The Orloff service

Not long ago I had the pleasure to participate in an on-line talk about silverware as a jewelry-specialist. To be honest, table silver isn’t primarily my field, but it surely is a considerable part of the material culture I have a professional curiosity about. This time I’d like to share with you the story of an outstanding table silver set.

The so-called Orloff service was made in years 1770-1771 as a present from the Russian Empress Catherine the Great to her political partner and lover, Count Grigory Orlov (Orloff). It was one of the last remarkable presents to pay homage to him as their relation was fading away.

Catherine was famous for her generosity in diplomatic presents, and table silver was one of her favorite options. Despite being a personal present, the Orloff table set was comparable to diplomatic ones for its size  – the main set, together with tea and coffee, and the dessert set, comprised more than 3000 pieces for 60 people.

The design was based on drawings by Étienne Maurice Falconet – a famous French sculptor who had made one of the most recognizable monuments in Saint-Petersburg, the Bronze Horseman. Catherine turned to Falconet with the friendly request to see his sketches as she was looking for inspirations for a new table set for herself.

It is, in fact, known that the service had originally been thought to be a new piece in the Empress’s collection. However, she changed her mind and eventually turned it into a present. The deal was concluded and Falconet kindly recommended Jacques and Jacques-Nicolas Roettier, two of the most prominent French silversmiths at that time, to be in charge of the realization. To bring into being such a huge number of objects, Roettier shared the commission with other French artists including Pierre-Edme Balzac, Claude-Pierre Deville among others. On May 31st, 1770 the contract was signed in Paris.

The leitmotif of the set is early Neoclassicism, a trend which was taking place at that time. The Orloff service was one of the first samples of this style in table silver.  Simple and solid shapes, with expressive chiaroscuro effects and antiquity-inspired décors: these are the distinctive features of Neoclassicism that we can see in the service.

Nevertheless, some of the pieces stand out and explore a totally diverse image, like the clearly naturalistic scallop shell-shaped small plates, made for candied fruits according to the Met Museum description, or for oysters as Russian researcher Marina Lopato says. This would make them a unique case dishes for oysters in a table silver set in XVIII century.  It is important to point out that many pieces were added to the set later, thus their different look.

Another detail which makes the Orloff service so important, is the change of classical set composition. During that time, a standard table silver set included a centerpiece (plat-de-ménage) expressed by a kind of big tray with a fruit vase on it, surrounded by a variety of cruets and chandeliers. For some reasons, the classic piece was replaced with a set of three tureens on trays – an unusual  decision which became mainstream at the beginning of the XIX century and referred to as service a la russe.

The destiny of this unique table set isn’t very happy. After the death of Count Orloff in 1783, Catherine bought the service back from the count’s family and for the rest of the XVIII and a whole XIX century was used by the Emperor’s family. Of course, some pieces got lost, some were replaced for being worn out, some pieces were added, but by and large the service stayed complete for all this period.

Unfortunately, after the Revolution of 1917 the service was confiscated by the Bolshevik-government and sold separately to different collectors and museums in the years 1920-1930. Since then, the Orloff service doesn’t exist as a complete creation and it’s impossible to see all the parts of the set together. Single pieces or series of pieces sometimes pop out at auctions and when it happens it’s a great occasion. Some belong to private collections, others are exposed in museums like the Met museum, the Hermitage museum, the Louvre.

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