Lavish in excelsis: The jewellery of Catherine the Great

CATHERINE THE GREAT, circa 1780

Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Catherine the Great was Empress of all Russia and their longest ruling female leader, reigning over the mighty empire for 34 years until her death in 1796. Although Catherine had come to power by over-throwing her husband, Peter III in 1762, leading to his death eight days later, the Catherinian Era is considered to be the Golden Age of Russia. She supported the ideals of the Enlightenment, was a patron of the arts, literature and education, reorganised the administration and law of the Russian Empire and successfully extended its territory stretching it from Poland to Siberia.

Catherine, the recent subject of a brilliantly extravagant Hulu TV series, was dedicated to the collection and commission of the decorative arts, including magnificent jewellery. Many believed that she wore multiple layers of gems at one time to demonstrate her power and rank and as a symbol to justify her position (sometimes even bejewelling her hair when more space was needed). Not a believer in the ‘less is more’ concept, eventually there was no jewellery box big enough for her profligate treasures, so in 1764 she transformed an entire room at the Winter Palace, calling it the Brilliant Room, just to house her collection.