THE MYSTERIOUS ROUBLE PRINCESS: VARVARA KELCH

The 1902 Rocaille Egg given to Varvara Kelch by her husband.

The dollar princesses who married into European nobility at the turn of the last century have been well documented; they have a Russian counterpart who spent so prodigiously and collected jewellery so assiduously that it is a marvel that her existence was not really noted until the 1970s.  Her name was Varvara Kelch.  Born Varvara Petrovna Bazanova, her exact date of birth is unknown, but she married in 1892 at the age of around 20, a minor nobleman called Nicholas Kelch.  She was the sole heiress of a vast fortune founded by her grandfather that included gold mines, railways and a maritime transport company.  Nicholas died two years after they were married and the Kelchs, eager to keep all that lovely money in the family, somehow managed to convince her to marry her brother in law, Alexander.  In a move that was astonishingly forward for the age, the marriage contract specified that Varvara not only keep ownership of her fortune, but also the management it.

The somewhat gloomy Neo Gothic mansion the Kelchs built themselves in St. Petersburg. 

The second marriage was not happy; for five years, the Kelchs lived in separate houses, she in Moscow he in St. Petersburg.  In the meantime they built a monolith of a neo-Gothic house in St. Petersburg, in which they finally lived together for 7 years.  The Kelchs have become famous because of the seven Faberge Easter Eggs Alexander commissioned for his wife during this time.  Epitomising the craft and design for which Faberge was famous, these eggs were catalogued as Imperial until the discovery of the Kelch name in the Faberge archives in 1970.  The couple more or less decided to call it quits in 1905, and Varvara moved to Paris, Faberge eggs and all.  The reason her compulsive spending is known of at all is because of the meticulously kept Boucheron archives.  It is recorded that between 1897 and 1924 she spent a staggering 7,169,000 francs at Boucheron, a sum that would even have made a Grand Duke blush.  Varvara spent only on precious stones, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and pearls; she bought, collected, re-set, re-designed, sold and acquired some more.  She celebrated the end of the First World War by buying an 8.3 carat ruby.  This spending pattern suggests that her patronage was probably not exclusive to Boucheron, so towards the end of her life her knowledge of jewellery must have reached professional standards.

Archive photograph of a diamond necklace Varvara Kelch bought from Boucheron at the turn of the 20th century.  After she died, her jewellery was never seen again.

Varvara sold her Faberge Eggs probably towards the end of the war; she had no financial worries, so we can only speculate that by then she found them old fashioned- with the arrival of monochrome and Art Deco, a view held by many people.  Let’s not forget that Consuelo Vanderbilt donated her Faberge Easter Egg to be raffled at (it must be said very exclusive) a charity bazaar.  Varvara Kelch peters out of sight in 1924, the date of her last recorded jewellery purchase.  It is not known when or where she died and her magnificent jewels were never seen again; we only catch a glimpse of her through jewellery ledgers.  Her ex-husband, Alexander, survived the Russian Revolution only to be swallowed up by the Gulag system in 1930.

The 12 Panel Egg of 1899, commissioned from Faberge by Alexander Kelch as a gift for his wife.  This piece is now housed in the Royal Collection.