For most people, Russian jewelry is synonymous with Fabergé. But according to Russian jewelry expert Marie Betteley, imperial jewelry has a much richer history than most people realize. She returned to the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about her favorite imperial Russian jewelers, the tours she leads in St. Petersburg and other jewelry capitals, and her new book, “Beyond Fabergé: Imperial Russian Jewelry.” Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Welcome to the Jewelry Journey. Today, my guest is Marie Betteley, an expert in antique Russian jewelry and author of the forthcoming book “Beyond Fabergé: Imperial Russian Jewelry.” Today, she’ll talk with us about her own jewelry journey, her upcoming book and why we should pay attention to this often-overlooked world. Marie, welcome to the program.
Marie: Thank you very much. I’m happy to be here.
Sharon: We’re so glad to have you. You’ve been on the podcast before, and I always enjoy talking with you, but some of our listeners may not know about your jewelry journey. Can you tell us how you came to love and study Russian jewelry?
Marie: Sure. It comes from growing up surrounded by Russian treasures. When I was a teenager, my dad became director of the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C. This was surprising to us as a family because he had spent his entire career in civil service in the U.S. government, and when he retired, he became a museum director. For those of you not familiar with Hillwood, it has one of the world’s largest collections of Russian decorative arts outside of Russia. As a family, we were required to live on the 25-acre estate. It was a hardship, I believe.
Sharon: It sounds rough, yes.
Marie: So, that’s where it began. As a teenager, I would roam around the museum and the collection. Hillwood has a beautiful Fabergé collection, including two imperial eggs, but even back then I was more drawn to pre-Fabergé, the older Russian treasures, those that were called ancient Muscovite.
Sharon: I’m sorry, they were called what?
Marie: Ancient Muscovite, from ancient Moscow—for example, the enamel icon map by Gratchev and Catherine the Great’s diamond pocket watch. They drew me in not just for their beauty, but for their untold stories. I began to wonder who made these objects, and when and where and what was the jeweler’s relation to the imperial family. For example, how did they get to America after the Revolution? Then I graduated from university and hightailed it up to New York, wanting to live the big city life. I got a job Christie’s, initially answering phones at the front counter, then as a gemologist in the jewelry department. I remember falling in love with a suite of Russian jewels from St. Petersburg, mid-19th Century, that just blew me away. They were owned by Thomas Evans, who was a dentist to the Russian imperial family and to the French empress. Basically, they were gorgeous sapphires and rubies and diamonds, and I was really attracted to the patina of the gold. That was it; I was hooked on Russian jewelry from that time on. But, no one knew much about jewels made in Russia except for curators in Russia, so I began to ask all sorts of questions on that.
Sharon: I know you said it, but where is Hillwood?
Marie: Hillwood Museum is in Washington D.C. It was the home of the late Marjorie Merriweather Post; whose third husband was ambassador to Russia. She was an heirless of the Post Cereal and later General Foods fortune, so she was quite wealthy. When they were stationed in Moscow in the late 1930s, early 40s, that’s when she started buying Russian objects, because that’s when they were being sold by Stalin to raise money for his industrial plants in the Soviet Union.
Sharon: That must have been something. What a time to be there.
Sharon: I know you’ve led some fabulous travel programs. I presume it started with your own research and having hands-on experience with some of these Russian jewels in Russia. Hopefully the travel programs will start again. Tell us about the programs.
Marie: Yes, thank you. It all started with a Russia tour. It started in 2016, when I was attending a conference in St. Petersburg. At this point, I was well into researching our book on Russian jewels, which I will talk about in a bit. I was wandering the streets of St. Petersburg, and to my delight, I discovered that the workshops of the jewelers I had been researching were very close together to one another and also close to the Winter Place, which is the grand residence of the Russian czars and czarinas and now houses the Hermitage Museum. After that, someone suggested I offer a walking tour of St. Petersburg jewelers to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and I thought, “Oh, what a great idea.” I suggested it to an audience where I was giving a talk in New York—I just threw it out there, and it took hold. People were interested. We took our maiden voyage in March of 2017 to St. Petersburg. Our next one is planned to include Moscow and is scheduled for October 2021. I do hope we’ll be able to travel then because, to me, they’re so much fun, and I think my guests enjoyed them. It’s now called Arts and Treasurers Tours and it includes Paris and London. I love doing these tours, because there’s such a thrill to experience firsthand the historic treasurers and jewels in the city where they were actually created, and I love bringing that sense of wonder to others.
Sharon: I haven’t gone on any of your tours, but what’s also nice is that they’re small, small groups.
Marie: Yes, absolutely. We limit them to eight people. That makes 10 with my husband and me, and that enables us to get around very easily. For example, in St. Petersburg, we can hire a little van that will take us on a tour. Our partner in St. Petersburg, Sonia, gives a wonderful tour of the Russian grand dukes. We get into this little van and go around St. Petersburg, and she talks about all the grand ducal palaces and the stories that were linked to the grand dukes. It’s fabulous.
