In days of old, when oligarchs were bold

  • 2002-05-02
  • Jorgen Johansson
Family crests and coats of arms are not just the stuff of medieval legends. Latvia's new rich are discovering ancient distinction, as Jorgen Johansson reports.

With its culture dominated by peasant traditions, Latvia has never had a native nobility. However, some of the country's newly minted millionaires seem determined to fill the gap, and they want all the trappings associated with blue blood.

Of course, no illustrious family would be complete without a crest that, just like a Coca Cola or Mercedes Benz logo, sums up in a few images what the bearer is all about. And a small but lucrative business has started giving seekers of respectability what they want.

For someone intimately connected with heraldry, Pavel Nechmirov, Latvia's only crest maker, has rather common roots. He studied woodcarving at an art academy in Nakhodka, a city in the Soviet Far East, before the Soviet army sent him to Latvia in 1987.

After he got his freedom from the army, and Latvia its independence from the U.S.S.R., Nechmirov pottered around with his chisels for a few years until he went to work for a Riga-based oil company in 1998. Knowing of Nechmirov's talents as a craftsman and his interest in history, the boss of the firm asked him to do a family crest.

He has been carving away at this niche ever since.

Nechmirov said his clients fell into the classic divide between old blood and new money.

"There are two types of crests. The historical kind, which could date back to medieval times, and the more personal one for people who don't have the necessary noble bloodline," he said.

The one thing they have in common is money. A good crest takes up to half a year to make, and the price starts from $3,000. The cost depends on the material used, with alder being the cheapest and oak the priciest. A single crest can be a compilation of up to 9,000 individually carved blocks of wood.

This means quality counts for more than quantity. Nechmirov has made four crests so far, and hopes to complete a fifth by the end of the year. This one is for a wealthy man who wants to retrace his family's German roots.

He is a bit picky about which masters he chooses to serve.

"I try not to work with the nouveau riche. I prefer to work with rich people who have more serious intentions and not just with people who have too much money to spend aimlessly," said Nechmirov.

The traditions of heraldry stretch back at least as far as the Roman empire in Europe, and the feudal kingdoms of Japan in the east. But Nechmirov claims that Latvia has missed out on all this, a historical gap that gives his clients a license to do what they like.

"In Latvia there are no regulations on heraldry at all. It means anyone who wants one could basically get one," he said. "It's not only for nobility. Now it's for people with money."

However, others disagree with the assertion that there is no heraldic tradition in Latvia.

Armands Vijups of the Latvian State Heraldry Commission, said the first coats of arms came to the Baltic with German crusaders in the 13th century. Later, noble Baltic German families gave themselves crests. Seven Latvian cities got heraldic symbols.

According to Vijups, crests were used to show a family's noble status and were displayed on the armour of knights to try and intimidate enemies. Although women were formally forbidden to have them, a few ladies managed to acquire crests when they reached positions of power.

One of history's most powerful ladies was Czarina Catherine II of Russia. In 1788, at a time when Russia controlled the Baltics, this ruler ordered the creation of the first coat of arms for Riga.

She is said to have thought the crown in its center was a bit too common for portraying royal status, but accepted it anyway. Seventy-six years later her successors removed the double-headed eagle from the design and replaced it with a griffin wielding a sword. This is still part of the emblem of Riga today.

As regimes change, so do symbols. Vijups said heraldry is not well researched in Latvia because it was a taboo subject under the Soviets that only came out into the open during glasnost.

The State Heraldry Commission was set up in 1988 to try and restore the original designs to the coats of arms of towns and municipalities that had been altered under communist rule.

Additionally, like Nechmirov, Vijups said his commission came into contact with people wanting to give themselves something a little special.

"We've had few inquiries about personal coats of arms," said Vijups. "The latest one was from a French man who had married a Latvian woman and wanted consultation about including some additional symbols on his family's original crest."