Washington, 29 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - For the first time ever, Americans are getting a chance to see a Russian treasure trove that not very many Russians have seen -- the jewels of the Romanov dynasty.
More than 115 jewels and uncut gems are among 250 objects from five major Russian collections which are part of an exhibition opening in Washington today entitled: "Jewels of the Romanovs: Treasures of the Russian Imperial Court."
The director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, David Levy, calls it "a spectacular exhibition of jewels, costumes, paintings, icons and religious artifacts celebrating the Romanov dynasty from the 18th century to the dynasty's end in 1917."
It is the first time so many of the jewels, controlled by the State Diamond Fund, have left Russia and the first time any have traveled to the United States. They are normally kept in a limited-access museum beneath the Kremlin Armory. The exhibition in Washington is only the first of several venues that will host the treasures during a two year tour throughout America.
Among the treasures featured in the exhibition are three of what are known as the seven "wonders of the State Diamond Fund,":
Caesar's Ruby," once believed to have belonged to the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, the stone was captured in Prague during the Thirty Years War and taken to Sweden. In 1777, King Gustavus III of Sweden carried it to St. Petersburg to give to Catherine the Great in hopes of marrying one of her granddaughters. He got no bride, but she kept the gem.
A Sapphire Brooch which features a 260-carat Ceylon sapphire was purchased on behalf of Alexander II at the great exhibition in London in 1862 as a gift for his wife.
A gothic style bracelet with the largest flat cut diamond known, weighing 27 carats, used as the glass cover of a portrait of Alexander I. The diamond had entered the imperial collection in 1771 and was used in a number of pieces over the years. But upon the death of Alexander in 1825, it was made into the bracelet as a memorial. Of course, historians say Alexander faked his own death and went into seclusion as a monk named Feodor Kuzmich. In checking out the rumor, the Bolsheviks dug up Alexander's tomb and found no body.
The Corcoran gallery's Levy says the Russian State Diamond Fund, first created by Peter the Great in 1719 and reconstructed by the Soviet government in 1927, holds one of the world's "finest collections of precious stones and jewelry, unequaled in wealth and of considerable artistic value."
In addition to the jewelry and a collection of large precious stones, gold and platinum nuggets and semi-precious stones from the Ural mountains, the exhibition features a number of gowns and other clothes worn by the Romanovs at court in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as religious artifacts and icons from the Yaroslavl State Architectual and Historical Museum-Preserve.
The exhibition is to mark the 125th anniversary of the only official visit of the Russian imperial family to the United States -- the 1871 visit of Grand Duke Alexis at the invitation of President Ulysses S. Grant. Grant, who led the forces of the federal U.S. government and northern states in the American civil war, invited Alexis as a way to thank Russia for its active support of President Abraham Lincoln in the war.
It is a little known aspect of history that in the American civil war, Russia sent a number of frigates to the U.S. coast to rout British and French vessels which were attempting to interfere with the northern sea blockade of the southern states. Britain and France interceded on behalf of the seceding southern states because they wanted the cotton the south grew.
Alexis, then just 21 years old, spent three months touring major parts of the United States, including states of the south. A letter Alexis wrote to his mother, Empress Maria Feodorovna -- a part of the exhibition -- expresses surprise that he was invited to visit Louisville, Kentucky, "one of the most implacable enemies of the Northern States during the war," because Russia "was always for the North."
The young Russian nobleman added that he found Americans in general "completely lack even the simplest manners," but that in the southern states, there was "a wonderful difference" because the people are "much more like Europeans....it is apparent that they are old feudal landowners, and in general, are similar to our own old nobility."
Among the photographs, letters, official telegrams and other memorabilia of the visit of Alexis drawn from the Russian state archives is a large official-looking proclamation signed by dozens of prominent Americans of the time profusely thanking Russia for its support in the civil war. There was even a popular song in the United States at the time titled "Hurrah for Russia and the States! (For the Tsar and Grant are friends)."
The Romanovs starting with 16-year-old Mikhail Feodorovitch Romanov who first took the throne in 1613 and ending with the execution of the last Tsar, Nicholas, in 1918, spent millions on palaces, art collections, jewels and clothes. Large parts of those collections were sold off by the Soviet government in the 1920s to get hard currency. The Diamond Fund, after being reorganized, sorted out pieces that were deemed not of historic or national importance, which were sold off, thus disposing of the greater part of the jewels acquired in the 19th and 20th centuries.
After the sales, the rest of the jewels were hidden by the Diamond Fund. It was not until 1967, the 50th anniversary of the 1917 revolution, that the jewels were finally exhibited again. But they continue to be stored in a vault and can be seen only by special appointment.
In 1954, huge deposits of diamonds and precious metals were discovered in the province of Yakutia and the Soviet government then quietly renewed the tradition of placing the most important stones into the collection. With these new stones, the Diamond Fund then began restoring pieces in the collection and training gold and silver smiths and jewelers in the techniques of the earlier centuries.
Several of the pieces which had been sold after the revolution have since been recreated and the jewelers under the diamond Fund continue to work at expanding the collection and recapturing the Russian heritage art of jewelry making.
To show how successful that effort has been, the exhibition concludes with a showing of a number of pieces created by Russian artists in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. Some are recreations of historic works, others are modern pieces by contemporary Russian jewelers.