6 Favorite Arts and Handicrafts from Russia’s Golden Ring

6 Favorite Arts and Handicrafts from Russia’s Golden Ring

Russia‘s Golden Ring is a modern name given to the ancient towns that form an elliptical circle to the north and east of Moscow. This is where Russian art, architecture and culture began. The historic Golden Ring is celebrated for graceful old churches, famous frescoes and traditional craftsmanship.

Here are some of the crafts that made these little towns famous:

  1. Matrioshka Dolls
  2. Khokloma
  3. Lacquer Boxes
  4. Gzhel Porcelain
  5. Rostov Enamel Painting
  6. Zhostovo Painted Trays

Matrioshka dolls on display in Moscow, Russia. Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

Matrioshka dolls on display in Moscow, Russia
Photo credit: Jonathan Irish

1. Matrioshka Dolls The nesting dolls thought of as quintessentially Russian may have been based on a Japanese design, and have not been around for much more than a century. Meaning “little mother,” matrioshki are painted hollow forms that come apart to reveal a series of smaller dolls nested inside. First created in Sergiev Posad in the late 19th century, the dolls became world famous after one was displayed at the Paris World Exhibition in 1900. They come in even-numbered sets of 2 to 24 (where the smallest one is about the size of a peanut), and are hand-painted.

Khokloma consists of carved or turned wooden tableware and utensils. Photo credit: Liz Tollefson

Khokloma consists of carved or turned wooden tableware and utensils

2. Khokloma If you have ever made friends in Russia, you may own a piece or two of this ubiquitous handicraft, as it is often given as a gift. Khokloma consists of carved or turned wooden tableware and utensils that are painted in some combination of red, gold and black with a technique that makes them appear gilded. Usually made from birch or linden, the wooden pieces are first covered with a clay, linseed oil and aluminum solution, then fired, painted and varnished.

The Kovernino district in the Nizhni Novgorod oblast is celebrated as the place where the style originated in the 17th century.

Fedoskino, in the Golden Ring, is home to several small factories producing traditional hand-painted Russian lacquered boxes. Photo credit: Tatiana Timoshuk

Hand-painted Russian lacquer boxes
Photo credit: Tatiana Timoshuk

3. Lacquer BoxesIn the late 18th century when the dipping of snuff became popular in Russia, inexpensive snuffboxes were in demand, and several factories in Fedoskino, began turning out boxes made of papier-mâché.

The primed boxes were perfect as bases for lacquer miniatures, an art that was perfected here and in the towns of Palekh, Kholui and Mstera around Moscow and St. Petersburg. Fedoskino boxes and miniatures are usually painted in a realistic style, and use a multi-layered combination of transparent and opaque materials, sometimes incorporating gold leaf, silver foil or metal powder.

Hand-painted Gzhel porcelain.  Photo credit: Mariana Noble

Hand-painted Gzhel porcelain
Photo credit: Mariana Noble

4. Gzhel PorcelainGzhel is a cluster of villages outside of Moscow that produces the beautiful blue and white porcelain that bears its name. The clay from the area turns a clean white when fired, and craftspeople paint the resulting pieces by hand. Wares include kvassniks, small pitchers for pouring kvass, shaped like a doughnut with a spout, figurines, jugs, candlesticks and tableware, all in white with the typical blue brushstrokes.

Gzhel was first mentioned in Russian history in the 14th century, but it was not until the 18th century, when the area’s artisans learned to make majolica, the painted and glazed ceramics pioneered in Spain, that Gzhel china became well known.

Rostov’s Enamel Museum shows the evolution of this art. Photo credit: John Seckel

Rostov’s Enamel Museum shows the evolution of this art
Photo credit: John Seckel

5. Rostov Enamel Painting Enamel paining began in Rostov in the mid 18th century. At first artisans decorated only sacred objects for local churches, but soon began to include secular items such as plates and plaques. Rostov’s Enamel Museum shows the evolution of this art, including its decline during Soviet times and revival during the 1911s, when young enamel factory workers began using the technique to make jewelry.

It originally took three craftsmen to produce each painted tray. Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

It originally took three craftsmen to produce each painted tray
Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

6. Zhostovo Painted Trays The first lacquered metal trays were created in Zhostovo in 1807, after the demand for trays took off in response to the growth of nearby towns with their hotels and restaurants. It took three craftsmen to produce each tray – a smith to fabricate the tray, a worker who covered the tray with its foundation layer of bronze or aluminum dust, and an artist, who would decorate the tray with paintings of flowers or scenes from nature.

Rostov, Russia. Photo credit: John Seckel.

Rostov is one of Russia’s oldest towns, and one of the most beautiful in northwestern Russia
Photo credit: John Seckel

Travel to Russia’s Golden Ring with MIR You can circle the Golden Ring on the small group journey, Russia’s Imperial Capitals & Ancient Villages, an itinerary put together by the experts at MIR, with 30 years of travel expertise in Russia.

Or, you can contact one of MIR’s Independent Travel Specialists to handcraft a custom, private tour to Western Russia and the Golden Ring that matches your interests, timeline and budget.

(Top photo: Fedoskino, in the Golden Ring, is home to several small factories producing traditional hand-painted Russian lacquer boxes. Photo credit: Tatiana Timoshuk)

PUBLISHED: July 15, 2015

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2 thoughts on “6 Favorite Arts and Handicrafts from Russia’s Golden Ring

  • Wow, very cool to see other amazing pieces of beautiful items to look out for other than Matrioshka Dolls. (not that I don’t love those too! ) Thanks!

  • nomeda

    Very beautiful art works and handicrafts. The same House I have bought by the Matrioshka Dolls when I was a . To me this is a very nice memento, which has added a collection of decorative panels.