An expert in Imperial Russian jewellery, Marie Betteley also wears other professional hats: dealer, Graduate Gemologist GIA, lecturer, author, tour organiser and leader. Her motto when it comes to jewellery is: “I buy what I like – if it’s exquisitely made and I love it, I buy it. Quite simply, I go for beauty, if it has a story, even better.”
In an interview with RA+C contributor Olya Voronetskaya, Marie talks about her ‘bejewelled’ career path and the mysteries she uncovers in her new book Beyond Fabergé: Imperial Russian Jewelry.
Olya Voronetskaya: Let’s start with your background: you were born into a family that was in the jewellery trade for two generations. How early on did you know that you would like to have a career closely related to art?
Marie Betteley: It was more towards my teenage years, because as a child — I was born and raised in Paris — my parents used to drag me to different museums and castles in Europe, and, at some point, I said: “No more art, no more castles!” I wanted to be like my friends who had modern interiors in their house, whereas in ours, we were surrounded by antiques. I didn’t appreciate that until I moved with the family to Hillwood. That’s when I became interested in objets d’art, jewels and treasures.
OV: We must not leave out the fact that you spent your teen years at the Hillwood Museum, where your father was the director. Could you tell us a bit more about that experience?
MB: It was an eye-opener! Before we moved into Hillwood, I had never heard of Fabergé. At first, I only enjoyed the gardens on the 25-acre estate, but after a while, I began to notice how beautiful the Russian objets d’art were that Mrs Post collected. It’s funny, because even back then, though I admired the two Fabergé eggs in the collection, I found the other Russian treasures more interesting. Many were older and spoke more to me about the Russian soul.
OV: You went on to study art history as an undergraduate and then began working at Christie’s, where you had a very interesting career. How did you find yourself in the auction house’s Jewellery and Russian Art departments?
MB: At Christie’s, I started at the front counter, answering phones and greeting clients. I was relieved when the head of the silver department asked me to help her catalogue silver. I took that job part-time until there was an opening in the jewellery department for a second gemologist to catalogue pieces for upcoming sales. Then there was an opening in the Russian department! When my boss left to lead the London office, I became its head.
OV: How did the Russian art and jewellery markets change during your time at Christie’s?
Throughout my tenure at Christie’s, the Russian sales were small. There was an avid group of buyers, and we saw the same faces all the time. There’d be dealers sitting in the back as they do now, collectors sprinkled all around the auction room, and that was how it was. This is not to say that we didn’t achieve some huge prices, we had fabulous sales, we broke the world record price for a Fabergé egg! Nothing was online — it was the time to buy.
OV: What inspired you to become an independent dealer with a focus on Russian works of art?
MB: For many auction experts, the next logical step after leaving the business is to give it a go as a dealer. For me, it was not a great time because the Gulf War was going on, and the market was down. It was also really difficult to excel in my chosen field because I couldn’t find that much to buy; it’s one thing if you’re at Christie’s — people bring you things, but then when you have to find them on your own — it’s a different story.
The supply of Russian Imperial jewellery was small and wasn’t growing because so much of it had been melted down or had simply disappeared after the Revolution. So, I decided to make frequent trips to Paris to buy French jewellery since I’m French and feel at home there. However, Russian jewellery is still my first love, and I’m always looking for it. I love to buy from the public. Especially when families have had Russian items in their collections for generations, there are all sorts of wonderful, often dramatic, stories that go with the jewels.
OV: Stories can be interesting in the sense that you might have found something authentic, but I’m sure you have come across curious forgeries?
MB: Yes, this is why working at an auction house is really the best way to become an expert. Auctions are the chosen testing ground for forgers all over the world and in all art fields, especially with Fabergé.
There are a lot of “fauxbergés” on the Russian market. I would say that for all my appointments to see things over the years about 75% was fake. With each passing year, new ones appear. As forgers are always perfecting their craft, it is getting more challenging, especially with enamels and crisp, lasered hallmarks. Even some items that were originally Fabergé have added enhancements — initials, crowns, eagles — to make them look more imperial. The marks might be good, the overall look, too, but then there’s also this nonsense, which would kill the sale.
OV: What are the misconceptions or misunderstandings that the general public might have in regard to Fabergé?
MB: Many in the West think that Carl Fabergé was the tsar’s only jeweller — this is untrue. Over thirty goldsmiths in Russia held the title of Purveyor to the Romanovs during Fabergé’s time, and that was only in the late imperial period. Many, like Bolin, Sazikov and Ovchinnikov, were renowned well before Fabergé. Still today these other jewellers are considered ‘contemporaries’ or ‘competitors’ of Fabergé. I’d love to banish those two words from the Fabergé literature because they’re completely misleading.
Also, everyone thinks Fabergé items are unique. Many were, but there were series of, for example, miniature eggs, little bonbonnières, perfume flasks and boxes, that were in different coloured enamels, but their design was not unique.
OV: What was the inspiration for your new book “Beyond Fabergé: Imperial Russian Jewellery”?
MB: It began at Christie’s when I was working as a gemologist. I fell in love with a suite of mid-19th century Saint Petersburg jewels and was frustrated by the lack of information in English on Russian jewellery outside Fabergé. I started to do some research about ten years ago. My husband, David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, the co-author, is a Russian history professor of the late imperial period. He’s written a couple of books himself, so, inspired by his work, I thought that we should do a book together: he could write about the sweeping history of Russian jewellery, and I would deal with the market and the different jewellers.
