the rarest gems.” Her Majesty has been accused of exploiting a desperate situation, but there’s no denying she saved pieces from disappearing into private collections or, worse, being broken up, and forever protected them as property of the British monarchy. Her most glamorous purchase, and the one most visible today, was the Vladimir tiara made for Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna who had it daringly smuggled out of Russia after the revolution. It became a favorite of Queen Mary as well as Queen Elizabeth II.

H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth and the Vladimir tiara.

H.R.H. Queen Elizabeth and the Vladimir tiara.

A far more historic item at the Christie’s sale, one passed over by Queen Mary, was Lot 62, the so-called Nuptial Crown which had been dismissed as rather “unimportant” by Fersman. His evaluation speaks volumes about the quality of the collection since the crown contains over 1500 diamonds weighing 264 carats! The bidding for Lot 62 started at £5000 and sold for £6200 to a party presumed to be French antiques dealer, Isaac Founés. He no doubt knew it had been worn by Princess Alix of Hesse and By Rhine (later the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna), at her marriage to Nicholas II. Founés may or may not have known that it was first worn by Grand Duchess Alexandra Iosifovna at her 1848 marriage to Grand Duke Constantin Nikolayevich, second son of Tsar Nicholas I, and was last worn by Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna the Younger at her 1908 marriage to Prince Wilhelm of Sweden.

Wedding_of_Nicholas_II_and_Alexandra_Feodorovna_by_Laurits_Tuxen_(1895,_Hermitage) (2)

The nuptial tiara worn at the wedding of Nicholas and Alexandra.

The crown’s journey then became obscure, but at some point it crossed the Atlantic where, during the 1930s, Prince Christopher of Greece called upon Pierre Cartier in New York. His Highness’s response merits quoting in full. “Suddenly Cartier said, ‘I would like to show you something.’ He took out a velvet case from his private safe, laid it upon the table and opened it. Within lay a diamond crown with six arches rising from the circlet and surmounted by a cross. ‘Do you recognize it?’ he asked me. I nodded wordlessly, seized by a sense of melancholy that rose from the depths of my memory. It was the crown of the Romanovs. My mother had worn it and her mother before her; it had adorned all the princesses of the imperial house on their wedding days. All at once, it seemed to me the room was filled with shades of long-dead brides.” The nuptial crown’s journey continued, reposing for a time with Helen de Kay of New York before being sold by her estate in 1966 to Marjorie Merriweather Post. Since 1977, it has been on public display at Ms. Post’s Hillwood Estate Museum and Gardens in Washington D. C., part of the largest private collection of Russian art and memorabilia in this country. Without British royalty and American philanthropists, many Romanov treasures would have disappeared forever.

The Romanov Nuptial Crown found safe haven in Washington, D.C.

Up Next: Are the imperial family’s personal jewels still at large?

The Romanovs are the subject of my next book, Past Time, due in August.



  1. Bebe Bahnsen
    Jul 30, 2015

    Prince Christopher of Greece’s comment was stunning. Oh, the memories!

  2. Liz
    Jul 30, 2015

    Rocky Road, indeed, Michael. And the ill-fated lives just kept accumulating. Sic transit gloria mundi…

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