Pick any TV antique show and the item that is likely to cause the sharpest collective intake of breath is an object fashioned by the late 19th century, St Petersburg Imperial Court jeweller, Peter Carl Fabergé (30 May 1846 – 24 September 1920).
Fabergé was the first of two boys born to a Baltic German jeweller father, Gustav Fabergé and his Danish wife, Charlotte Jungstedt. Gustav’s family was Huguenot of French origins who had fled France in the early 1800s.
In 1862, having retired from the family’s jewelry business, Carl’s parents moved to Dresden, where he studied for several years. Carl was heavily influenced by the contents of Dresden’s ‘Green Vaults’ that contained inspirational figurative jewellery and, somewhat prophetically, various ornate Egg designs.
During his apprenticeship, Fabergé travelled extensively in Europe but in 1872 he returned to St Petersburg where for the next ten years, under the tutelage of Hiskias Pendin, his father’s trusted work-master, he worked to engage the Imperial Court with his beautiful bejeweled objects. During this time he also worked in Tsar Alexander III’s “Winter Palace” – The Hermitage – where he was entrusted to renovate ancient and damaged artifacts.
The Fabergé family business was located on Bolshaya Morskaya Street and was described as a dealer in “petty jewellery and spectacles”. In 1882, Carl took over the business and in 1885 his German-born designer brother, Agathon, joined him. They formed a formidable team and under Carl’s leadership they determined that the business would become “Europe’s Greatest Jeweller”.
Between 1882 and 1917 it is believed that the business made around 200,000 unique objects.
Oddly for a man who’s output and reputation are somewhat defined and characterized by bejeweled objects featuring diamonds and other rare and precious stones, Fabergé was said to be ambivalent about the gems used and more interest in the worthiness of his pieces as art rather than an object of great value. He described himself as an “Artist Jeweller”.
The awards from international exhibitions followed and Fabergé’s place at the heart of the Imperial Court was secured.
Perhaps the items of most international renown to bear the “Fabergé ” name are the astonishingly intricate Easter Eggs. The first was produced in 1885 and was a comparatively simple object. Commissioned by the then Tsar, Alexander III, Fabergé made the “Hen’s Egg” of white enamel egg with a yellow gold interior and accompanying gold chick. It was an Easter gift for Alexander’s wife Maria Feodorovna, an existing Fabergé customer. Her first purchase of a pair of cuff links had assured the House of Fabergé of work as the jeweller of choice for the fine gifts that the Imperial Court was obliged to give to visiting dignitaries. The beautiful objects performed an almost ambassadorial role boasting of the great beauty that Russia was capable of.
On 1st May 1885, so delighted was Maria Feodorovna with her gift, that she bestowed the title “Goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown” upon Carl.
Access to the Hermitage meant that Carl could study the great works preserved in its huge collection. This re-ignited his interest in the art of enameling that the House of Fabergé used to astonishing effect. His preferred method was a process known as “guillot charge” in which concentric lines are engraved onto the surface of an object, which is then carefully coated with layers of liquid and coloured glass, which when fired, build up on the object’s surface. The stunning results achieved using this method gives the piece both a depth of colour and radiated light.
In 1887, Tsar Alexander gave Faberge a free hand in the design of subsequent Easter Eggs, his conditions were that they had to be intricate and contain a surprise. He commissioned one egg annually for his wife.
In 1889 Nicholas, his brother and several courtiers, undertook a nearly year long journey by sea from Trieste, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, to Vladivostok. He left with a large quantity of Fabergé pieces that would be given as gifts to his various hosts. At some point in the journey supplies ran short and more were requested from St Petersburg. The Siamese Royal family, who welcomed Nicholas to what is now Thailand, was particularly enchanted by Faberge’s Eggs and became avid collectors and Fabergé customer. The 1891 Easter Egg depicts a golden replica of the Nicholas’ ship on an aquamarine tablet sitting inside a deep green egg decorated with ‘waves’ of gold inlaid with diamonds.
