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A Pearl Earring and Imperial Russia

Displayed as part of the London Science Museum’s exhibition on the Russian Imperial Family, The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution is a pearl earring. This extraordinarily poignant object has its own silent story to tell, concerning the fate of the Romanovs. Believed to have belonged to the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, this single pearl earring is symbolic of the pieces of the Tsarina’s personal jewellery that followed her – if indeed it is hers – literally until the end.

We know from Alexandra’s last diary for 1918, when the Russian Imperial Family were held in the Ipatiev House (‘of Special Purpose’) at Ekaterinburg, that: ‘The Commandant and his young assistant made us show all our jewels we had on and the younger one noted all down and then they were taken from us… (Buxhoeveden, The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 344). This was done, with the exception of the two bracelets which Alexandra had received years ago as Princess of Hesse from her uncle, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, ‘which I cannot take off’ (Buxhoeveden, 344), each of the bracelets which the imperial children had been given and Tsar Nicholas II’s engagement ring. Of course, we know that Alexandra had sent back by coded instruction to Tobolsk, where the rest of the imperial children had remained – whilst Alexandra had continued to Ekaterinburg with the Tsar and one of the daughters, Grand Duchess Maria – that their jewels (referred to by the code word ‘medicines’) should be hidden, which the Grand Duchesses did by sewing them into wadding and then into double brassieres, the Empress’s jewels including ‘brilliants, emeralds and amethysts’ (J. C. Trewin, The House of Special Purpose, 130). Alexandra’s final diary entry for 3/16 July 1918, contained the sentence: ‘Olga and I arranged our medicines’ (Quoted in Bokhanov, 312). Alexandra’s pearl earrings, however, were as much a part of her regular dress, as her valuables.

Alexandra had a particular attachment to pearls, which she loved. In many ways, they chart her story, appearing at important moments, as on a charm bracelet, in her life’s full circle. She had worn a simple pearl necklace for her ‘coming out’ ball at Darmstadt, aged seventeen, as she is photographed wearing it in the image made for the event. Alexandra’s engagement ring on her betrothal to Tsarevich Nicholas had been of pink pearl; Tsarevich Nicholas also made Alexandra the present of a necklace of pink pearls when he visited Queen Victoria during their blissful summer of 1894 at Windsor (Elizabeth Jane Timms, The personal jewellery of Alexandra Feodorovna, Royal Central, 2018). She received a magnificent sautoir of pearls from her future father-in-law, Tsar Alexander III, hand-crafted by Faberge and worth 250,000 roubles, undoubtedly the most fabulous of her engagement presents, from far-distant Russia (Alexander Bokhanov, The Romanovs, Love Power and Tragedy, 72). She wears pearls in studio photographs made of her throughout 1894, such as those made by the photographer Mullins.

Pearls were worn by Alexandra both privately and publicly, so represent a very definite symbol of her dual life; she certainly identified strongly with them. She was described on the day of her coronation in 1896 in a letter to Queen Victoria as being ‘remarkably handsome, with hair unadorned and a small string of pearls around her neck…’ (Quoted in Bokhanov, 96). Pearls had been worn by the Tsarina at her first ‘sortie’ (St Petersburg drawing room) the year before, on New Year’s Day 1895, along with ‘magnificent’ diamonds (Buxhoeveden, pp. 53-54). Nor was her love of pearls simply confined to jewellery. She also enjoyed them in her collection of objets d’art, such as ‘small objects decorated with edelweiss in baroque pearls’, which she kept among the cosy array of knick-knacks and personalia that filled the tables in her private rooms.

Tsarina Alexandra with her son, the Tsarevich Alexei, who plays with his mother’s ropes of pearls, ca 1913 (By Boasson and Eggler St. Petersburg Nevsky 24. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Her preference for pearls in jewellery is, however, striking. They feature in countless photographs of the Tsarina, such as the photograph made of her in 1897, showing her with pearl earrings, whilst at her neck are two chokers and two rows of pearls, testifying to a significant collection and taste. She had a particular love of ropes of pearls, which feature in the official portrait photographs made of her in Russian court dress in 1895 by Pasetti, for example. These also feature in the pictures taken of the Tsarina at a sitting in 1906, showing her wearing long ropes of pearls. One of these images was liked so much by her daughters, the four Grand Duchesses, that they stuck it in their private albums (Prince Michael of Greece, Nicholas and Alexandra, The Family Albums, 45). A later photograph shows the young Tsarevich Alexei, playing with his mother’s ropes of pearls. She unquestionably preferred pearls to any other jewels and the ropes of pearls usually extended from her neck as far as her waist.

