Alexandrite is a rare gem with mysterious qualities. It was discovered in 1830 in a mine in the Ural region by Nils Gustav Nordenskiöld, a renowned mineralogist of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. He first thought that he had found a variety of emerald when, in the light of the wood fires that the miners lit to protect themselves from the cold, he saw that his discovery changed colors according to the light: it was green in daylight and red in the light of the flames. Green and red, the colors of Imperial Russia on coats of arms. More than that, depending on the angle at which it was observed, this gem could glow pink or orange, or even highlight a yellow line such as one would see in a cat’s eyes. This prodigy deserved presti- gious sponsorship, and the Professor dedicated the stone to the young Grand Duke Alexander, heir to the throne of Russia, though not without some difficulty. The entire Imperial Court bustled with a thousand fantastic tales about the miraculous stone, and Count Perovskii, a very skillful schemer, wanted to take credit for this dedication. Alexandrite may change colors, but it remained faithful to the person after whom it was named, while those who took credit for having brought it to Court have been forgotten.

Choosing the Grand Duke Alexander was wise. As the successor to his father, the inflexible Tsar Nicholas I, he emerged as the benevolent and tragic Emperor whose reign is still celebrated in Russia today. Nicholas I had come to the throne in 1825 in the midst of a rebellion of a part of the army that had embraced the ideas of the French Revolution, as a result of which his reign was inaugurated by a relentless repression. For the next thirty years, rigor, duty and discipline were his method of government. The Marquis de Custine left a fascinating account that is analogous to Tocqueville’s work on America.

This uncompromising autocrat was aggrieved by his heir being too prone to leniency and forgiveness. And so it came about that Alexander II in turn ascended the throne in 1855. He was the Tsar who freed the peasants from serfdom, while Lincoln was ending slavery in America, and undertook a series of reforms that would bring Russia out of the darkness of despotism. Alexandrite, with its shifting colors, deserved its name, and naturally became the most coveted jewel of the Imperial Court as well as that of Queen Victoria and Empress Eugenie. This changing stone is also believed to have special virtues, such as encouraging compassion, benevolence and serenity. It gives strength to quiet souls and brings people who love each other closer together. Alexander II, under his imperial athletic exterior (he was over 6 foot 2 inches tall) and despite a very strict upbringing, lavished all these virtues on his government. And despite his marriage of convenience to a worthy Princess of Hesse, with whom he had the appropriate number of children, his heart yearned for a young girl of the aristocracy, whom he married after he had become widowed, Cather- ine Dolgoruky, the famous Katia from those period films with romantic costumes featuring Romy Schnei- der and Curd Jürgens, or better yet Danielle Darrieux and John Loder, that older version, with its melodra- matic charm of the great romantic films of the 1930s. Katia actually played a political role, in that she brought Alexander closer to France. He had a bad memory of his visit to the World Exhibition in 1867, when the press had vigorously criticized him for the Russian presence in Poland. But Katia loved France, where she regularly went on holiday with the children she had with Alexander, and Alexander loved Katia and their children... France was where they were able to find some time together with some degree of privacy.

Alexandrite brings happiness, but kindness is often not rewarded in rulers who practice it. The entire reign of Alexander II was one of a pursuit, where revolutionaries were emboldened rather than comforted by his reforms and vowed to bring him down. After a series of botched attacks, they finally assassinated him by throwing several bombs into his procession in 1888. The splendid “Church of the Savior on Blood” in St. Petersburg was erected at the scene of the crime. One cannot miss it, it sparkles like a gemstone in the mirror of a canal.

The first mines where Alexandrite was quarried have now been exhausted for a long time. Other deposits have been found in Brazil, Burma, Sri Lanka and Tanzania, but despite the beauty of the stones found there, and their often priceless value, they do not have the romantic aura attached to the memory of the best sovereign that Russia had known before the tragedies that she was to experience afterwards. It is therefore a great credit to Viktor and Nataliya Bondarenko that they are presenting to us, in Paris, their extraordinary collection of Alexandrite gems reflecting the changing colors of a particularly glorious and moving chapter in Russian history, and the undimmed light of the one who was the gem’s unfortunate inspiration.

Frédéric Mitterrand
Former Minister of Culture Member
of the Académie des beaux-arts

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