When objects are donated to the museum, they may come with extensive documentation of their history, appraisals, or something that validates their identity. This is not always the case, not all donors have such information and sometimes the object is interesting enough that staff accept it as is. Part of our job is to try and make sure the story stays with the object. Or in some cases, find the missing story.
In the Gem Vault here at NHMLAC is an object that is a bit different from everything else. It is a European ring with a crown (indicating it belonged to a king or queen), and is obviously old. The letter on the ring is called a cipher, which is similar to a monogram. A cipher is often just the initial of a first name. The ring is gold, with blue enamel and tiny rose cut diamonds. The band of the ring has a beautiful laurel leaf motif.
|Photo by Eloïse Gaillou/NHMLAC|
This ring came to the museum in 1974, a gift from a Mr. and Mrs. Haverstick of Santa Monica, CA.
Along with the ring was a label of unknown origin explaining that the ring was a gift from Empress Catherine II of Russia (Catherine the Great) to one of her maids-of-honor. Here it is:
|We don't know who wrote this!|
|Catherine II by Fyodor Rokotov. From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catherine_the_Great|
Eloïse, Tony and I are geologists. We know a lot about mineralogy, petrology, crystallography. We know squat about historical jewelry. Brittany, our new volunteer, is a gemologist who does know something about historical pieces. She immediately was suspicious. She thought the cipher was a gothic style letter...was it even an E? It looks a bit like a C. Catherine in Russian is Ekaterina.
|From: Flickr -woody1778a|
Several experts we contacted at the GIA, Hillwood Museum in D.C., and the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana said the same thing. The ring does not look Russian and its not the cipher of Catherine. Also, based on the enamel and style, it appears to be from the 19th century rather than the 18th. A jewelry historian from Helsinki further opined that it is a man's "presentation ring" and the crown on the ring is that of Prussia. A sovereign would give away such a ring to honor someone for important service to the crown. For example, a personal staff member at their retirement or maybe a gift to a very close friend or advisor. It was a VERY nice gift.
With this information we started searching for ciphers and monograms of Prussian royalty of the 19th century. We immediately found our girl:
Everything fits, all our experts had said mid-19th century. At least it truly is the ring of a queen, even if not such a famous one as Catherine.
|Elisabeth Ludovika of Prussia. From: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_Ludovika_of_Bavaria|
The ring came with a letter. The letter was mailed from Paris in 1927 and was sent to the American woman who bought the ring in a Parisian shop. The American was Mrs. Florence Gordon Hall of Palo Alto, CA. When she bought the ring, she left a note for the former owner expressing sympathy that circumstances had forced her to sell such a special object. The former owner appreciated Mrs Hall's kind words and wrote her this letter:
She refers to the ring as "Madame Catherine's ring." For all these years no one at the museum was able to translate the signature. Our best guess was "Finaida Levowitck Tchakhowskov" which is not a name in any language! I was not sure what to make of the monogram "ZL" on the letter. There are often many different spellings of Russian surnames and this was likely a person who had only recently arrived in France. Her English is good but far from perfect, she may have been learning French at the same time, who knows! We thought it likely that the spelling of the name had changed.
Eventually, some of our colleagues asked Russian friends to decode the name and they came up with "Zinaida Shakhovskoy". Now we get lots of google hits. There was a Zinaida Shakhovskaya in Paris at that time under similar circumstances as our letter writer. She was the daughter of Prince Alexei Shakhovskoy and had fled Russia with her mother and siblings after the revolution. She moved to Paris by herself to get an education and eventually became a writer. At the time that the ring was sold, she would have been 20 years old. I read an autobiography she wrote in the late 1950s called "The Privilege was mine. A Russian Princess returns to the Soviet Union." In this book she describes her family's flight from St. Petersburg in 1917. They spent a few years in the countyside before her mother finally got them out of Russia.
We hope to learn more about Zinaida and her family history. She almost certainly did write this letter and I think she sincerely believed the story about the maid-of-honor to Catherine the Great. Family stories can easily get lost or muddled over the generations. Perhaps the story is true even if this is not that ring. Her family was noble and doubtless had many close connections to the royal families of Europe (they are all related anyway). We may never be able to find a direct connection between Zinaida Shakhovskaya's ancestor and Elisabeth of Prussia but it doesn't matter so much. Just knowing that the ring has likely made a remarkable journey from the court of the Prussian Kings in Berlin to St. Petersburg, to Paris to California is amazing!
Stay tuned for further updates!