There were white gloves on the table in the anteroom, laid out carefully next to a big black box. “Put them on,” my jewelry Deep Throat instructed. “You can’t open it without them.” I had been inquiring about the lost Romanov jewelry catalogues for several months—years?—before I was given access to view them. They are legendary volumes, at least to those who know they ever existed at all.
The four book set, titledRussia’s Treasure of Diamonds and Precious Stones, was published in 1925 by The People’s Commissariat of Finances, in French, Russian, English, and German. The motive is thought to have been a bid to lure wealthy foreign buyers before a sale, but it was certainly also an opportunity to repudiate rumors that the best stuff had fled the country through aristocratic secret missions.
Which pieces made it out of the Revolution and into Europe intact? Which were pulled apart by the government and sold as stones? Which of the ones sewn into their clothing blunted the Bolsheviks bullets? Where are they all now?
In the aftermath of the 1917 revolution, numerous reports in foreign newspapers had suggested wanton vandalism and the loss of a collection reportedly worth $500 million. The St. Louis Dispatch wrote that the “Romanoff crown jewels, a hoard which no other collection in Europe can approach for magnificence, have disappeared.”
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A diamond tiara that once belonged to the Empress Marie Fedorovna, and was sold as part of an auction of Russian state jewels at Christie Manson and Woods Auction House in 1927.
The 1925 catalogue was a clear and direct response. “We’ve still got it all comrade,” the carefully documented inventory of the treasures declared. And then, not long after publication, most of the copies disappeared. “Too much information out there,” my source, a well-known jewelry expert, surmised, “could be compromising.”
The Fersman editions, so-called after the scientist who oversaw their creation, remain one of the Holy Grails of jewelry scholarship. “You saw a Fersman?” a curator recently exclaimed when I mentioned my secret viewing. “I’m impressed.” The last time a full copy came up for auction it sold at Christies for $141,984. It is assumed there are only 20 left in the world. In 2016 the GIA painstakingly archived a full edition on its site. But to see a Fersman live? It was a rare privilege.
The Coronation of Empress Alexandra Fyorodovna, 1899.
Over a century after the Romanovs were assassinated by the Bolsheviks, the whereabouts of their jewelry remains an enduring mystery. Which pieces made it out of the Revolution and into Europe intact? Which were pulled apart by the government and sold as stones? Which of the ones sewn into their clothing blunted the Bolsheviks bullets? Where are they all now? This remains a developing story. The Fersman catalogues are a part of it.
The mystery deepens when viewing the contraband catalogues. The full scope of the legendary Romanov collection is on view and the fate of so many of the pieces documented within lead any viewer into the rabbit hole that is Russian history. The catalogues themselves are widely considered the most complete inventory of the Russian Imperial jewelry collection.
That statement too, however, comes cloaked in caveats. A single copy of what appears to be the prototype of these Fersman catalogues created in 1922, and now the property of USGS library in Virginia, contains images of four pieces—including a sapphire tiara, a sapphire bracelet, and emerald necklace and a bow shaped brooch—that are missing from the 1925 inventory. One piece, the sapphire brooch was sold at auction in 1927, the whereabouts of the others remain unknown.
A brooch once owned by the Russian royal family and sold at auction in 1927.
This 1922 copy, part of the collection of American mineralogist George F. Kunz (the stone Kunzite has him to thank for its discovery and its name) is seen as a prototype for the official 1925 Fersman volumes I had been invited to see.
And what’s in them anyway? A hammer and sickle is embossed at the top of each opening page, directly above the words “Russias Treasure of Diamonds and Precious Stones.” The arm of government funding the work is clear: The People’s Commissariat of Finances, Moscow-1925.
There are pages and pages of jewels, brooches with pear shaped diamond drops larger than I have ever seen, and floral pieces carved with astounding precision and detail. I stopped at "Phot. 45"—“A full eared diadem with a leuco-sapphire (full size)”—because it’s almost abstract design was so refreshingly modern, and also paused at a remarkable pair of diamond earrings on a wire that had belonged to Catherine the Great.
An "esclave" necklace with diamonds, pearls and emeralds.
There was a diamond girdle with two tassels, a diamond accented fan, and several examples of rivieres (necklaces made of gemstones of the same kind that are all the same size and shape or graduate smoothly in size) with stones of such intriguing brilliance that even in black and white the impact was undeniable. Each photograph is separated by protective paper that contains a succinct description: Phot. 2 The Crown (full size); Phot. 41 Diamond riviere, the so-called collier d’esclave (full size.) Some jewels are more familiar than others: the Russian Nuptial crown depicted in the catalogue was sold at Christies in 1927, and is now on view at theHillwood Museum in Washington DC.
The Russian Nuptial Crown is made from diamonds which had been part of Catherine the Great's wardrobe, and it measures just 4 inches in diameter. There are 320 larger diamonds weighing 182 carats total and 1,200 smaller diamonds totaling 80 carats, mounted in silver and set on crimson velvet. It was bought at auction by American heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1927.
But such a clearly traceable jewelry narrative—from Romanov to Fersman catalogue to current whereabouts— is virtually unheard of. The Jewelry Deep Throat that had granted me an audience with the Fersman volumes and I spent a considerable amount of time ruminating on why the collection was so meticulously documented only to lose trace of many of the pieces—and the catalogues—after.
We also looked closely at the short blocks of text that interrupt the jewelry images trying to clarify the mission beyond the obvious goals of attracting foreign buyers and proudly displaying the wealth of the State. And then after several paragraphs had described how the collection chronicled in “Russias Treasure of Diamonds and Precious Stones” had begun during the reign of Peter the Great I found the words that revealed more about the book’s true purpose.
“The history of the Diamond-Treasure reflects the history of the Romanovs during the first two centuries, with their exceeding lavishness in some cases, and their extreme avarice [in] others.”
Avarice, lavishness, excess. Nothing like a little Bolshevik propaganda to go with Imperial diamonds. Looking through the pages, the wealth of the Romanovs is overwhelming and might certainly invite judgement. The loss of so many pieces, many steeped in history, and the story behind their tragic fate, continues to fascinate in ways it is sometimes hard to fathom.
Days after I viewed the Fersman catalogue I boarded a train to Washington where I would come face to face with the surviving Nuptial Crown. That, I’ll save for the next chapter.