The contrasting fortunes of two Empresses are linked by the history of this diamond.
The earlier of the two was the formidable Catherine the Great of Russia. Born in 1729, the daughter of an obscure German Prince, at the young age of fourteen she was chosen to be the bride of the Duke of Holstein-Gottorp, the grandson of Peter the Great, who, as the Grand Duke Peter, was heir to the throne of Russia.
She arrived in that country in 1744 and married the following year. At that time Peter the Great's daughter, the Empress Elizabeth, ruled Russia, her twenty-year reign doing much to stabilize the monarchy. The Empress was devoted to luxury and pleasure and longed to impart to her Court the brilliancy which characterized so many others in Europe. In that way she was to pave the way for Catherine.
The marriage between the Grand Duke Peter and his young bride proved to be a complete failure. Catherine, who was a woman of charm, possessed both a lively intelligence and great energy; she was not only bored with and constantly humiliated by her husband, but because of her serious and studious disposition, was regarded with suspicion by many at the Russian Court.
Following the death of the Empress Elizabeth in 1762, it was not long before the new Emperor Peter III discredited himself by numerous foolish actions, principally of a political nature, and prepared to rid himself of Catherine. But she enjoyed the support of both the Imperial Guard and the more enlightened elements of the nobility. In July 1762 she led the regiments that had rallied to her cause into St Petersburg and had herself proclaimed Empress. Peter III abdicated and eight days later was assassinated. On 9 July the Empress was crowned with great ceremony in Moscow as Catherine II, beginning a reign which was to last for thirty four years.
With the Russian Court's traditional love of opulence and splendour, it was not surprising the Catherine showed a fondness for jewels. She was able to secure the services of some highly skilled jewellers such as Posier and Duval so that there was a continuous stream of items of jewellery through the Treasury for remodelling and of rose-cut diamonds for recutting as brilliants. Among the diamonds which the Empress came to own was an oval-shaped brilliant, slightly blunt at one end, weighing 51 old carats, which was set as the centre stone of a hair ornament.
At the time nothing appeared to have been known about this diamond, so where could it have come from? It is, of course quite natural to assume that the stone came from India. However, it does not appear to be so in this case because the most detailed account of the important Brazilian diamonds written by Esmeraldino Reis and published under governmental approval in 1959, includes this diamond. Under the name of the 'Empress Eugenie' it is stated to have weighed more than 100 carats in the rough and to have been found about 1760 in the region of Chapada Diamantina, an area in the province of Minas Gerais which has yielded several other notable stones. Afterwards the 'Empress Eugenie' is said to have been cut in Holland, a more than likely occurence because many of the biggest Brazilian diamonds were then being exported to Lisbon before being sent on to Amsterdam for cutting. At that time the Dutch capital flourished both as a trading and cutting centre for diamonds; a few years later it was to be the location for the purchase of the 'Orlov', the most celebrated of all the diamonds that ended up in Russia.
Among Catherine the Great's supporters in the coup of July 1762 was Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin (1739-91). He distinguished himself in the war between Russia and Turkey which began in 1768 and was not resolved until six years later. The year 1774 marked a watershed in Potemkin's career; he became the lover of the Empress and the most powerful man in Russia. Potemkin was the only one of Catherine's lovers to play an extensive political role in the running of the country. Generally the Empress refrained from mixing business with pleasure - doubtless an admirable precept, increasingly disregarded during this century - and chose her ministers for their abilities. Potemkin's liaison with Catherine lasted for only two years but he was always treated as an equal by her and was the only one of her favourites to whom she referred as 'my husband'.
The Empress bestowed upon Potemkin the surname of Tavrichesky. Also the 51-carat brilliant which for a time became known as the 'Potemkin' diamond. The gem was just one of the objects in the vast personal wealth which Potemkin amassed; he revelled in a pretentious display, on one occasion is said to have given a banquet which cost more than 20,000 roubles. After his death he bequeathed his large collection of jewellery to his favourite niece, Countess Branitsky, who, in turn, left it to her daughter, Princess Coloredo.
The second of the two Empresses to have owned the diamond now appears on the scene. She was born in 1826, Eugenia Maria de Montijo de Guzman, the daughter of a Spanish nobleman who had fought on the French side during Napoleon's Peninsular War in Spain. Eugenia travelled to Paris when Louis Napoleon became President of the Second Republic in December 1848. Unlike Catherine the Great, Eugenia was a great physical beauty so that she soon attracted the attention of the President. After he had been proclaimed Emperor, Napoleon III married Eugenia (who became the Empress Eugenie) on 29 January 1853. He bought Potemkin's diamond from Princess Coloredo as a wedding present for his young bride. Henceforth the diamond became known as the 'Eugenie' and was set as the centre stone in a fine diamond necklace.
The Empress became known as a leader of fashion, so the jewels were constantly being added to her collection, but the diamond named after her always remained her favourite gem. At the same time it also became apparent that her influence upon her husband's policies, both domestic and foreign, was bad.
She encouraged extravagance at Court; is credited with having had a greater influence in the disastrous decision to create a French-sponsored kingdom in Mexico; and urged Napoleon III to fight Prussia. This last step led to the calamitous defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the collapse of the Second Empire.
The Empress escaped to England (where she was befriended by Queen Victoria) with a few of her jewels, including the 'Eugenie' diamond, which were placed in the custody of the Bank of England for safekeeping. It is believed that they had been smuggled out of Tuileries in Paris wrapped in newspapers. In 1872 Christie's auctioned some of these jewels in London but the sale did not include the 'Eugenie' diamond. This was bought privately for £15,000 by that well known collector of diamonds, Mulhar Rao, the Gaekwar of Baroda. After his deposition in 1875 the 'Eugenie' disappeared but eventually reappeared in the ownership of Mrs N.J. Dady of Bombay. Since her death there has been no trace of the gem and efforts to ascertain its whereabouts have unfortunately proved to be unsuccessful.
The Empress Eugenie on coming to England settled first at Chislehurst in Kent, before moving to Farnborough in Hampshire. After the death of her husband in 1873 she continued to play a dominant role in Bonapartist political activities. Her only child, the Prince Imperial, was killed while fighting with the British forces in the Zulu war of 1879. The empress herself died while on a visit to Madrid in 1920.