I have Catherine the Great to thank for my two favorite jewelry stories of all time. The Empress of Russia, who ruled during a Golden Age (1762-1796), believed great jewels were as important as a great army. One legend has it that she would put on extra emeralds before entering particularly difficult meetings with her generals.
The other tale involves an Indian diamond and a Russian lover. Grigory Orlov helped bring down Catherine’s husband and make her Queen (Catherine never much liked her husband Peter anyway) and the two then began a long affair. Catherine ended it—she had moved on to Grigory Potemkin—but Orlov had an idea. He knew of a famed Golconda diamond Catherine had longed for, and depending on who you believe, he went out and got it to try and win her back. Catherine kept the diamond—it became part of the Russian Imperial Scepter in 1774—but she still sent Orlov packing.
You can see that diamond, called the Orlov, on display at the Kremlin Diamond Fund. You will not see it in the Catherine the Great miniseries premiering on HBO tomorrow and starring Helen Mirren. “There is no Orlov diamond in the series,” explains costume designer Maja Meschede. “We would have loved to have recreated it but it was just too tricky.”
Jewelry does, however, play a key role in the show, as it did in Catherine’s life and her sense of power and identity. A diamond bow brooch and choker were recreated in Rome, as was a tiara seen in one of the many portraits painted of Catherine during her reign.
“There are also recreations of a beautiful gold and pearl earring and necklace set that are heavily inspired by Russian folkloric design,” says Meschede. “They are based very much on traditional Russian peasant dressing. Catherine did not have an ounce of Russian blood in her, so she needed to use these jewels to prove how Russian she had become.”
For Catherine, says Mescede, “jewelry was all about messages. It was political.” The wealth and prosperity of the region during her reign was chief among the stories she wanted her jewelry to tell.
“Russian jewelry of the period, when compared to the French or Germanic jewelry of the same time, is much more, I guess the word is ‘blingy.’ It was larger than life, the diamonds were huge. In dresses of the time the wider the petticoat of your dress, the wealthier and more powerful you were thought to be,” says the designer, who devoured biographies of Catherine and of Peter the Great before she visited the Hermitage to research royal dressing. “It was the same with diamonds. I mean, look at the necklaces Catherine is wearing in every portrait. And there are always extra jewels in her hair."
Those jewels also bolstered Catherine when she privately doubted her power. Would things have been better had she been born a man, she once asked her trusted adviser Prince de Ligne, who had named her Catherine the Great? The Prince had a quick and wise reply: "Believe me, you are so much more impressive in your beautiful embroidered orange red velvet dolman or tunic than a man decked out in boots and shoulder sash can ever be. In addition, the five huge diamonds blazing out from your hair are far more effective than a man's hat, which is either ridiculously small or ridiculously big.''
Catherine’s glittering displays of power have inspired other powerful women, most notably American philanthropist Marjorie Merriweather Post, who collected Catherine the Great memorabilia, some of which is now on display at her house museum in Washington, DC. Dr. Wilfried Zeisler, chief curator of the Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens has studied Catherine’s use of jewelry as projection of power.
“In many of her portraits, Empress Catherine the Great of Russia is frequently portrayed wearing fabulous jewelry that became part of her associated iconography,” says Zeisler. “From 1762 on, she is often depicted wearing historic pieces from the Russian crown jewels she wore during her lavish coronation ceremony in Moscow that same year. Her jewelry served as symbols of imperial power and as a means to justify her position following a coup d'état."
Catherine's chosen iconography went beyond mere self-projection. She wanted to associate herself with enlightenment ethos of the time—though not as a friend of democracy, mind you. "Catherine was also represented wearing modern pieces of jewelry, illustrating her taste for classical design inspired by Greek and Roman antiquity," says Zeisler. "Similar to a female philosopher, Catherine portrayed herself as an enlightened despot and was called the 'Semiramis of Russia' by the French philosopher Voltaire, referring to the legendary Queen of Babylon.”
Another piece in the collection at Hillwood is a diamond and ruby pendant watch with a cipher of the Empress, which she likely commissioned. It went to her granddaughter Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (she married the Grand Duke of Saxe Weimar in 1804). The watch stayed within the family until 1949 and Post acquired it in 1953.
The famed Romanov Nuptial Crown is also on display at Hillwood. The crown was made in 1884 from diamonds that were once part of jewels commissioned by Catherine in 1767.
And what are the chances you yourself could ever get your hands on a piece with Catherine the Great provenance? Slim. The 1917 Revolution left much of the Imperial Jewelry a mystery. Some pieces were smuggled out of Russia and many were sold at Christie's in 1927. Some remain on display in the Hermitage; many others have whereabouts unknown. When they do come up on the auction market, interest is feverish and prices are high. In 2010 Christies sold an emerald brooch that once belonged to Catherine for $1.6 million, and in May an emerald necklace with ties to the Empress sold for $4.3 million.
For now, you'll just have to watch Catherine on TV to get a bit of that power sparkle.
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