Did you know, ...

... that Catherine the Great had a collection of hairpins with moving parts which were manufactured in China from wires just 30 microns thick?

Catherine the Great was born on May 2, 1729 in Stettin, Pomerania as Princess Sophia Augusta Fredericka. In 1745 she married Peter von Holstein-Gottorp, who went on to become Tsar Peter III. She acceded to the throne as Catherine II after a coup d'état and ruled Russia as an enlightened absolutist, exhibiting a passion for art, culture and music and promoting education. Her personal collections formed the original basis of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. They included a unique collection of some 250 golden hairpins manufactured by Chinese masters. The hairpins – some of which are made from wires just 30 microns thick – are extremely fragile. They also feature moving parts such as the wings of butterflies and birds and the head of a Phoenix.

These pose significant challenges to restorers at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg who have to carefully prepare the pieces to ensure none of the elements are welded in the wrong way. Any mistakes would diminish the value of the pieces – as well as rendering them useless for historians.

The restorers therefore have to carefully investigate not only the metals, braze alloys and pigments used to create the pieces, but also the manufacturing technology and the kinematics of the moving parts. All this has to be achieved while hardly touching the hairpins, since they could easily break under their own weight. The restorers also have to avoid heating or wetting the items due to their fragile structure and water-soluble pigments. That's why they use special microscopes from ZEISS to analyze the elements in detail, take photos, and shoot videos. This painstaking approach is the only way of maintaining Catherine the Great's priceless collection of hairpins for posterity.

19 August 2015