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The personal jewellery of the last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna

The personal jewellery of the last Tsarina of Russia, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918) provides a living, tangible timeline of her private life, quite apart from the glittering jewels which she would have worn as a Romanov bride. Inevitably though, the public life and the private sphere overlapped into jewellery, where Alexandra would receive magnificent personal gifts from the Tsar, such as the jewel-studded engraved eggs crafted by the St. Petersburg goldsmith, Peter Carl Faberge, to mark the celebration of Easter in the Russian Orthodox church calendar. I am keen to discover how Alexandra’s personal jewellery uniquely reflected events of emotional significance in her life and how this was present from the beginning, literally until the end.

As a child, there were family presents, of course; one of her teeth was made into a lily-of-the-valley brooch for her grandmother, Queen Victoria, still in the Royal Collection. This is yet another example of the sentimental jewellery of the Victorian age. Queen Victoria gave her a watch, presumably for her tenth birthday, because Alexandra’s thank-you letter to the Queen is dated 10 June 1882 (Elisabeth Heresch, Alexandra, Tragik und Ende der letzten Zarin, 28).

As Princess Alix of Hesse, Alexandra had, of course, received items of jewellery as personal gifts; her maternal English grandmother, Queen Victoria gave her a memorial bracelet containing a picture of her father, Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse, who died in 1892, an event which Alexandra’s biographer, Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden described as ‘perhaps the greatest sorrow of Princess Alix’s life’ (Baroness Sophie Buxhoeveden, The Life & Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, 29). She also predictably, gave jewellery as personal gifts, to close friends, brooches being a particularly favoured choice.

Alexandra replied in a thank you letter to Queen Victoria: ‘My own darling Grandmama, I send you my most loving and heartfelt thanks for the lovely bracelet with my beloved Papa’s head – nothing could have given me greater pleasure…’ (Heresch, Alexandra, 68) and tellingly, Alexandra continued: ‘I shall wear it constantly…’ The latter is important, I think, because it shows that jewellery was meant to ‘carry around’ an association with the person concerned, similarly to how Queen Victoria would, remarkably, take out a locket from her corsage when on holiday in Italy. Then she opened and held it up as she sat in the carriage – the locket contained an image of Prince Albert, which she held up so that he might see the repair work which had been done on the ‘recently restored’ Duomo – a story related by the Hon. George Peel to Sir Harold Nicholson, some sixty years after the event (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, 434-5). Photographs are in some cases, the best way to see the kind of jewellery Alexandra was wearing as a child; we can see a sort of memorial locket in the photographs made of Alexandra after the death of her mother, Grand Duchess Alice of Hesse. Princess Irene, her elder sister, is also wearing one.

She was given two bracelets by her uncle, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany; a charming photograph in the Royal Photograph Collection shows the Prince with his arm affectionately around his young niece, aged five or six. These bracelets had a life of their own in fact. It is almost certainly these which Alix wore when she went to take her cure at Harrogate in May 1894, a month after her engagement. She wrote to her fiancé the Tsarevich Nicholas: ‘I had my first sulphur bath this morning, it did not smell lovely, and made my silver bracelet, which I never take off quite black, but that one can clean with the powder one uses for cleaning up one’s silver things…’ (Andrei Maylunas & Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, 67). These bracelets may be those which show on the x-ray made of the Tsarina’s hand, today kept at the Harvard Medical Library in the Frances A. Countway Library of Medicine.

Poignantly, in her last diary for 1918, amongst the last entries for the month in which she would be executed in the Ipatiev House (‘of Special Purpose’) at Ekaterinburg, we read for 4 July: ‘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… they left me only two bracelets from Uncle Leopold which I cannot take off, and left each of the children the bracelets we gave them, and which cannot be slipped off…’ (Buxhoeveden, 344).

These must have remained on Alexandra’s wrist then, until the very end when she wrote her final entry for 16 July 1918 and closed with the words that never found any continuance: ’10 ½ to bed – 15 degrees of heat…’ They must similarly have been worn by her when preparing what she called ‘medicines’ – when the jewels she and her daughters owned were hand sewn into their corsets for safekeeping – against which horrifyingly, the bullets appear to have ricocheted.