Alexandra’s dressing room was next to her famous Mauve Boudoir at the Alexander Palace, the imperial couple’s private residence at Tsarskoe Selo, outside St Petersburg, and this room contained trays on which her jewels were set out. Alexandra preferred to wear pearls with her evening gowns, normally worn at her throat, with diamonds in her hair (Robert K Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 119). When Lili Dehn was presented to the Tsarina at Tsarskoe Selo in 1907, she recalled: ‘The Empress was dressed entirely in white with a thin white veil draped around her hat… I remember that her pearls were magnificent.’ (Quoted in Massie, 119).

In this, Alexandra shared the tastes of her English grandmother, Queen Victoria, as one of her favourite granddaughters. We immediately recognise pearls in the portraits of Queen Victoria, notably the 1875 portrait of the Queen by the portraitist Heinrich von Angeli – which the Queen described as ‘absurdly like’ – which shows Queen Victoria in black, although the deepest mourning of the 1860s has slightly relaxed and is now marginally relieved by white lace trimmings, her widow’s cap and the large white handkerchiefs she often took around with her. This portrait shows the Queen with pearl earrings and a double row of pearls at her throat.

Alexandra’s purported pearl earring was not among the objects found at Ekaterinburg, which were extensively catalogued by Nicolas Sokolov, who had been charged as Investigating Magistrate for Cases of Special Importance of the Omsk Tribunal, to help with the enquiry into the fate of the Imperial Family. This list detailed a vast amount of items, which were found either partially burned at the Ipatiev House or in its outbuildings, or as looted imperial booty in the homes of those soldiers at Ekaterinburg who had guarded the Tsar and his family. The list represents only a small proportion of what the Russian Imperial Family owned in exile. Objects which had initially been at the Alexander Palace later found their way back to the museum collections. Many artefacts were only rediscovered when the Bolsheviks re-took Ekaterinburg from the Whites.

I have checked the list against the French edition of Sokolov’s investigation into the murder of the Russian Imperial Family, looking for any mention of pearls, or the other ‘matching’ pearl earring. The stoves at the Ipatiev House apparently also contained three buttons of wood and nacre [mother of pearl]. I can find no corresponding pearl earring in Sokolov’s list.

During his investigation, Sokolov was aided by the Englishman Charles Sydney Gibbes, who had been first a tutor to the Grand Duchesses and then to the young Tsarevich, as well as Pierre Gilliard, who had been French tutor to the imperial children. Gibbes later ended up taking his collection of relics halfway around the world until they eventually found a temporary home in the house he purchased in East Oxford, on Marston Street. Gibbes mentions this pearl earring in a diary entry he made for 28 February 1919 [N.S.], in which he describes his having called on General Dieterichs [one of the principal aides of Admiral Kolchak, who had become Supreme Ruler of the White Russian government in Siberia, established at Omsk] as part of which General Dieterichs mentioned having ‘over 1000 articles that had belonged to the Imperial Family… He showed me many photographs of the things including the diamonds (two) and pearl earring and small Maltese cross with emeralds’ (Quoted in J. C. Trewin, 121).

Alexandra had written her last diary entry at 10.30pm, on July 3/16 1918: ‘Played bezique with N. [Nicholas]. 10 ½ to bed – 15 degrees of heat.’ (Quoted in Buxhoeveden, 345). When the Commandant of the Ipatiev House, Yakov Yurovsky, woke the Imperial Family at midnight, to tell them that the Czechs and White Army were approaching Ekaterinburg, as a result of which the Regional Soviet would need to move them, Alexandra got dressed, as did the rest of the Imperial Family. Alexandra wore an overcoat (J. C. Trewin, 112). Alexandra’s maid, Anna Demidova, carried two pillows, one of which she placed behind Alexandra’s back, as she sat on the chair in the cellar of the Ipatiev House. Sewn inside the other feather pillow was a box which contained jewels (Massie, 491). Shortly afterwards, the Imperial Family were executed, together with their faithful retainers, Dr Botkin, the valet Trupp, the cook Kharitonov and the maid Demidova.

Some ninety three burned objects were discovered in the stoves of the Ipatiev House and four objects amongst the stoves and rubbish at the House of Popov. The personal effects of the Imperial Family which were found in the Ipatiev House after their murder were photographed. Two of these original negatives show the icons of the Imperial Family – numbering fifty seven – and toys belonging formerly to Tsarevich Alexei. Some one hundred and forty objects were found in the cesspit of the Ipatiev House.

