Though it’s said to have come from India, like so many rare beaded jewelry pieces and gems, the Orlov Diamond’s story really takes place in Imperial Russia.
In the 18th century, Grigory Orlov was quite the ladies’ man. He wasn’t of noble birth, or particularly well educated, but he was strong, handsome, and rich enough to give women expensive beaded jewelry whenever he liked. There came a time, however, when his eye fell on the wrong woman. Princess Kourakina was the mistress of one of Orlov’s colleagues, who was understandably upset at the affair. A great scandal ensued, which ended in a dual. Orlov killed his colleague, and never mind the damage to his reputation.
All this to-do attracted the attention of young Catherine, who was at that time only a Grand Duchess and Empress Consort, married to Peter III. She demanded to meet the rake Orlov, who could have any woman he wanted. It wasn’t long until they were lovers. That was when Catherine told him about her plans to take the throne from her husband. Orlov was intrigued, and when the time came, he organized and led the coup that dethroned her husband Peter. In return, she gave him a title, and he became Count Orlov.
Orlov was Catherine’s favorite counselor and confidant for many years. Over the course of their love affair, Orlov gave Catherine numerous gifts, included priceless gems, beaded jewelry, the throne of Russia, and a child.
But eventually, Catherine the Great turned her attentions to Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin, and spurned Orlov.
He was devastated. He sought to win her back with gifts, like beaded jewelry. That’s when he came upon and purchased the enormous diamond that would eventually bear his name. He gave it to Catherine, but she couldn’t be bought back.
That didn’t mean she didn’t hold her former lover in high regard. She gave him as many gifts as he gave her—beaded jewelry, a marble palace in St. Petersburg, a title. She also named the diamond after him, and had it set in a beaded jewelry setting at the top of a royal scepter. A fitting place for the symbol of the man who helped her take the throne.