Her imperial Highness Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, The Grand Duchess Vladimir was one of the most important jewellery collectors in history. Born Duchess Marie of Mecklenburg-Schwerin she married the second son of the Russian Emperor Alexander II, Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich in 1874.
It is thought that she received her legendary emeralds as a wedding present. This suite of jewels included a large brooch with a step cut emerald weighing 107 Carats once belonging to Catherine the Great and a 100 Carat Hexagonal cut emerald set into a large necklace with other square and cabochon shaped gems.
She first wore the emeralds to a costume ball after her wedding. Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich on February 20, 1875 wrote in his diary:
“Wonderful Vladimir’s costume ball. There were many beautiful costumes. Minnie (future Empress Maria Feodorovna) was in a pink ‘domino’ dress, Maria (Grand Duchess Vladimir) – was a priestess of the sun, gorgeous. Papa (Emperor Alexander II) was Peter the Great, Sasha (future Emperor Alexander III) was a hetman, Vladimir (host of the ball) was the Imperial guard of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. We danced until 5 a.m.! The big hall was charming. It was very fun, and very lively. Went to bed around 6 am!”.
To accompany her exotic costume, Grand Duchess Vladimir merged her Hexagonal emerald with her diamond fringe tiara to create an eye catching headpiece.
On January 25, 1883, Grand Duke Vladimir held a ball with the theme ‘Russian History and Epics’ where he and Maria chose to dress as 17th Century Boyars (Russian Nobles).
Vladimir can be seen wearing the Catherine the Great Emerald brooch in his hat and Maria wore the Emerald Necklace along with other loose jewels in her costume.
Maria became know as ‘the grandest of the grand duchesses’. Her home, the Vladimir Palace, became the centre of Russian aristocratic society. In 1902, Consuela Vanderbilt (who had married the 9th Duke of Marlborough) visited Maria Pavlovna in St. Petersburg :
‘She [Maria] had a majestic personality, but could be both gracious and charming. After dinner she showed me her jewels set out in glass cases in her dressing room. There were endless parures of diamonds, emeralds, rubies and pearls to say nothing of semi-precious stones such as turquoises, tourmalines, cat’s eyes and aquamarines.’ What a night that would be! It seems Russian etiquette called for the hostess show off her jewels to honoured female guests. Not what would be called tasteful by others but I would be OK with seeing jewellery at a dinner party!
Perhaps the most impressive outing of the emeralds was the fabled Romanov Costume ball of 1903. Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch recalled the occasion as
“the last spectacular ball in the history of the empire … [but] a new and hostile Russia glared through the large windows of the palace … while we danced, the workers were striking and the clouds in the Far East were hanging dangerously low.”
Grand Duchess Vladimir chose the costume of a Boyar in the opulent Novgorod style. She had her Emerald Necklace set into the front of her immense hat along with the other the cabochon stones set on top and she fastened the Catherine the Great’s brooch in the centre of her vast jewelled neckline.
In 1918, Russia finally exploded in to Revolution. Grand Duchess Vladimir fled to the Crimea leaving her jewels hidden in the Vladimir Palace, thinking she would return when the situation had improved.
Below, Prince Michael of Kent (Grand Duchess Vladimir’s Great Grandson) explains how when reality finally set in, she instructed her son Grand Duke Boris and her close friend Albert Stopford to retrieve her jewels.
(This is a Danish documentary but Prince Michael speaks in English)
Grand Duchess Vladimir passed away on the 6th September 1920 in Switzerland. Her vast collection was divided amongst her children with her sons Andrei and Kyril inheriting the Rubies & Sapphires.
Her only daughter Elena received the Diamonds and Pearls, the most famous piece being the Vladimir Tiara now worn by Queen Elizabeth II.
Grand Duke Boris acquired the famous emeralds and it is at this point they were split up.
The necklace featuring the 100 Carat Hexagonal stone was sold first to Cartier in 1922.
The famous French jeweller fashioned the jewels into a long Sautoir and sold them to the eccentric American heiress Edith Rockefeller MacCormick
When Edith died in 1932, her heirs returned to Cartier, asking them to find a buyer for the stones with an asking price of $480,000 ($9 million in today’s money).
The jewellers quickly found a buyer in the shape of the immensely rich and jewel obsessed Barbara Hutton.
Barbara was happy to pay double the asking price to acquire these famous Romanov emeralds. As she was living in London at the time, the emeralds were sent across the Atlantic on two steam ships. For security reasons, the jewels were divided into ten packets and hidden in a tea shipment on one boat. The 100 Carat Hexagonal emerald was stored separately on the other.
In 1947, Hutton instructed Lucien Lachassagne of Cartier to create a yellow gold, Oriental style tiara for her to display the emeralds in.
In 1966, Barbara sold the emeralds to the jeweller Van Cleef and Arpels and their current whereabouts are unknown.
It had been rumoured that some of the stones in Elizabeth Taylor’s Bulgari Emerald necklace were from the Vladimir collection but this has been disproved by jeweller historian Vincent Meylan.
According to Meylan’s Instagram account:
From time to time, I read that the emerald necklace created by Bulgari for Elizabeth Taylor was, at least partly, created with some of the extraordinary emeralds from the Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia ‘s necklace!
This is not true and further more, it is impossible. Grand Duchess Vladimir´s emeralds were spectacular. As most of you know, after her death, her emeralds were sold at Cartier who used seven of them on a necklace which was sold to Barbara Hutton. In 1966, Barbara Hutton got tired of her necklace and she brought it at Van Cleef and Arpels in Paris. Van Cleef bought the emeralds. In April 1967, Elizabeth Taylor appeared at a public event in London wearing a rather spectacular emerald necklace created by Bulgari. Around Elizabeth Taylor’s jewellery auction in 2011, a rumour started : some of the emeralds included in Elizabeth Taylor’s necklace may come from from Barbara Hutton’s necklace and therefore from Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia. Neither Christie’s, who organised the auction, or Bulgari, who bought back the necklace ever commented on that subject. But some still wanted to believe in that legend.
Despite selling his mother’s necklace soon after her death, it would appear that Grand Duke Boris attempted to hold onto the Brooch for as long as he financially could.
Boris’ wife, Zinaida Rashevskaya was photographed here with her niece wearing the brooch at some point in the late 1920’s. It is thought the earrings she is wearing were made from some smaller stones belonging to the Vladimir emeralds. But sadly, due to the monetary difficulties faced by most former Russian nobles, Boris finally sold the historic stone to Cartier in 1927 and it disappeared from public view for the next twenty years.
In 1947, Cartier purchased an impressive emerald and diamond necklace from the famous stone cutter, Raphael Esmerian. They had planned to merge the new necklace with the Catherine the Great Brooch but Esmerian suggested to Pierre Cartier that they have the Brooch re cut to remove a natural flaw and enhance the stone’s radiance.
This brought the total weight of the stone down from 107 Carats to 75 Carats. It was then sold that year to John D. Rockefeller Jr.
The necklace stayed with the Rockefeller family until it was auctioned in Switzerland in 1971 and had been in the hands of private collectors until 2019, when it reappeared at Christie’s in an impressive modern setting. The magnificent stone, with it’s unique imperial history was sold for $4,500,000.