27 March 2013

Wedding Wednesday: Russian Imperial Wedding Splendor

Our recent poll for the Big Gun spot in your ultimate tiara collection saw a few nominations and quite a bit of interest for a large diamond tiara from Russia which was once a part of the imperial family's wedding traditions. As we all know, the overwhelming extravagance of the Russian imperial court would eventually come crashing brutally down around them, but in its heyday...well, there's nothing quite like it. This is a level of bedazzlement that was spectacular for a regular soirée, and special events were really out of the park. Today we're looking at the glittering jewels that were worn by generations of top Russian brides (tsarinas and grand duchesses) starting with that tiara some of you had your eye on.
The Russian Nuptial Tiara
The tiara worn by the imperial brides is most notable for its central pink diamond, a rose-colored stone of impeccable quality which comes from the treasury of Emperor Paul I (1754-1801) and clocks in at more than 10 carats. The large diamond tiara surrounding it was made around 1800 by St. Petersburg jeweler Jacob David Duval for Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna (1779-1826, born Princess Louise of Baden), wife of Alexander I (Paul I's son). As you often read when it comes to Russian jewels, the diamonds here are all of the finest quality. They come from Brazil and India and are mounted and set in silver and gold. The pink diamond sits in the scrolled lower portion of the diadem; a row of hanging briolette diamonds dangles above, and the whole tall tiara is topped by diamond uprights. Unlike many of the imperial jewels, the tiara survived the revolution and is today in the possession of the Russian government.
Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna (1882-1957, granddaughter of Alexander II) and Prince Nicholas of Greece on their wedding day, 1902
In addition to the tiara, brides also wore the Russian Nuptial Crown. Made from diamonds which were used as trimming for clothes and in a belt by Catherine the Great (1729-1796), it measures a mere 4 inches in diameter. Petite though it is, it isn't lacking in impressive stats: there are 320 larger diamonds weighing 182 carats total and 1,200 smaller diamonds totalling 80 carats, mounted in silver and set on a crimson velvet crown. It's thought to have been made by Nichols and Plincke, probably around 1844. The brides wore it behind the Russian Nuptial Tiara, a positioning similar to Queen Frederika's use of the Hanover nuptial crown on her wedding day, or to the peeresses and princesses donning coronets behind their tiaras at a British coronation.
The Russian Nuptial Crown
The Bolsheviks sold off many of the imperial family's jewels and possessions, and many of those items can't be located today - but the Nuptial Crown is the rare exception with traceable whereabouts. It was sold by Christie's in 1927 and was acquired by Marjorie Merriweather Post, an American businesswoman. Mrs. Post was an avid collector whose fortune came from the Post cereal company started by her father, which she turned into General Foods. Her third husband was the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and during their tenure in Moscow she turned her collecting eye to the spoils of the Russian revolution. She amassed what is said to be the finest collection of imperial art outside of Russia. This crown and her other treasures are in the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C, which is her former home.
The wedding necklace and earrings; Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (1890-1958, granddaughter of Alexander II) dressed for her wedding to Prince Wilhelm of Sweden, 1908
To go along with the tiara and crown, the Russian brides had a heavy necklace and earrings to wear. The necklace, part of the Russian crown jewels, was a diamond rivère with diamond pear drops, each stone of quite unbelievable size. All together, the stones weighed in at 475 carats. It was sold at the time of the Revolution and has been missing in action since. The earrings, Brazilian diamonds of the finest quality mounted in gold and silver, are in the form of cherries and were commissioned by Catherine the Great. They're enormously heavy, requiring a support wire which wraps up behind and over the top of the ear - a wire which had a tendency to cut into the wearer's ears, unfortunately for these brides.
The Clasp of the Imperial Mantle
Over their gowns, the brides wore a mantle, or robe, fastened with this magnificent diamond clasp made of diamonds in varying sizes, shapes, and colors. This is no mere brooch, mind you - as you can see in the photos above, it very nearly spans the entire chest. It held the imperial mantle made of embroidered cloth of gold edged with ermine, which was also used for coronations, as well as the crimson velvet and ermine mantle you also see above.
The wedding of Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine (Alexandra Feodorovna, 1872-1918) and Emperor Nicholas II, 1894
But the jewels were only the start of the splendor for a Russian bride. Descriptions of Alix of Hesse's wedding attire reveal she had lace stockings, embroidered shoes, a silver brocade and tissue gown with fur accents and a bodice decorated with diamonds. Her gown itself had a train, plus a separate court train, plus the gold imperial mantle (and she needed four pages to carry the lot of it). The gems above were accented with more jewels, including a ring her grandmother Queen Victoria gave her, plus the Order of St. Catherine. Her head also held her mother's lace wedding veil, attached with orange blossom and myrtle.

If it all sounds a bit much...well, it definitely was. It wasn't unheard of for a bride to kneel during the ceremony and find herself struggling to make it back to a vertical position. It's no wonder Nicholas recorded in his diary that Alix ended up with a bad headache. It was too much in many ways, but as a capsule of history, it's nothing less than fascinating.

Which piece is your favorite?

Photos: Diamond Fund/Hillwood Museum/Royal Collection