OV: Could you summarise the history of the Russian Imperial jewels and the missing links that you tried to re-establish in this book?
MB: The main aim of the book is to fill in those gaps, which are quite substantial, between the first Romanovs in the early 1600s and the Revolution three hundred years later. As the book’s introduction says, few people realise that Russia had the richest court in Europe in the 18th century, when mostly women ruled the empire. We highlight some of the jewellers, including Pauzié, Keibel, Römpler and, later, Hahn, who helped to establish this rich reputation for the imperial court, as well as their relations to it.
Another thing Westerners may not realise is that the jewellery arts in Russia began long before the Romanovs. The Scythians, nomadic tribes who roamed southern Ukraine and the Crimean coast more than two thousand years ago, produced fabulous gold treasures. We also discuss the adoption of Orthodox Christianity as a factor in bringing the love of this extravagance of colour and pageantry to Russia. We talk about Kiev, where the jewellery industry started and only later moved to Moscow and then to Saint Petersburg. We tried to fill out the historical panorama of jewellery that way.
OV: From what I understand, the research you undertook for this book resulted in your launching Art & Treasures Tours in 2017?
MB: Yes, that’s right. I was attending a Fabergé conference in Saint Petersburg in 2016, enjoying the panel discussions, but I remember desperately wanting to get out into the city, to try to locate where these jewellers that I had been researching for several years had their storefronts. I did that and was surprised to see that many were within a walking distance of each other and of the Winter Palace.
The extra thrill came when we went back to the hotel, and I realised that it was on the very street where the 18th-century court jeweller Jérémie Pauzié had his workshop. I made sure to retrace my own steps to the Winter Palace just as he did in the middle of the night when Empress Elizabeth Petrovna summoned him to show his latest creations. She was an insomniac, so her messenger would wake him up in the middle of the night, and he would trudge to the palace, only to find her asleep and to have to go back with his jewels. So, I took those steps to relive that experience. Upon my return to New York, a friend suggested I offer a walking tour of Saint Petersburg jewellers to mark the centennial of the Russian Revolution, and when I proposed it at a lecture, people seemed really interested.
OV: What can one expect on a tour with you?
MB: I’ve learnt that people love experiences, and, while some don’t buy jewellery, many love to see it first-hand, to find out more about it and to handle it. Our Art & Treasures tours offer access to jewels and treasures that regular tourists would never see.
In Saint Petersburg, we visit the Gold and Diamond Treasury rooms at the Hermitage Museum. I’m adding Moscow to the October 2021 tour, because no Russian treasures-focused tour is complete without a visit to the Diamond Fund in the Kremlin, and a curator-led tour of the Moscow Historical Museum. In Paris, we go to the Hotel Droûot for the auction experience, and I encourage people to bid if they want. We have private and exclusive visits to the ateliers and the shops at Place Vendôme. We also visit auction specialists, who show us their collections of jewels that are coming up for sale. London features after-hours visits to the British crown jewels and a private tour of Goldsmith Hall, among others. The full programmes are posted on my website.
OV: Are there any distinctively Russian gems, pieces of jewellery or styles? The kokoshnik comes to mind.
MB: Well, alexandrite, a wonderful colour-change chrysoberyl is specific to Russia. Also, historically, the Urals yielded rich deposits of aquamarines, topaz, garnets, jasper and amethyst.
There are more iconic Russian designs in silver because many of the silversmiths were in Moscow, which was steeped in the Old Russian tradition. Objects like the kovshs, bratinas, vodka cups, icon lamps are very Russian and Slavic in design. Moscow enamels that became so popular in the 19th century were inspired by Byzantine and Kievan production centuries earlier.
In terms of jewellery, as you mentioned, there’s that wonderful kokoshnik tiara that is definitely an iconic Russian design, although it has elements of ancient Greece as well. The actual design of the curved headdress dates back to the 17th century in Moscow: it was worn by married women and was often covered with pearls.
It is interesting to me that out of the twelve diadems that formed part of the Russian crown jewels in 1925, all but one were sold. It’s a magnificent kokoshnik with diamonds mounted en tremblant (they move when worn), which is set with a 13-carat pink diamond from the era of Tsar Paul I — I think that’s the most beautiful one.
OV: Photographs and any visual reproductions that exist must have been very important in helping you to uncover specific pieces of jewellery?
MB: Yes, you’re absolutely right. A catalogue of the Russian crown jewels titled Russia’s Treasure of Diamonds and Precious Stones, which was published in 1925 by Professor Alexander Fersman, is the most complete inventory of the Russian crown jewels with 100 fabulous plates. GIA owns a copy of the portfolio in its library and has graciously posted it online. Without those images, we would be nowhere and would have no idea about what the missing jewels, 75% of which were sold to the West, look like.
I would say that apart from the landmark Christie’s sale of 1927, in which 124 lots of the crown jewels were sold, less than 10% has resurfaced on the market in the West. Except for the grand tiaras, diamond necklaces and sumptuous parures, which have all probably been broken down, some of those jewels may still be around. I’m hoping that the gorgeous cluster brooches from the period of Catherine the Great, for example, are out there and intact. I live with that optimism, and by showing these images in our book, I hope that someone will find them and contact me!