A considerable number of items were recovered from the former guards in their homes, when searches were carried out by the investigators Nametkin and Sergeev between July and August 1918. A guard, one P. Lylov, of the Ural Regional Soviet, owned gold crosses which had been taken from the bodies in the cellar at the Ipatiev House (Galina Komelova and Alia Barkovets, Nicholas and Alexandra, pp. 382-383). Lylov had among other items, a bodice and a camisole, both of which had mother of pearl buttons and a gold wedding ring, “1894” – probably belonging to either the Tsar or Tsarina – a long way from the Danish painter Laurits Regner Tuxen’s shimmering portrait of the wedding of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, completed in 1895.

The investigation recovered a heart breaking collection of objects at the Four Brothers Pit in the woods, several miles from Lake Isetsk, where Sokolov’s enquiry attempted to piece together what had occurred on the night of 16/17 July 1918, whither the bodies of the imperial family and their retainers had been brought. Near the remains of a huge bonfire, a cross with green stones had been discovered. This was the emerald, pectoral Maltese cross which had belonged to Tsarina Alexandra and had been given to her by the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna (Massie, 494). It is perhaps poignant to recall, that Alexandra had visited Malta as Princess of Hesse in 1890.

This would have been discovered amidst the scattered objects such as hooks and eyes, belt buckles, rings and other jewellery which was simply left at the opening of the Four Brothers Mine, perhaps as a Bolshevik ruse to divert the White enquiry from the actual grave site in the forest, discovered much later. The author Peter Kurth for one, suggests that the “evidence” collected at the mineshaft mysteriously only appeared once Sokolov’s investigation was under way (Peter Kurth, The Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra, 202). Nametkin discovered a mineshaft called Ganin’s Pit – some 320 metres from the Isetsky Mine – where he found burnt objects and valuables, including the severed finger which Sokolov suggested had belonged to Alexandra, a claim based on no evidence but instead on his own photographic comparisons and because it was judged to be finely manicured, as the Tsarina’s had been.

Sokolov’s sifting yielded items of jewellery, which he laid out on tarpaulins. These jewels apparently included emeralds, rubies, sapphires, diamonds, pearls, topazes and almandines (J. C. Trewin, 130). Alexandra Tegleva, the former nurse to the imperial children, who had married the tutor, Pierre Gilliard, was of those who had accompanied the Imperial Family to Tobolsk and continued on to Ekaterinburg, but had been told to go back to Tyumen (J. C. Trewin, 126). Tegleva later recalled how these jewels had been hidden: ‘They [the Grand Duchesses] carried many pearls on their bodies, under the blouses… I remember a large pearl necklace and a brooch…’ (Quoted in J. C. Trewin, pp. 130-131).

Amongst the hundreds of objects ‘recovered’ by Sokolov at the mine was a platinum, pearl and gold earring, believed to be Alexandra’s. The Englishman Gibbes added a personal note to this: ‘These were her favourite earrings and she wore them often’ (Ibid, 130). This pearl earring was said to have been from a pair which Alexandra regularly wore (Massie, 494).

This single pearl earring – if it is Alexandra’s – survived the investigation. It is currently displayed in the London Science Museum’s exhibition, as being from ‘before 1918’. Some of the crates containing ‘evidence’ which were removed from Russia, found their way to the sister of Tsar Nicholas II, Grand Duchess Xenia, who was living in British exile. The Grand Duchess lived both at Frogmore Cottage in Windsor Great Park and at Wilderness House, Hampton Court. The Grand Duchess divided these items between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Holy Trinity Monastery of the ROCOR in Jordanville, New York. The pearl earring was lent to the London exhibition from Jordanville, as was the diamond and enamel pectoral cross, which had once belonged to the Tsarina.

For Gibbes at least, the earring had belonged to Alexandra. Pearls had of course, been worn by the four Grand Duchesses both as earrings and necklaces, something to which photographs made of them widely attest. The fact that the earring was believed to be Alexandra’s at all, is in itself important. Symbolic of her love of pearls, it is perhaps appropriate that this single pearl earring, certainly associated with the Russian Imperial Family, was found as part of the investigation concerning their fate.

The pearl earring had come a long way from Russia.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

The Last Tsar: Blood and Revolution runs at the Science Museum in London from 21 September 2018 until 24 March 2019.

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