The young Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra. Note Alexandra’s bracelets. (Eduard Uhlenhuth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Jewellery formed an integral part of Alexandra and Nicholas’ courtship and engagement. They had scratched their names into the windowpanes at Peterhof in 1884 – when the Hessian princess came to Russia for the wedding of her elder sister, Princess Elisabeth ‘Ella’ to Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Alexandra wrote: ‘Our windowpanes’ (Maylunas & Mironenko, 71) and ten years earlier, Nicholas had written: ‘Alix and I wrote our names on the rear window of the Italian house (we love each other). Their names are similarly scratched – presumably with a ring – into a window at the Hessian hunting lodge of Wolfsgarten.

Alexandra had made her first trip to Russia aged twelve-years-old for Ella’s wedding. At some point during this trip, Nicholas pressed a small brooch into Alexandra’s hand – she accepted his gift, but later gave it back to Nicholas at a party sometime before her departure for Germany (Greg King, The Last Empress, 30). Perhaps because of this, Alexandra referred to Nicholas in heavily-coded private correspondence with the close friend of her youth, Toni Becker-Bracht, as the ‘Broschenmensch’ [literally, ‘The Brooch Person’] (Lotte-Hofmann-Kuhnt, Briefe der Zarin Alexandra von Russland an ihre Jugendfreundin Toni Becker-Bracht). After the first trip to Russia, sketches of ladies in grand dresses filled her notebook back in Darmstadt; there is even a pencil sketch of a Russian lady in a tiara and a wedding dress. Although equally, this could be in memory of her elder sister Ella’s wedding. Alexandra’s diary for 1889 records that she wore ‘white diamonds’ for a ball at the Winter Palace for her winter visit to St. Petersburg (Maylunas & Mironenko, 15).

As Princess of Hesse, we see Alexandra wearing modest jewellery for studio photographs, more than several bracelets, a string of pearls and a half-moon in the hair, which appears on various occasions and was fashionable at the time – the Viennese mistress of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, Baroness Mary Vetsera wore one for formal photographs. She wore an emerald necklace for the Renaissance ball given at Darmstadt in 1891, as well as emeralds in her hair (King, 38-9). Her first ‘coming out’ ball aged seventeen at Darmstadt, seems to have been the occasion for a mere pearl necklace and bracelets, as the studio photograph indicates. Photographs for a themed ball at Darmstadt also show a star in the hair, for 1887.

Princess Alix of Hesse, 1889 by the photographers Bergamasco. Note the half-moon in her hair (Charles Bergamasco [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

For their engagement, Nicholas gave Alix many items of personal jewellery, which she treasured as she did all things from this blissfully happy period in their new lives together, less than six months later ended forever by the unexpected death of Tsar Alexander III at Livadia.

Just as a brooch had been pressed back into his hand at that party in Russia back in 1884, so now Nicholas showered the fiancé whom he had dreamed of one-day marrying (as he wrote in his journal for December 1891) with jewels. Alexandra received a pink pearl ring as an engagement ring, a chain bracelet with a large emerald and a sapphire and diamond brooch, re-identified through recent research. The chain bracelet was a gift to Alexandra which Nicholas gave to her when visiting England in the summer of 1894 as the guest of Queen Victoria; as was a necklace of pink pearls (Buxhoeveden, 38). Queen Victoria saw all these presents and Alexandra recalled how the Queen had said to her: ‘Now, do not get too proud, Alix’ (Quoted in Ibid, 38).

The most fabulous engagement present was a sautoir of pearls from her future father-in-law, Tsar Alexander III, hand-crafted by Faberge and worth 250,000 roubles (Alexander Bokhanov, The Romanovs, Love Power and Tragedy, 72). Alexandra wrote to her future mother-in-law, Empress Marie Feodorovna: ‘How can I thank you and dear Uncle enough for the magnificent present you were so awfully kind as to send me. It is much too beautiful for me! It gave me quite a shock when I opened up the case – saw those beautiful stones…’ (Maylunas & Mironenko, 55).

Nicholas sent Alexandra a bracelet for her birthday whilst she was taking her cure in Yorkshire, a month after their engagement: ‘And your glorious bracelet, you naughty monkey, how could you dare to give me such a magnificent thing…’ (Ibid, 70).

