Russian jewelry is some of the rarest and most beautiful in the world, but few people know about it beyond Fabergé and his famous eggs. Jewelry dealer and historian Marie Betteley is a leading expert on the subject, and she joined host Sharon Berman on The Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about what makes Russian jewelry so spectacular. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome to The Jewelry Journey podcast. Today I’m delighted to have as my guest Marie Betteley. Marie is a gemologist, jewelry dealer and jewelry historian who specializes in a little-discussed area of antique jewelry: Russian jewelry. She’s about to publish one of the few books in English on the subject. We’ll hear all about that on our podcast today. Marie, welcome to The Jewelry Journey.
Marie: Thank you very much for having me. It’s quite an honor.
Sharon: We’re so glad to have you. You work in such an unusual area. Tell us about your career path and how you became involved with Russian jewelry. When did you become interested in jewelry, and did you start out being interested in Russian jewelry?
Marie: As you know, I didn’t have any interest in Russian jewelry when I was little. There was no Russian in my background whatsoever. My mother was French. My father was English, and I was born in Paris and grew up there. When I was 15, we moved to the States and my father retired from the U.S. government after 30 years, and he was driving my mother crazy at home. She pointed to the door and said, “Get a job and get out of the house.” So, he became a docent at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C. For those of you not familiar with Hillwood, it had, at one point, the largest collection of Russian pre-revolutionary decorative art outside of Russia. The collection is still there. It’s very large, but it’s not the largest.
Hillwood was owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post, who’s enormously wealthy. She was the heiress of the Post cereal fortune. She was ambassador to Russia in the late 1930s through the early 1940s, and this was when she started collecting Russian jewelry—well, Russian art I should say, because that’s when Joseph Stalin, the dictator, was selling off Romanov treasures for nothing to raise money for his five-year industrial plans for the Soviet Union. So, she started collecting that.
My father surprised us all by eventually becoming director of that museum, and part of the condition of his job was we had to live on the estate. No problem there. My mother was delighted. So, we moved to this 25-acre estate and suddenly as a teenager, I found myself surrounded with Russian treasures, so I started absorbing that early on. I went to university and got a degree in art history, and after my graduation, I wanted to go to New York. I got a job at Christie’s answering phones at the front counter and then I did a small stint in the silver department. Meanwhile, I was taking gemology courses at the GIA. I guess the jewelry department got wind of this and they invited me to catalogue the jewelry that was coming up in these amazing sales, Christie’s jewelry sales. I did that for about a year, and I saw the most amazing jewels, the finest diamonds and gems from the best jewelry houses, but nothing really enthralled me. I admired their beauty, but they didn’t really captivate me, until one day a suite of jewelry came across my desk. I was amazed by it and it was a suite of jewelry from St. Petersburg from the mid-nineteenth century. It had been owned by the dentist of the Russian Empress.
Sharon: I’m sorry, did you say the dentist?
Marie: The dentist, yeah. His name was Thomas Evans, but he was like a celebrity. He was a huge star amongst all the crowned heads of Europe, and he was also the dentist for the Empress of France. He had amassed these fabulous jewels from the Russian court. Just to describe it a little bit, there was a gray suite with fantastic sapphires that are cabochon cut; they’re rounded instead of faceted, alternating with the most beautiful rubies, each surrounded with amazing old cut diamonds that had a special sparkle. There was also a patina to the gold. It was unlike anything I had seen. So, that’s where the interest began. The head of the Russian Department at Christie’s, I guess she sensed my interest, invited me to come to the Russian Department and start cataloguing and helping her out. Her name was Ellis Evans. Then she left to head the Russian Department at Christie’s London, and I became head of the Russian Department in New York at Christie’s, and it all grew from there.
Sharon: Wow, what a great story! What is it specifically about Russian jewelry that intrigues you? For somebody who’s a jewelry addict like me and our listeners, what is it that we should know about Russian jewelry?
