Russia had rarely been considered part of Europe before the reign of Tsar Peter I, Peter the Great (1682 – 1725). His supremacy saw the start of the transformation towards Westernisation. It was Tsar Peter who founded St Petersburg in 1703, which went on to surpass Moscow as the empire’s largest city.
The Russian standard for silver is based on the zolotnik. This word comes from the word ‘zoloto’ which means gold. The unit originated as the weight of a gold coin which had the same name and was circulating in the late 11th century in Kievan Russia. A zolotnik originally represented a 1/96th of a pound, then later, 1/72nd of a pound. In the metric system, one zolotnik is equal to 4.266 gm. Russian marks converted to sterling values of silver purity degree: 84 zol. = 875/1000; 88 zol. = 916.6/1000; 91 zol. = 947.9/1000.
Elizabeth of Russia, the daughter of Peter the Great, reigned from 1741 until 1762. She had a great commitment to the arts. She loved balls and was said to have fifteen thousand ball gowns. By the late 1700s, German-born Catherine the Great (1762 – 96) who had overthrown her husband Peter III in a coup d’état to become Empress, continued Russia’s Westernisation by commissioning German furniture, Sevres porcelain, artwork and goods from Europe. Catherine patronised craftsmen and local silversmiths, encouraging them to move from the provinces to St Petersburg and Riga. Catherine extended the Tsar’s Winter Palace (started by Elizabeth) by building the ‘Little Hermitage’ to house and display her fantastic art collection.
Rare beaker. Fully marked Russian 84 zolotnik (875 standard) Moscow 1745 Grigory Ivanov Serebryanikov and assayer Grigoriev Kuzma, £1,280
Alexander II reigned from 1855 until his assassination in 1881. Tea was a crucial element in the functioning of Russian aristocratic circles, just as it was in England. Queen Victoria mentions tea 7,000 times in her journals. The race to bring tea to England was tough. The most famous of the clipper ships, the Cutty Sark, had been launched in 1868. The first leg of the Trans-Siberian Railway was completed in 1880. Until then, caravans bought tea to Russia from China and it took a year to arrive.
Silver tea caddy, Moscow BC 1872, 84 zolotnik; BC is the assay mark of Victor Vasilyevich Savinsky and AWW is the maker's mark of Andrei Vilbgelmovich Bekman. St George slaying the dragon is the Moscow city mark, £1,450
1872 was the year that Peter Carl Fabergé, a young Russian jeweller of French descent, volunteered to help and restore the antique treasures in the Winter Palace. Impressed with Fabergé’s craftsmanship Tsar Alexander III (reigned 1881 – 1894) appointed Fabergé Imperial Court Jeweller. Although every ornamental egg produced by Fabergé for the Royal Family was unique, Fabergé’s workshops employed over five hundred craftsmen and silversmiths. Fabergé designed many silver items such as tableware, hollowware, tea services, vases and decorative boxes.
Five-piece individual table place setting by Karl Fabergé.
Late 19th century, 88 zolotnik, in a shell and thread pattern, £2,750
The niello technique, a black inlay on silver, had been used in Russia since the 10th Century. The technique was revived in Russia in the late 18th Century and was very popular during the reign of Nicholas II. Popular motifs included floral and geometric patterns and views of well-known city landmarks. Niello techniques were further enhanced with parcel gilt, where small areas of silver pieces are gold plated. Many parcel gilt pieces have lost their gilding due to excessive polishing.
Silver niello and parcel gilt tea spoons by Keibel, Moscow 1888, with views of Kremlin gateways, £795
The last of the Romanovs came to the throne in 1894. Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra decided to distribute enamelled tumblers along with food and commemorative scarves, to people in Moscow May 18, 1896 to commemorate the coronation of Nicholas. Rumours that the cups contained a gold coin caused a panic and stampede which resulted in 1,389 people being trampled to death. This became known as the "Khodynka Tragedy" . The Tsarina, Alexandra gave this cup its name "Cup of Sorrows".
Khodynka 'Cup of Sorrows' 1896 commemorative beaker in gilt and enamelled steel, £495
In 1896, Nicholas II introduced the Kokoshnik mark. This is a cartouche of a woman’s head facing left with the silver fineness mark (usually 84), and the assayer’s initials. From 1908, the head faces right and a Greek letter indicates the city where the silver was assayed.
Silversmiths were now in hot competition and they innovated to win business. Trompe l’ œil pieces were popular at the top end of the market as the workmanship had to be of a very high standard. Enamel has always been a distinctive feature of Russian silver. All the well-established techniques have been employed, such as cloisonné, champlevé and plique-a-jour.
Silver trompe-l'œil vodka set, St Petersburg 1895 by P.L, possibly Pavel Fomich Larinen, £6,500
Pair of silver gilt and cloisonné enamel napkin rings, Moscow 1898-1908 Dimitry Nikelaievich Nikolaev, £1,950 pair
Russian silver vodka bottle Moscow 1898-1908 (cartouche with head facing left) with B.T.C. for V.T. Sokolov, £995