Catherine the Great
Emerald and Diamond Brooch

Catherine the Great Emerald and Diamond Brooch
Photo: Sotheby's

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To historians she is Catherine the Great. To Russian nobles and commoners of her time she was the "beloved mother" of her people. With not a single drop of Russian blood in her veins, for her contemporaries and for successive generations, this woman was to become the very embodiment of Russia, ruling a mighty empire for thirty-four years. "Russia above all" was her credo.

Catherine was born in 1729, a princess of Anhalt-Zerbst, a minor German principality, and was baptized Sophia Frederika Augusta according to the Lutheran rite. Selected at the age of 14 as a suitable bride for her half-witted cousin Peter, heir of the childless Empress Elizabeth of Russia, Sophia set off for St. Petersburg. In 1745, she converted to the Russian Orthodox religion in Moscow, taking the name Yekaterina - Catherine - and was married to Peter, officially becoming a Grand Duchess of Russia.

Highly intelligent and strong-willed, she had no legitimate claim to the Russian throne, yet just six months after her detested husband’s accession as Peter III, and fearing banishment, she ousted him to rule in her own right. There had always been a public show of affection between Peter and Catherine, but in private they had been consumed by mutual loathing and Catherine had grown tired of his repudiations. Princess Dashkova, confidante of Catherine, remarked that Peter seemed rather glad to be rid of the throne, and requested only a quiet estate and a ready supply of tobacco and burgundy in which to rest his sorrows. But within days of her coup, Peter was assassinated by a group of Catherine’s most trusted officers. No one knows if Catherine was party to the plot but she certainly condoned it, for soon afterwards she issued a proclamation announcing that Peter had died of a fit of colic.

A striking and whimsical figure, Catherine found herself sole mistress of the world’s largest and wealthiest empire. At once head of state, diplomat, politician and instinctive leader, she extended her empire, fostered progress in many spheres and played a masterly game against rival powers. Well read, Catherine kept current on events in Russia and the rest of Europe while corresponding with many of the great minds of her era, including French writers Voltaire and Diderot, English philosophers and German poets.

Catherine made sure that she presided over a court that became a byword for opulent magnificence. The Empress understood perfectly the demonstrative effect of a glittering court and she was quite conscious of the fact that – in the eyes of European monarchs – a great jewelry collection was as important as a great army. Archdeacon Cox noted in 1784, "The Russian court retains many traces of its Asiatic pomp, blended with European refinement. An immense retinue of courtiers always preceded and followed the empress; the costliness of their apparel and a profusion of precious stones, created a splendor, of which the magnificence of other courts can give us only a faint idea."

Catherine was one of the greatest collectors of all time in both scale and quality. As was to be expected of a monarch, and particularly of a female monarch, Catherine literally covered herself in a profusion of colossal gemstones as though it were the most natural thing in the world. On state occasions she cut a dazzling figure, her corsage strewn with brooches, her skirts sewn with diamonds and her powdered coiffure topped by a diamond crown. She took great pleasure in the jewels which proclaimed her power and her rank as Empress and her treasured gems, such as this emerald and diamond brooch, were renowned not only for their quality, but also for their sheer size. Stones of exceptional proportions made their long journey to Russia from mines in the Urals, Brazil, Colombia, India and Burma.

Many of Catherine’s jewels were kept in her own private apartments, in her Diamond room, where she often gathered with her court in the evenings to play cards. The Empress would receive her friends in opulence, surrounded by gems, and heavily adorned with blinding imperial splendor. Described by the German visitor Johann Georgi, “Her room is like a priceless jewel case. The regalia is laid out on a table under a great crystal globe through which everything can be examined in detail…the walls of the room are lined with glass cabinets containing numerous pieces of jewelry…”All who came into her presence seemed to fall under her spell, impressed not only by their surroundings and her manner but also by her dazzling appearance. Foreign visitors returned to their countries with breathless accounts of majestic splendor, never seeing such a wealth of jewels, nor stones of such superlative quality. The Empress fully understood the power of jewels, and all who had been guests at her court bore witness to its unparalleled magnificence.

Acquired by Catherine, this brooch centers upon a hextagonal-cut emerald, which weighs between 60 and 70 carats. Of Colombian origin, the emerald is peerless in size and quality. Uniquely precious and suited for imperial elegance, the emerald is set within a double row of rose-cut diamonds, to the old mine-cut diamond surround, mounted in silver-topped gold.

On October 7, 1776, Catherine gave this emerald and diamond brooch as a wedding gift to Sophie Dorothea, princess from a minor branch of the Württemberg dynasty and the future Empress Maria Feodorovna, on the occasion of her marriage to Catherine’s son and successor Paul I. Like Catherine before her, Maria Feodorovna was a tireless collector of jewelry. She understood that jewels were not merely for decorative purposes, but also served as a form of propaganda, with unrivalled magnificence standing as an emblem for the formidable might of the Russian empire. In numerous portraits, she is depicted as a dignified sovereign, wearing brocade costumes inspired by national history, armed by rows of pearl necklaces, jeweled brooches and an imposing diamond diadem.

The emerald and diamond brooch was inherited by Maria Feodorovna’s daughter, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (1786-1859); and then to her daughter, Princess Marie of the German princely family of Saxe-Weimar (1808-1887). It remained the property of the Prussian house of Hohenzollern for the next three generations: to her son Prince Friedrich Karl (1828-1885); to his son Prince Friedrich Leopold (1865-1931); and to his son Prince Friedrich Leopold (1895-1959). Baron Fritz Cerrini (1895-1985), private secretary to Prince Friedrich Leopold inherited the Prince’s entire fortune upon the Prince’s death in 1959 and set his signature and seals on the included letter of authenticity.

The emerald and diamond brooch, its lively history interwoven with the Romanov and Hohenzollern families to whom it belonged, was featured in the October 1972 issue of the Jewelers Circular Keystone as one of the outstanding jewels of the world. It was sold later that year by J. and S.S. de Young, the Boston gem merchants, to a private American collector, who took much pleasure in wearing it to the 1973 state dinner hosted by President Nixon at the White House.

An important imperial jewel, the Catherine the Great Emerald and Diamond Brooch evokes the bygone days of Russian majesty. It is testament to an empire and a glittering memento which adorned princesses, grand duchesses and empresses alike, and is now being offered for the first time in 40 years. With such a history, the possession of a jewel of this quality and rarity would certainly be the glory of any modern collection.

Source: Sotheby's
9 April, 2010