Russia’s French Connection

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In the American film adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s 1965 novel Doctor Zhivago, there is a scene where the main character arrives at the frozen house of his family estate. This house, which looks like a Russian fairytale palace, appears as if woven from thin snow-white lace and decorated with thousands of diamonds. This is how the director of the film, David Lin, presented the fabulous imperial Russia.

For French jewelers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Russian theme and the Russian fairytale were the reality of their work. Jewelry lovers and connoisseurs of luxury from the Romanov dynasty and other noble families patronized the Parisian jewelry houses, contributing in many ways to their success. And foreign jewelers, in response, were inspired by the exotic Russian culture and adopted the techniques of Russian masters.

Boucheron became the first foreign jewelry house to open a salon in Moscow in 1897. Its clients included Emperor Alexander III, Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, Emperor Nicholas II, as well as Grand Duke Vladimir and his wife, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna. Among the most famous Russian pieces from the Boucheron house were a gold necklace with emeralds and diamonds, “Peacock’s Feather,” created for the Grand Duke Alexei, and a small pearl home tiara belonging to Empress Alexandra, which Nicholas II presented to her on the eve of their wedding, along with a necklace made of gold threads, replicating the weightless material of his future wife’s silk scarf. The girl dropped the scarf at the ball, and the future emperor, picking it up, fell in love forever and asked Frederic Boucheron to immortalize this moment.

In 2017, the jewelry house released the Imperial Winter collection, dedicated to the Russian chapter of its history. Several dozen jewelry pieces made of gold, diamonds, rock crystal, sapphires and emeralds were inspired by the winter landscapes, architecture and national costumes of Russia.

Another French jewelry house- Chaumet- produced pieces for members of the imperial family and representatives of famous aristocratic families: the Orlovs, Yusupovs, Dolgorukiy, Golitsyn and others. The most prominent client of the Chaumet house was Prince Felix Yusupov. Before his wedding with the Grand Duchess Irina Romanova, he ordered a whole set of jewelry from Chaumet, among which was the legendary Sun Tiara. In 2018 the brand released the Imperial Walks collection, dedicated to the Russian heritage of the house and inspired by Siberian nature, old platbands and frosty patterns on the windows of peasant huts, as well as traditional Russian headdresses – kokoshniks.

The trendsetter for jewelry kokoshniks in the early 20th century was another French jewelry house loved by Russian aristocrats: Cartier. After Cartier created the first kokoshnik tiara with round diamonds and sapphires for its main Russian client, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, in 1908, more and more orders for such jewelry followed (it was Grand Duchess Maria who convinced Pierre Cartier to open a branch in St. Petersburg).

Another famous kokoshnik tiara was made by Cartier for Irina Yusupova, commissioned by her husband. This tiara, made of platinum, diamonds and rock crystal, complements Irina’s wedding look. Such jewelry pieces in the Russian style became popular in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century largely thanks to Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet Seasons as well as Russian immigration.

Cartier’s close relationship with Russia continues today: the jewelry house holds exhibitions in the best museums in the country, supports Russian ballet and periodically releases jewelry inspired by Russia. So, in 2015, Cartier created the Romanoff bracelet using the sapphire of Empress Maria Feodorovna.

There is also a Russian chapter in the history of Chanel. At the beginning of the 20th century, when Gabrielle Chanel was developing her business and was at the peak of popularity, she did not yet have a permanent jewelry line. Thanks to her beloved Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich, cousin of Nicholas II, Chanel met Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and other ballet dancers, and became familiar with Russian culture. This interest in Russia had some influence on her work: in her collections, Chanel began to use elements of the Russian traditional costume. Her business relationship with the great Russian princess Maria, whose embroidery house collaborated with the Chanel fashion house, was also important. Gabrielle Chanel’s relationship with Russia is embodied in the modern high jewelry collection Le Paris Russe de Chanel, which was presented in 2019 in Moscow. The jewelry in this collection is dedicated to two major themes: Russian folklore and imperial heritage. Among them are jewels that look like military regalia, double-headed eagles, ornaments with multi-colored stones reminiscent of embroidered sundresses, and, of course, a kokoshnik tiara.

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