The Hermitage's extremely rich collection of art works made of semiprecious stones is reckoned to be the finest among comparable museum collections around the world, unequalled not only for its size and variety of forms, but also for its artistic worth. It numbers over 400 items and spans a period from the mid-18th century to the early 20th. It contains, in almost equal numbers, the products of Russia's three main centres for the decorative working of stone during that period. The oldest of these was the Peterhof Lapidary Works (originally called the Diamond or Agate Mill), founded in 1721 by Peter the Great on the shore of the Gulf of Finland, very close to the new capital, St Petersburg. The works where this extremely difficult production process was organized became a training centre for craftsmen working hard stone. There was, however, no raw material in the area; it all had to be brought to the Peterhof works that could not meet the growing capital's demand for semiprecious stones. The need to bring the process of working the stone closer to where it was quarried became evident. The first attempts to exploit the extremely rich deposits of stone in the Urals date back to 1726. The small workshop that was established there gradually grew into a mighty enterprise - the Yekaterinburg Lapidary Works. The third and youngest centre was the Kolyvan Lapidary Works created in the Altai Region in 1786. Each of the works had a long history. They went through troughs of stagnation and occasional major crises as well as upturns and periods of flourishing.
The 1840s and 1850s can justly be called the heyday of lapidary work in Russia. By that time the technical base established back in the 18th century had become fully developed. A whole host of experienced craftsmen had grown up, often members of the same families who passed on their skills and traditions in working hard minerals from generation to generation.
The creation of the Imperial Museum - the New Hermitage - gave a boost to the work of all three Russian stone-working centres. The best of what had been created earlier was moved to the New Hermitage from the rooms of the Winter Palace and the Old Hermitage, as well as the Taurida Palace that still held pieces saved from the Winter Palace fire of 1837. The items specially commissioned for the museum were particularly luxurious.
The outstanding products of the Russian lapidary works that abundantly
adorn the rooms of the museum undoubtedly give it a rich and original
appearance. The numerous bowls, vases, candelabra, standard lamps, obelisks,
consoles and tabletops became an inseparable part of the decoration of
the Hermitage rooms. Many of the pieces bear the names of outstanding
Russian craftsmen, but the others, too, although nameless, are superb
examples of applied art. The raw material for them was the minerals of
the Urals and Siberia: porphyries with their restrained shades, striking
malachites and rhodonites, aventurines and quartzites that sparkle in
the sun, superb lapis lazuli, labradorites and, of course, jaspers and
breccias in an astonishing variety of colours. The beauty of the natural
stone is often offset by noble elements of gilded bronze. These superb
items are placed in the rooms and enfilades, on the landings, in the vestibules
and corridors. They are displayed singly, in pairs, sometimes in whole
sets. Many of them are so massive that they have never been moved from
the places for which they were created. The more modestly sized items
too have mainly kept their original location. They have become an inseparable
part of the picture of the Hermitage in the minds of many generations.
The stone articles are easily recognized in the series of watercolours
that at various times recorded the decoration of the museum and palace
interiors. These interior views are a priceless resource, allowing us
to travel back in time a century and a half.