Sharon: It sounds wonderful. I know you’re a jewelry dealer, and if people look at your website, they’ll see some things they might not see elsewhere. You have a book coming out at the end of October, which is available on Amazon right now for preorder. The book is “Beyond Fabergé,” and it’s about imperial Russian jewelry. It sounds like you’ve been thinking about it for a long time.
Marie: Yes, that’s true. I have been thinking about this for a long time. My friends are probably tired of hearing me talking about it, but the book will cover all the wonderful craftsmen who plied their trade in imperial Russia. It will include the leading jewelers, goldsmiths and silversmiths and their life stories, their creations, their clients, imperial or otherwise, and their stores. The reason I wanted to write this book is that, up to now, Fabergé is the only name that is tied to Russian jewelry in the West. When you talk about Russian jewelry, everyone thinks, “Oh, is it Fabergé?” People don’t realize that Carl Fabergé’s tenure lasted only 30 years, which is only one-tenth of the entire span of the Romanovs’ rule, which was over 300 years. The Romanovs are known for their magnificent jewels and treasures, so I figured someone else must have made these treasures. That’s really where it all began. I knew that along with Carl Fabergé, there were 30 other goldsmiths in Russia that had the coveted title of Purveyor to the Russian Court, and that was only in the late imperial period. I knew the imperial era was the high point of Russian jewelers’ art, and in some cases, the quality of St. Petersburg jewelers equaled, if not surpassed, that of some of the European capitals.
Sharon: Wow! We don’t talk about Russian jewelry or look at it. When you look at antique jewelry, it’s usually European.
Sharon: Do you have a favorite period? Was there, for example, an Art Deco period for Russian jewelry?
Marie: Not that I know of, but Art Deco was in the 1920s, so that was after the Revolution. The book covers up to the Revolution. I think the glorious era of Russian jewelry, and my favorite period, is the 18th Century, when Russian jewels were made for the empresses. There was a huge demand for jewelry then, because Russia in the 18th Century was mostly ruled by empresses, beginning with Catherine the First in 1725, who was the wife of Peter the Great. She took over in 1725, and the empresses’ rule lasted all the way to the death of Catherine the Great in 1796. That’s almost 70 years or plus that Russia was ruled by women, and all five empresses loved gems and jewels. That’s when the demand skyrocketed, and all these Europeans actually flocked to St. Petersburg to meet that demand and to get jobs as jewelers and silversmiths and goldsmiths to the imperial court.
Sharon: I’m imagining the pictures and films I’ve seen with glittering diamonds and gems. What’s next on your list? Do you have another book you want to start?
Marie: In the course of this research, I came across the memoirs of a jeweler named Jérémie Pauzié. Pauzié is pretty much unknown in the West, but he was, I think, the best jeweler of the 18th Century in Russia. Pauzié actually wrote his memoirs. They’re unpublished, but I have them, and to me, they’re fascinating. We’ve translated them from the French. He was the court jeweler to Empress Elizabeth Petrovna and Catherine the Great. What’s special about him is that he was granted unprecedented access to the palace by Empress Elizabeth because she always wanted to see his latest creation. This was completely unheard of. His memoirs read like a cliffhanger because he witnessed not just one, but five palace coups. He was right there in the middle of it all, and he describes this. It’s really fascinating. Also, going from Geneva to St. Petersburg, he was only 13 when he set out with his father, and the way they got from Geneva to St. Petersburg was on foot. It took him seven months of grueling over-land travel. Anyway, all this is in our chapter on Pauzié.
Sharon: How do you spell his name?
Marie: It’s P-a-u-z-i-é.
Sharon: O.K., and his first name?
Sharon: I don’t know him. You’re right. Very few have heard of him, but it sounds fascinating.
Marie: Thank you. That’s our next project, hopefully, to publish these memoirs. I think they provide a fascinating insight into Russian court life because he had such direct access to the empress.
Sharon: It sounds great. I’m looking forward to your book coming out next month. Anybody who wants to know about Russian jewelry can look at Marie’s website or get her book or talk to her, because I know you give a lot of talks, right?
Marie: I do, yes. I just finished one, a Zoom presentation for the Russian History Museum, which has just been uploaded on their website. If you want to hear me talk some more about the book, you’re welcome to listen. I do give lectures also, but I think that’s on hold right now. I’m happy to give virtual presentations now, since that seems to be the way things are going.
Sharon: Yes, exactly. It’s just the way of the world. I don’t know if the world is going to go back.
Marie: Let’s stay positive.
Sharon: To everybody listening, that’s it for today’s Jewelry Journey. Marie, thank you very much. Don’t forget that we’ll have photos of representative pieces of Russian jewelry that Marie selected, and we’ll post those on the website along with the podcast. You can find the podcast wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another jewelry industry professional who will share their experience with us. Thank you so much for listening.
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