The collection is a tale of symbolism, stolen heirlooms and tsarist traditions
Few names are so intertwined with Russian culture as that of Leo Tolstoy, the writer best known for his 1,200-page tome War and Peace, first published in 1869. His family was part of the old nobility and was politically active in imperial Russia.
Their fortunes turned, however, with the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917 and the ensuing civil war. Among wider family members who fled the Bolshevik repression in 1920 was Alexandra Tolstoy’s grandfather Count Dmitri Tolstoy, a distant cousin of the illustrious writer.
He sought refuge in England, where Ms Tolstoy was born and raised. The countess, who presented the BBC series ‘Horse People’, now arranges adventure trips to Russia. She says it “feels funny” that she was unable to speak Russian until the age of 18, when she spent a year in Moscow before university. “I speak it every day [to my children] and it feels so much a part of me,” she says.
The Russian Orthodox cross is a staple of Ms Tolstoy’s apparel. She pairs this with other traditional Russian symbols such as matryoshkas, or Russian dolls, which represent motherhood and fertility. She says symbols and aesthetics are more important to her than monetary worth. Jewellery and clothes should “work together harmoniously”, she says, and her collection seamlessly blends in with her signature clothing style of mix-and-match folkloric patterns. But despite her love of clashing contrasts, she strictly obeys one rule — “never to mix gold and silver”.
Golden matryoshka pendant necklace, Philippa Holland (2010)
Ms Tolstoy felt drawn to this necklace, which was designed by her friend Philippa Holland, and its maternal symbolism while pregnant with her second child in 2010.
Ms Tolstoy says she and Ms Holland, a London-based designer, share a love of nature. But while Ms Holland’s work is often inspired by the natural world, in this case she created a doll that can house something small inside. “I keep promising myself that I will put locks of my children’s hair in it,” says Ms Tolstoy, “but they keep saying that they want to cut the hair themselves.” She wears the necklace often — still empty.
Matryoshka-shaped earrings, Axenoff (2018)
Russian jeweller Petr Axenoff presented Ms Tolstoy with these earrings last summer after she wore his jewellery on two photo shoots. The UK’s Tatler and Russia’s Elle magazines followed her as she attended the biennial gathering of the Tolstoy family at Yasnaya Polyana, the estate where Leo Tolstoy penned Anna Karenina and War and Peace.
Ms Tolstoy and her family had not been to Russia for some time. In 2011 her partner Sergei Pugachev, a Russian oligarch who was once known as the Kremlin’s banker, fled the country after falling out with then prime minister Vladimir Putin. It was not until Ms Tolstoy separated from Mr Pugachev in 2015 that she felt comfortable travelling to Russia again. She says the earrings — set with garnets, agates and amethysts — remind her of this happy return to her ancestral home.
Diamond cross, Asprey (antique)
“I am Russian Orthodox, I wear a cross all the time,” Ms Tolstoy says. “Now, I am wearing a wooden cross from Corfu that cost £3.” Ms Tolstoy would only wear such a cross during the day, however. In the evenings she would most probably switch to her favourite antique cross pendant in white gold and diamonds. Ms Tolstoy feels the piece has an Orthodox aesthetic.
Family signet ring, Isabella del Bono (2019)
Ms Tolstoy has had bad luck with signet rings. Her first — a family heirloom with the Tolstoy-Miloslavsky coat of arms — was stolen from her at gunpoint in New York. Its replacement was stolen by an assistant.
Ms Tolstoy did not want another until a few years ago when she saw a friend wearing an iron signet ring by Isabella del Bono, and had one made for herself. She worked with Ms Del Bono to update the original design, using iron with a gold lining topped by blue enamel. “I absolutely love it,” she says.
Blue enamel Easter egg pendant, pre-revolutionary Russia
This Easter egg pendant was given to Ms Tolstoy by her great aunt and is one of the few pieces to have survived the family’s escape to England. “It is very precious to me and I love the colour,” she says.
In imperial Russia, Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II would give their wives and mothers a Fabergé egg at Easter. It is a tradition that has been kept alive among many of Ms Tolstoy’s aristocratic Russian friends, and one Ms Tolstoy is trying to revive in her own family. She recently bought her daughter a painted Easter egg pendant from Mr Axenoff. This piece epitomises Ms Tolstoy’s collection — fashion shaped by her history and heritage.