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Diamonds: a Romanov Czar's Best Friend

Rubies and sapphires weren't far behind, a rare exhibition in Washington points out

The popular 1920s song says that diamonds are a girl's best friend, and diamonds were definitely a blessing as well for the Romanov czars who ruled Russia from 1613 to 1917. We can now see, for the first time in the United States, hundreds of these gems exhibited in the Corcoran Gallery of Art's $100 million-plus "Jewels of the Romanovs: Treasures of the Russian Imperial Court."

More than 7,000 viewers are visiting the Corcoran weekly to see this extraordinary show from Russia's State Diamond Fund, exhibited behind bullet-proof glass. Rubies, sapphires, amethysts, emeralds, rubelite-tourmalines, topazes, pearls, ivories, aquamarines, alexandrites, and opals join the diamonds in sparkling glory at the museum through April.

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The occasion for the exhibit is the 125th anniversary of the Russian Grand Duke Alexis's visit to the United States at the invitation of President Ulysses S. Grant. Jewel-encrusted ecclesiastical objects and royal costumes, borrowed from four other Russian museums, are also on view.

Influence of the church

Most of the religious items - bishops' robes, glistening gold chalices, pearl-stitched Bible covers - come from the ancient monastery city of Yaroslavl, near Moscow. It was here that many of the jewelers' arts and techniques - stone cutting, polishing, setting, engraving, enameling, filigree, and niello - were first developed for the church, then explored further by court artists.

The Romanov dynasty, including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and the ill-fated Nicholas II, built this jewelry collection that was unrivaled by any country in Europe at the time. Over the years, the jewels, fashioned by the best gem smiths in Russia and Europe, became a part of the State Diamond Fund.

Peter the Great created the fund in 1719 because he believed the Romanov family fortunes should be kept separate from those of the Russian state. He was the first of several Romanovs to give important pieces to the state. Today, the State Fund is housed within a limited-access museum beneath the Kremlin armory. The Romanov dynasty ended when Nicholas II and his family were killed by Bolshevik rebels in 1917.

Making an impression with jewels

Over three centuries, the Romanovs impressed foreign envoys and dignitaries with sumptuous palaces, lavish banquets, oil portraits, and dazzling jewels such as these. For example, the curators display jewels given as power-play gifts, such as the extraordinary Caesar's Ruby pendant, presented by King Gustaf III of Sweden to Catherine the Great when he visited in 1777.

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He had hoped to marry one of Catherine's granddaughters, but Catherine kept the egg-sized gem and he went home empty-handed - without the gem, and without a wife. Originally called Caesar's Ruby because it was believed to be an ancient stone owned by the Roman emperor, the pendant was later found to be a rubelite-tourmaline. It was probably Indian, rather than Classical, in origin.

Peter the Great (ruled 1682-1725) expanded both the court and the empire, making Russia the greatest power in Europe. He transformed Russia into a great maritime power and founded St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland as Russia's window on the West. There, hundreds of foreign artisans, craftsmen, jewelers, artists, and merchants flocked during Peter's rule, and that of Catherine the Great (ruled 1762-96), hoping for royal patronage.

One was the Austrian jeweler Leopold Pfisterer, who created the large, pendant-shaped diamond-and-spinel earrings displayed here that persuaded Catherine to hire him as court jeweler in 1764. He stayed for 40 years, also creating the very large, diamond-and-ruby glass, cross-shaped neck badge that is dramatically displayed at the exhibit's entrance.

The "Blue Diamond Stickpin" on display was possibly cut from the same stone as the Hope Diamond. A Gothic Style Bracelet (c. 1800-50) features a magnificent 27-carat diamond that is the largest table-cut diamond in the world. It protects a miniature portrait of Alexander I, painted in watercolor on ivory.

Today's Russian jewelers are re-creating the old techniques, in part to offset the 1920s and 1930s Russian sales of several of the most spectacular jewel pieces.

One such re-creation was the Rose Brooch, fashioned in 1970 by Viktor Nikolaev and Gennady Aleksakhin to simulate extraordinary flower studies that existed before. This piece, using 1,466 invisibly set diamonds, is a composite of several flower designs formerly in the state treasury.

Another re-creation of a "lost" piece is the Russian Field Diadem, of gold-and-diamond laurel leaves and sheaves of wheat. Originally made for Empress Maria Feodorovna at the beginning of the 19th century, it features a stunning yellow diamond of 35.52 carats at its center.

* Following the Corcoran exhibition, the jewels travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, May 11-July 20; San Diego Museum of Art, Aug. 16-Oct. 26; and the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Nov. 20-Feb. 1, 1998. Two other venues have yet to be confirmed.

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