When Tsarevich Nicholas had visited England as a guest of Queen Victoria in the summer of 1894, he accompanied Alexandra and the Queen to Osborne before sailing back to Russia. When he departed, Alexandra was left holding his farewell present in her hand – it was a diamond brooch, on which had been engraved the words: ‘Nicky’s Goodbye Tear’ (Richard Hough, Louis and Victoria, 154; King, 71). Alexandra wrote to Nicholas: ‘How you do spoil me – there you have gone and given me that glorious brooch with pearl drops, a thing I have always longed for, but still much too good for me. I felt quite shy wearing it tonight…’ (Maylunas & Mironenko, 81). It was almost as if Nicholas wanted to press the brooch which had been returned to him, back into Alexandra’s hand again – permanently.

As a Romanov bride, Alexandra would, of course, wear fabulous jewellery, as had her elder sister Ella at her wedding in 1884, when Ella’s diamond earrings had been so heavy that they had to be supported by wires, which during the long wedding ceremony, cut deep into her skin (Christopher Warwick, Ella, Princess, Saint and Martyr, 112). When it came to Alexandra’s turn – on 26 November 1894 – she wore ‘numerous diamond ornaments’ (Buxhoeveden, 43) and the splendid bridal circlet, topped with diamonds as a crown, placed on her head by the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna. The glittering jewellery Alexandra wore as an imperial bride is well captured in the flickering candlelight of Laurits Tuxen’s wedding portrait, recording the event, in the imperial church of the Winter Palace.

Queen Victoria sent Alexandra a pendant containing her portrait and a ring, which she wore on the wedding day itself. Alexandra wrote to the Queen: ‘the lovely ring I wore for the Wedding and ever since, and when I look at it I have to think of the beloved giver…’ (Maylunas & Mironenko, 112).

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)

Alexandra would also, of course, give jewellery as personal presents to her close friends, brooches being a particular favourite; jewelled gifts also arrived from Imperial Russia for her various godchildren, including gold pins (Elizabeth Jane Timms, Princess Alix of Hesse’s Visit to Harrogate, in Royalty Digest Quarterly 2018/1).  As Tsarina, ropes of pearls seem to have been a favourite choice.

Poignantly, like the bracelets which she could never take off and the bracelets belonging to the imperial children, the engagement ring of Tsar Nicholas II could also not be removed when the Commandant, Yurovsky, demanded to see the jewels that the Russian Imperial Family had on, in Ipatiev House at Ekaterinburg. We know this from Alexandra’s diary entry for 4 July 1918: ‘also N’s engagement ring, which he could not take off…’ (Buxhoeveden, 344). Poignantly, a single diamond earring was recovered following the murder of the Russian imperial family, which belonged to Alexandra.

Even the tiny book of their telegraphs in cypher at the time of their engagement had come with them to the Ipatiev House. It was found afterwards. Baroness Buxhoeveden remembered: ‘This little book was one of the tragic mementoes found in the house at Ekaterinburg. The Empress treasured so deeply every souvenir of that time that even in her imprisonment, she had it with her…’ (Buxhoeveden, 39). In their wartime correspondence, the period of their engagement was remembered with personal gifts, though not always jewellery – Alexandra sent Nicholas an icon for the anniversary of the engagement in 1915. Nicholas sent a cross: ‘You do spoil me, I never for a second imagined you would think of giving me anything. How lovely it is! Shall wear it to-day…’ (ed. Joseph Fuhrmann, The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas and Empress Alexandra, 108).

Like so much with Alexandra, regardless of time or distance, the association remained the same. Although Russia was in its second year of the First World War, those lines could have been written during the period of their engagement, back in 1894.

Similarly, the following year, Alexandra wore her personal jewellery again, on the anniversary of their engagement. She wrote to Nicholas on 8 April 1916: ‘That dear brooch will be worn to-day… I feel still your grey suit, the smell of it by the window in the Coburg Schloss…’ (Ibid, 446).

Although it was twenty-two years on, Alexandra was using her personal jewellery to physically connect her with the day of her engagement.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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