Marie: I mentioned a little bit about the bracelet with the cabochon cuts. I’m going to give you a little bit of what you should look for in Russian jewelry. Of course, I’m talking about jewelry made before 1917 because after the revolution, everything was changed; everything was destroyed. The shops were closed and there was no major jewelry production for a while. With Russian jewelry, you have—for example, sapphires that are cut in cabochon instead of faceted. You have Moscow jewelry and Moscow was the ancient capital, and they loved to have designs from the old Russian court, so jewelry from Moscow, if you find it, tends to be heavier and bigger, just like their silverware from that period, which was throughout the 19th century and before 1917. St. Petersburg jewelry is more like European jewelry. They followed the trends of the French, but they have a certain Russian quality, in that it’s hard to describe. There’s just more of it. It’s spectacular. After a while, you recognize it. If you have jewelry that has an established set with diamonds and original stones, you have a treasure that is incomparable, because there’s so little of it around. I tell people to hold on to this thing.
Sharon: Marie, can you look at a piece of Russian jewelry and, upon reflection, know if it’s done in Moscow or in St. Petersburg?
Marie: Yes, I can tell because I’ve been trained to look for hallmarks for example and style. I can tell right away because I’ve been looking at hallmarks forever. There are certain hallmarks of Moscow and one for St. Petersburg, which identified where branded jewelry was made.
Sharon: You mentioned that name everybody knows is Fabergé. Who are the other major Russian jewelers whose names we should become more familiar with, and what makes them stand out?
Marie: That’s an excellent question, because we’re all enthralled with Fabergé and the 50 eggs he produced. Whenever anyone hears something’s Russian, they ask, “Is it Fabergé?” He is just one in, for example, 40 other jewelers that were in the Imperial Court at that time, and there were several jewelers that produced more jewelry than he did for the czar. One of the names that I think is most important is Bolin. House of Bolin began during the reign of Catherine the Great, so we’re talking about 1762 to 1791, and it existed all the way up to the revolution. The House of Bolin served seven consecutive czars or empresses, compared to Fabergé, who served the last two czars of Russia. So, you can imagine how longstanding that tenure was. Even after the revolution, they fled to Sweden, which is where they were from originally, and they’re still in business, which is amazing. The Bolin House made the most expensive jewelry in Russia. In fact, in 1851, when they were exhibiting at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, they won the highest prize, called the Counsel Medal, for this tiara they had produced that was set with thousands of diamonds. At that time, they were asking 120,000 rubles, which was an enormous amount, given the fact that Fabergé, for example, his imperial eggs were priced between maybe 3,000 rubles and 12,000 rubles.
Sharon: Wow, that’s a good comparison.
Marie: That’s one jeweler. Another one is Frederick Koechli, who was Swiss. Koechli set up shop in the 1870s in St. Petersburg and he has a particular style. He made lovely little, often textured, gold jewels with cabochon sapphires. He made objects for the table and jewelry for the aristocracy. I happen to have a gold dip pen that I bought that I didn’t know who it was by. I absolutely loved it and I later found out by researching the marks that it was by Koechli. It’s easy to discover this because his hallmark was in Latin and not Cyrillic. It’s the letters FK with a star in between.
Sharon: I know nothing about this. Did Fabergé make jewelry or only the eggs?
Marie: Fabergé made all sorts of things, but he was most famous for the eggs and for table items, objects, things that you would give as gifts to your loved ones. He was an artist jeweler I would say, but yes, he produced jewelry, because there was always a demand for jewelry for the Imperial Court and the Russian Court, being that it was the richest in Europe in the 18th century. There was constant demand for jewelry to be provided to the Imperial Court, especially during the reigns of the five empresses. Early on, the Romanovs were ruled by five empresses, one after the other. I know I’m getting off topic.
Sharon: That’s okay, go ahead.
Marie: Empress Elizabeth Petrovna absolutely loved jewelry and she reigned from 1741 to 1761. She was followed by Catherine the Great, who was the biggest patroness of the arts and jewelry. It came in towards the end of the Romanov Dynasty.
