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Joining me at Women of Chapman's presentation of "The Russian Imperial Crown Jewels: Their Origins and Their Fate" by renowned speaker His Imperial Highness Dr. Geza von Habsburg were Mona Nesseth, Donna Bianchi and Donna Calvert

Joining me as program co-chair at Women of Chapman’s presentation of “The Russian Imperial Crown Jewels: Their Origins and Their Fate” by renowned speaker His Imperial Highness Dr. Geza von Habsburg, center, were WOC board member Mona Nesseth, President Donna Bianchi and program co-chair Donna Calvert

It was an amazing presentation. His Imperial Royal Highness, Archduke Dr. Geza von Habsburg, Prince Imperial of Austria and Prince Royal of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia, (how’s that for a title?!) spoke to close to 100 members and guests of the Women of Chapman on “The Russuan Imperial Crown Jewels: Their Origins and Their Fate.” Held at the Island Hotel in Newport Beach, Dr. Habsburg’s presentation held everyone spellbound as he spoke of Russian history leading up to World War I.

Speaking of World War I, von Habsburg is the great-great grandson of Emperor Franz-Joseph I of Austria and grandson of King Frederick Augustus III of Saxony. In case you’re not up on your European history, it was the assassination of Emperor Franz-Joseph’s heir-presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, his nephew Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo in 1914 that sparked the beginning of World War I. Out of that war, the Russian empire was taken over by the Bolsheviks and renamed the Soviet Union.

The Bolsevicks, according to von Habsburg, confiscated all the Russian nobility’s jewelry they could get their hands on, and, after Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra and their children were murdered, the jewels they were wearing sewn into their clothes were also taken, along with jewelry confiscated while they were imprisoned. “A lot of the jewels were sent to Moscow and disappeared,” von Habsburg said.

After the 1917 revolution, Russia’s new rulers debated what to do with the crown jewels. This 1925 black and white photo shows the collection. Some of the revolutionaries saw the jewels as symbols of centuries of exploitation — gems that ought to be sold to benefit the workers. However, much of the collection was preserved by curators at the Kremlin in Moscow because clearer heads prevailed and were able to who convince the leaders that the gems had enormous historical significance.


One of the major pieces to be preserved was the Imperial Crown of Russia (below), also known as the Great Imperial Crown. It was created for Empress Catherine the Great’s coronation in 1762 and used by the emperors of Russia until the monarchy’s abolition in 1917. It is set with close to 5,000 Indian diamonds, a number of fine, large white pearls and a large precious red spinel weighing 398.72 carats. It is currently on display in the Moscow Kremlin Armoury State Diamond Fund.


Enough jewelry remained, however, that the Soviets held a Christie’s auction in 1927 because they badly needed money. They also resorted to breaking up major pieces of jewelry to sell the stones and melt down the metals. From 1928 to 1933, the Bolsheviks devised a five-year plan, whereby they confiscated jewelry from the nobility and sent everything to the Kremlin. “There were crates of jewelry and great works of art,” von Habsburg said. “They took all the silver after 1820 and melted it down.”

The Bolsheviks sold off many of the imperial family’s jewels and possessions, including the famous Faberge eggs Nicholas II commissioned for his family, and many of those items can’t be located today, according to von Habsburg. However, the Nuptial Crown (below) is another rare exception with traceable whereabouts. It was sold by Christie’s in 1927 and was acquired by Marjorie Merriweather Post, an American businesswoman. Mrs. Post was an avid collector, whose fortune came from the Post cereal company started by her father, which she turned into General Foods. Her third husband was the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and during their tenure in Moscow, she turned her collecting eye to the spoils of the Russian revolution. She amassed what is said to be the finest collection of imperial art outside of Russia. This crown and her other treasures are in the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C, which is her former home.

The imperial brides wore the Russian Nuptial Crown. Made from diamonds which were used as trimming for clothes and in a belt of Catherine the Great, it measures a mere four inches in diameter. Petite though it is, it isn’t lacking in impressive stats: there are 320 larger diamonds weighing 182 carats total and 1,200 smaller diamonds totalling 80 carats, mounted in silver and set on a crimson velvet crown.


The imperial brides also wore the tiara below, which was most notable for its central pink diamond, a rose-colored stone of impeccable quality, which comes from the treasury of Emperor Paul I (1754-1801) and clocks in at more than 10 carats. The diamonds here are all of the finest quality. They come from Brazil and India and are mounted and set in silver and gold. A row of hanging briolette diamonds dangles above, and the tall tiara is topped by diamond uprights. Unlike many of the imperial jewels, the tiara survived the revolution and is today in the possession of the Russian government.


I could go on and on. Von Habsburg’s photos showed the overwhelming extravagance of the Russian imperial court. There was nothing quite like it anywhere. These are jewels of almost magical significance, symbols of unbridled power and wealth. The glittering jewels were worn by generations of czars, czarinas, grand duchesses and other imperial court members.

Von Habsburg was delightful. Brought to us by Mona Lee Nesseth, one of our Women of Chapman members, he is a Fabergé expert, has published many books and articles on the jewelers Peter Carl Fabergé and Victor Mayer and has curated several major international Fabergé exhibitions. He spoke to our Chapman support group in 2009 on Faberge’s role as Imperial Jeweler to the Russian Tsars. As an educator, von Habsburg served as an associate professor at the New York School of Interior Design, the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, and at New York University. He is currently a lecturer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

To view the Russian Imperial Family jewelry, please go to the YouTube video below: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_95PyZTaTQ