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 USGS includes photos of four items that are missing from the 1925 photo.
The story of the missing Russian crown jewels begins, as so many great adventures do, in a library.
In this case, it was the U.S. Geological Survey Library in Reston, Va.
Richard Huffine, the director, was looking through the library's rare-book collection when he came upon an oversized volume.
"And there's no markings on the outside, there's no spine label or anything like that," he says. "This one caught our eye, and we pulled it aside to take a further look at it."
Researcher Jenna Nolt was one of those who took a look.
"The title page is completely hand drawn, and it's got this beautiful, elaborate design on it, and it has the date 1922," Nolt says. "When we translated the title, we found out that it was The Russian Diamond Fund."
The Diamond Fund is the name given to the imperial regalia of the Romanov family, the czars of Russia for more than 300 years, from 1613 to 1917.
Huffine knew they were on to something.
"Several of the pictures at the very front of the album are the iconic, known products that you would think of for the Russian Crown Jewels, including the Orlov Diamond in the scepter, and the grand crown, which has the huge stone at the top," he says.
The Orlov Diamond is a 189-carat stone that was famously stolen from the eye of a statue of a Hindu deity in southern India — and that's only one of the stories behind the collection.
These are jewels of almost magical significance, symbols of unbridled power and wealth.
Calling In An Expert
The U.S. Geological Survey librarians called Kristen Regina, the archivist and head of the research collection at the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C.
The Hillwood boasts the largest collection of Russian imperial art outside of Russia.
"The crown jewels play an important part in the coronation story," Regina says, "because the czar crowns himself in the coronation, and that is the moment when he takes full power."
The Romanov dynasty came to an end in 1917, amid the chaos of a world war, a revolution and a civil war.
Regina says the fate of the crown jewels raised a furious debate among the Bolshevik leadership, which was badly in need of money.
Some of the revolutionaries saw the jewels as symbols of centuries of exploitation — gems that ought to be sold to benefit the workers.
Historian Igor Zimin says much of the collection was preserved by curators at the Kremlin in Moscow, who were able to convince the leaders that the gems had enormous historical significance.
Zimin, the head of the history department at the St. Petersburg State Medical University, says there are records of auctions of some of the lesser pieces from the collection dating from around 1927. There are even memoranda about Soviet agents being caught while traveling with diamonds in their luggage.
Zimin is skeptical, by the way, about the newly rediscovered book, because it's dated 1922, and an official photographic inventory of the crown jewels wasn't published until 1925.
Differences Between The Two Books
The USGS has a copy of that book, too, and researcher Jenna Nolt has compared the two.
She found that the 1922 volume shows four pieces of jewelry that don't appear in the later official book.
Nolt says the researchers learned the fate of one of the pieces, a sapphire brooch.
She says it was sold at auction in London in 1927, "but the three other pieces, the necklace, the diadem and the bracelet, we have no idea what happened to them."
One person who might have known is the man who acquired the 1922 volume in the first place.
He was an American mineralogist and gem expert who worked at various times for the jeweler Tiffany & Co. and the USGS.
His name was George Frederick Kunz, and his adventures took him to Russia in those dangerous years after the revolution and the civil war.
"If you ever have a chance to read his writings," Nolt says, "he's got this wonderful attitude, and he's traveling in carriages in rural Russia to meet 'the peasant queen of amethysts,' and he's talking about how he's traveling with a pistol over his knees because he doesn't trust the driver of the carriage, so I think — an Indiana Jones figure, definitely."
On View At The Kremlin
The jewels of the Russian Diamond Fund are on display in the Kremlin in Moscow — or most of them, anyway.
The officials in charge of the exhibition declined to comment for this story.
The researchers who've uncovered the story thus far say the rest of the mystery is free for anyone — amateur or professional — to try to solve.
Who knows, it might be time to take a look in great-grandma's jewel case.
© National Public Radio. 31 December, 2012