Take Two for July 23, 2013

Natural History Museum of LA discovers the true origin of a mysterious gold ring

Mystery Ring

Eloïse Gaillou/NHMLAC

40 years ago, this gold ring was donated to the Natural History Museum of L.A.'s gem collection. At the time, it was thought to have belonged to the Russian empress, Catherine the Great. Now, museum staff are not so sure.

There is some real-life royal intrigue going on at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

About 40 years ago, a mysterious gold ring with blue enamel and rose cut diamonds was donated to the museum's gem collection. At the time, it was thought to have belonged to the Russian empress, Catherine the Great. Now, museum staff have traced the real origin of the ring. 

"It was donated by a couple from Santa Monica, very random almost, it's the type of object that we don't really have in our collection at all," said Alyssa Morgan, collections manager for the Mineral Sciences department at the museum. "It came in out of the blue and they were happy to accept it and put it on display with a label based on what the donors had told them. So it's been that way since the early 70s."

The label that accompanied the ring upon donation claimed that it was a gift from Catherine The Great of Russia to one of the maids of honor in her court. The label came with a note from a Russian woman in Paris, the former owner of the ring, to the American who purchased it from her. The Russian woman had to sell the ring in the 1920s due to financial hardship. 

The note reads:

"The little sale-girl who sold you my ring faithfully gived me your writing card with your kind words.  I must tell you Madame, how touched I was to receive that mark of your appreciation.  It is very seldom that American ladies think of the unhappiness of the people who have to sale their family's jewelry.  I hope Madame Catherine's ring will bring you happiness and good luck which good luck you deserve certainly.  Thank you again."

No one questioned the origin of the ring until a volunteer at the museum, who also happened to be a gemologist, insisted that the "E" insignia on the ring wasn't an "E" at all (Catherine in Russian is Ekaterina). Morgan and her team began reaching out to historians and other experts who might be able to offer more clues. 

"Eventually it started to reach some people who wrote back to us...Someone at a museum in DC said 'That's not Russian and it's not 18th century, it's clearly younger...the Russians never used Gothic letters for their cipher," said Morgan.

Hints began to flood in. Someone mentioned the ring was likely from the 19th century, another person claimed the crown on the ring was Prussian. After that, Morgan took to Wikipedia to check through several Prussian ciphers, otherwise known as monograms, until they found a match. 

"It was an 'E' but it was a Gothic style, so it wasn't immediately recognizable as an E," said Morgan. "We ended up with Elizabeth of Prussia, instead of Catherine the Great. A little bit of a downgrade." 

Queen Elizabeth of Prussia was born in  Munich in 1801, the daughter of King Maximilian Joseph I of Bavaria. A member of the Wittelsbach family, she became queen after marrying Friedrich Wilhelm IV,  who ruled as King of Prussia from 1840-1861.
Silk pictures with the portraits of Friedrich Wilhelm IV and his consort Elisabeth.

Even though the ring did not belong to Catherine the Great, Morgan and her team are still satisfied that the diamond-encrusted piece of jewelry did once belong to a real European queen. Still, there is a mystery behind the Russian woman who sold the ring. 

"If you go back to the letter with the story that came with the ring, it doesn't make sense," said Morgan. "We don't know the age of the woman who wrote the letter in Paris, but if she was an older lady, someone who's almost the same age as this ring, she should have been very close to whoever received it from the queen."


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