The Yugoslavian Emeralds were a rare and highly valuable collection of jewels that had a rich, complicated history. Beginning in Imperial Russia, they would travel to France, Yugoslavia & England before being broken up and sold to support an exiled dynasty in the New World.
Their story begins in1884 when Grand Duke Sergei (the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II) married Princess Elizabeth of Hesse and by Rhine (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria).
Sergei’s mother, the Tsarina Marie, gifted Elizabeth (known as Ella) a suite of emeralds from her vast personal collection of jewels. The gemstones were sent to the Imperial Court Jeweller, Bolin, who transformed them into the traditional headdress of the Russian court, the Kokoshnik.
To complement the new tiara, Bolin also created a matching necklace, earrings, brooch, and stomacher worthy of the newly renamed
Grand Duchess Elisaveta Fyodorovna.
Sadly, Ella’s life in Russia was not to be a happy one. She was deeply religious and the endless grand parties given by the Russian aristocracy soon lost their appeal. When her husband Sergei was brutally assassinated by anarchists in 1905, Ella gave up all her worldly possessions and became a nun.
She sold most of her belongings to set up her new Convent but her Emeralds were given to her adopted niece, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna when she married Prince Wilhelm of Sweden 1908. (They divorced in 1914 and Maria returned to Russia)
Russia finally exploded into revolution in 1917 and over 300 years of Romanov rule came to a bloody end. While many royals did manage to escape, Ella was not one of them. She was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
Marie Pavlovna was one of the lucky ones, using her Swedish identity papers to flee into exile. Settling in Paris, she began an embroidery shop to support herself. According to legend, lacking the necessary funds to fill an order for the designer Coco Chanel, Maria Pavlovna was forced to sell her Emeralds.
The buyer was none other than King Alexander I of Yugoslavia. In search of a wedding present for his new bride, Princess Marie of Romania, and under the guidance of his new mother-in-law Queen Marie (a first cousin to Grand Duchess Elizabeth and an avid jewelry collector), King Alexander acquired the Emeralds. Princess Marie wore the emerald necklace on her wedding day and showcased the entire set during her parents’ coronation in 1922.
Combining the new necklace with the original Bolin Tiara, the Emeralds became the de facto Yugoslavian Crown Jewels, with Queen Marie frequently photographed wearing them.
Tragically, in 1934, King Alexander was assassinated by revolutionaries in Marseilles, France leaving his 11 year old son as the new King Peter II.
Queen Marie gave up all her official duties and retired to a farm in England, taking her jewels and her two youngest sons with her. It was fortunate that she did as in 1941, Yugoslavia was invaded by Germany leaving King Peter no choice but to flee to London with his government.
While in London, the young King met another exiled royal, Princess Alexandra of Greece, at an officer’s ball at Grosvenor House. Encouraged by her cousin, Princess Marina, the two fell in love and got married.
As his Queen, Peter wanted Alexandra to have the family emeralds.
Queen Marie had always been against the marriage and reluctantly handed them over. Peter was subsequently written out of her will, stating ‘he had already received his inheritance’.
Alexandra would go on to only wear the Emeralds once at the pre-wedding ball of her first cousin Prince Phillip to the future Queen Elizabeth II in 1947.
In her memoirs ‘For the Love of a King’, Alexandra recalls the evening:
“As the formal dinner went on, my head ached and hurt unbearably under the weight of the heavy tiara of emeralds I wore. Even the jewels of the necklace seemed to lie too heavily on my neck, and I longed to take them all off.”
In 1947, after the Communists seized his assets and exiled him from Yugoslavia, King Peter tried to rebuild his family’s life in America.
Sadly though, following a string of unsuccessful investments, the royal couple had to sell the Emeralds in order to support themselves.
The tiara (and probably the sautoir too but this unconfirmed) was later purchased by the French jewellery house, Van Cleef and Arpels. The priceless Romanov Emeralds were taken out and sold with paste stones being put in their place.
The jewellers will occasionally loan the tiara to exhibitions and in 2016, it was graciously leant to a Yugoslavian royal, Princess Elizabetha for a gala event.
The Tiara is now exhibited at the headquarters of the company in the Place Vendome, Paris.