Upon the Tsar’s death in 1894, his son Tsar Nicolas II continued the tradition and commissioned one egg each year for both his wife and Mother, by 1917 a total of fifty eggs had been made. Maria Feodorovna had thirty and her daughter in law, Alexandra Feodorovna, had twenty.
In addition to intricacy of the Swan and Peacock automatons eggs, probably the most beautiful egg is the “Winter Egg” of 1911 (our featured image). Designed for Maria Feodorovna and secreted a basket of spring flowers inside a white crystal egg engraved with frost and inlaid with white diamonds.
Whilst many of the eggs are now in private collections the whereabouts of up to fifteen are still unknown.
The influence of the stylized chrysanthemums from the Imperial Court in Peking returned to St Petersburg after Nicholas’ visit inspired Fabergé to create a series of flower studies including the Lily of The Valley, Violets and Cornflowers. Many students of Fabergé’s work believe his flowers to be his very finest.
In 1900 the workshop and retail premises of the House of Fabergé moved to bigger premises on Bolshaya Morskaya Street. Carl had his own apartment ‘over the shop’. Output had to be stepped up and at its height the business employed over 300 jewelers, goldsmiths and stonemasons. The organisation of the business was divided into small teams under work-masters who operated and were incentivized by effectively running their own businesses under the Fabergé umbrella. A few were permitted to add their own initials to the company’s mark. Untypically for the time, the staff saw the benefit of an in-house doctor and a daily canteen.
In 1903 the House of Fabergé opened its first store in London, at 173 Bond Street. Fabergé’s objects become the gift for Edwardian lovers. Whether it was a simple bejeweled eyed rabbit given to a loved one at a country house party or a cigarette case in cobalt blue enamel with a diamond inlaid serpent biting its own tail, given by his “favourite”, Mrs. Kepple, to King Edward VII, the shop specialised in discrete gifts.
The growth and development of the Fabergé business was conducted in the rarified air of the Russian Imperial Court where the Royal Family’s tastes were excessive. They seemed oblivious to the suffering of more lowly Russians. Famine and cold killed many. The Winter Palace tragedy in 1905 seemed an inevitable turning point. By 1914, a year after the flamboyant celebrations of the 300th anniversary of the Russian Throne, Russia entered the First World War. Lacking a military training many of Fabergé’s skilled staff were killed in the early months of the war.
By 1917 the Russian Revolution was underway and the Bolsheviks nationalized the Fabergé business. Carl was said to be heart broken and left on the last diplomatic train out of St Petersburg and headed for Switzerland. He died in Lausanne 1920. Following his wife’s death, five years later, their son Eugene buried their ashes in neighboring graves in Cannes in the South of France.
To the shock of the civilized world, Tsar Nicholas II and his family were summarily executed in Yekaterinburg in 1918. Several of the female children had enormous quantities of diamonds sewn into their bodices off which bullets were said to ricochet.
Post 1918 many Russian aristocrats sought to sell their Fabergé pieces. USA dealers including Armand Hammer amassed vast collections that they returned to New York in the early 1930’s to sell. The newly rich, having recently emerged from the ashes of the Wall Street Crash into the Jazz Age, was a ready market.
Hammer was approached in 1937 by Russian émigré, Sam Reuben, who sought a name for his new perfume business, Hammer suggested Fabergé. This saw an explosion in the 1970’s of fragrance products bearing the Fabergé name often accompanied by sexy images of heartthrobs such as Farah Fawcett. In the mid 1980’s a TV advert featuring former heavyweight boxer, Henry Cooper, encouraged young men that “Nothing beat the great smell of Brut!”
The Fabergé family sued, seeking to protect their ‘name’. They settled for $25,000 and Reuben sold his business a few years later for $24m
It is hard to see how the worlds of Fabergé’s as the purveyor of fine court jewellery and the promoter of “Brut” to masses could have been more different!
In 2009 a group of financiers acquired the worldwide exploitation rights to the Fabergé intellectual property and have revived, with the aid of several small European artisan jewellers and members of the Fabergé family, a new jewellery business that is loyal to the qualities and tastes of the Founder.
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