Sharon: It’s making me reach back into the recesses of mind. Elizabeth was Peter’s mother?
Marie: I believe Elizabeth was the daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine.
Sharon: No, Catherine was Great was married to the—I’ll call him the wimp. We’re totally off topic here.
Marie: Oh, Peter III. He didn’t last too long once she was around.
Sharon: So, I am remembering a couple of things. Anyway, let me ask you this. Tell me about one of the most fabulous finds you ever came across in terms of Russian jewelry. Were you at an auction, or did somebody say, “Hey, I have this piece and I didn’t know if this is something you knew about?”
Marie: I’ve handled quite a lot —I’ve never had an egg by the way, but I’m always hopeful. Maybe I’ll find one of the missing Fabergé eggs. But, for example, I remember I bought a diamond lady-in-waiting pin that was made for the court, both Empresses Maria Feodorovna and her daughter-in-law, Alexandra Feodorovna. They were struck with diamonds and with a big Romanov crown set with diamonds. These were worn by maids of honor to the empresses, who had to be unmarried and from a well-born family. That one I bought recently and then I sold it, and that person put it up for auction in Russia and it went for about seven times the price they bought it from me for. At the time, between 2006 and 2008, prices for Russian jewelry absolutely skyrocketed because the Russians were buying up everything they could find.
Sharon: Is that still true? How is the market for antique Russian jewelry now?
Marie: It’s a little less so. I would say the market has gone down quite a bit, with the Russians not buying quite as much. Americans are coming back into the market because they were overshadowed by the Russians for so long, so that’s a nice development, but the market for Russian jewelry will always be strong because there’s so little of it out there.
Sharon: So, we need to keep our eyes open. I know you’ve been giving Russian jewelry tours to St. Petersburg and Moscow, which are definitely on my bucket list. You spend your time in St. Petersburg and not in Moscow, so tell us why. Tell us about the tours, but also tell us—I’ve been curious as to why one city and not the other.
Marie: St. Petersburg was the center of jewelry production in Russia for 200 years. This is where the jewelers, most of them, worked. My interest grew from my research into St. Petersburg jewelers, so that brought me to St. Petersburg. Quickly, the background was that I was attending a jewelry conference in 2016, and it was great. I loved it, but I wanted to go out and explore the town and find out where these jewelers were, and it turned out many of them were very close to one another and to the Winter Palace. That put it all in perspective for me. A month later, I was giving a talk on Bolin in Manhattan. I was giving it to the GIA Alumni Association, and a friend of mine suggested I present the idea of offering a walking tour of St. Petersburg jewelers to see if there were would be an interest. I threw it out there and people seemed really interested, so I decided I would do it. I partnered with someone in St. Petersburg, a wonderful tour organizer who speaks perfect English. We do this tour and visit the diamond treasury room and the gold treasury room in the Hermitage, which is not usually part of tours. Even in the Hermitage itself, I was asking where the diamond treasury room was, and people didn’t know. You can only go there by private tour. Then we visit the palaces. Our schedule is quite full. You’d think you would run out of things to do over 10 days, but you don’t. On the other hand, I agree with you that Moscow, that’s where the Diamond Fund is in the Kremlin, and of course there are fantastic things to see there. I’m going to research adding on a two- or three-day trip to Moscow from St. Petersburg for the tour I’m planning in October 2020.
Sharon: Oh, my gosh, that sounds fabulous. You can sign me up, okay? Put me down.
Marie: Okay, I will.
Sharon: Marie, thank you so much. This has been so interesting, and I’m sure a lot of people are going to be googling the names you gave us so they can learn more about Russian history and Russian jewelry.
Marie: Thank you.
Sharon: They can find out more about you and your tours and jewelry on your website, MarieBetteley.com. That wraps up another episode of The Jewelry Journey. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you down your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thanks for listening, everybody.
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