Posts tagged Imperial Russia
THE COLOUR OF SUNSET: IMPERIAL TOPAZ

An impressive cushion cut Imperial topaz and diamond ring.

I have now worked in the jewellery industry for 15 years and the colours and hues available never cease to amaze me.  The delicate palette of pale orange and yellow through cherry to pale pink and violet found in imperial topaz is one such colour range.  Imperial topaz was particularly prized in the late 19th century, especially by the Russians.  The gem was given its Imperial denomination by the tsars, who coveted the sunset coloured stone and claimed exclusive mining rights.  As with many semi precious gems, they fell out of favour during the first half of the 20th century due to the rise of diamonds and platinum, and later on, the onset of Art Deco and its monochrome clean lines.

Deposits of Imperial topaz from the Ouro region in Brazil.  Even in its natural state, one can see the impressive colour they are going to yield.

The reputation of topaz took a bit of a hit in the last three decades because of the amount of over treated blue material flooding the market and used in cheap jewellery.  The blue is achieved by heating low grade material and these stones only fetch a few pounds a carat, where is often ends up in jewellery advertised at the back of newspaper colour supplements.  Although most coloured stones are heat treated nowadays, Imperial grade gems are not.  To class as a true Imperial, they must have overtones of red when the stone is viewed from different angles, exhibiting a trait in gemmology known as dichroism.  This is why most Imperial topaz is cut as pear shaped or elongated ovals, as it is the cut that shows this quality to its best advantage.

The finest stones are now sourced in Brazil.  The 1990s has seen a rise in popularity in coloured stones, which has also been fuelled by an explosion of creativity by this century's artist jewellers. The price has risen accordingly, often far outstripping the price of diamonds and shows no sign of slowing down as demand in the Far East grows.  Imperial topaz is genuinely rare, unlike the artificial market of small and medium size diamonds, so their investment performance is good.  Fine examples of a good size can easily fetch up to $2000 a carat; heads were turned when a pair of Imperial topaz earrings by JAR was sold by Christie's in 2010 for $650,000.

The story I enjoy the most is a classic 'found-in-a-junk-shop' story: in 2011, Thea Jourdan, from Hampshire, was having her engagement ring re-valued.  The insurers spotted a brooch with an odd coloured stone surrounded by what she had thought were paste diamonds.  Having been told what she really owned, Mrs. Jourdan put the stone up for sale at Bonhams, whose experts had identified it as an Imperial topaz and diamond brooch once owned by the Tsarina Alexandra.  It duly fetched £32,000.  She had bought it in a junk shop for just £20.  A fitting metaphor for a gem the colour of a sunset, whose fortunes were high, fell and then rose again.

Imogen Jourdan holding the pink Imperial topaz brooch her mother bought in a junk shop for £20.  It sold for over £33,000.

An important pair of Imperial topaz earrings by JAR.  It is usual for these stones to be cut in an elongated manner in order to show the colour off to its best advantage.

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.