The House of Fabergé and the Imperial Easter Eggs
by Anurima Sen
Peter Karl Fabergé, a jeweller best known for the famous 'Fabergé eggs' was born in St Petersburg, Russia, in 1846. His father, Gustav Fabergé, was a jeweller as well. The Fabergé family, who were Huguenots, came from Picardy in northern France. As a result, Karl spoke fluent Russian and German as well as French. He went on a European Grand Tour at the age of eighteen as was usual for all men belonging to the elite class in those days. On this tour he laid special emphasis on learning the art of the goldsmith and jeweller. Meanwhile, his father's trusted companion Hiskias Pendin had been tutoring him for over a period of ten years. By 1870, Fabergé had assumed partial responsibility of the company's affairs and moved their family business into new quarters. From 1882 to 1895, he worked alongside Agathon, his younger brother. Agathon was a skilled craftsman and designer but he died tragically at the age of thirty-three. Post his death it was Karl who brought foresight to the business and steered the helm of the company.
Russia was by then already known for the variety of its jewellers and the range of their work. However, Karl soon rose to prominence, despite stiff competition. His innovative designs and extraordinary enamel work proved to be the strongest feature of his company and its products. His merchandise was deemed priceless, not because of the gold or precious stones that had been used in producing them, but because of the skill with which they had been crafted. It is a known fact that Fabergé preferred tiny diamond chips (to extraordinarily proportioned ones) and cabochon-cut stones which were not very expensive either, and using these he transformed objects of our humdrum lives into objects of exquisite art. His hand letter openers, cigarette cases, cane handles and candle holders became enviable, precious objects that every man would hanker after and hoard.
The House of Fabergé enjoyed the patronage of the Tsar and the entire Russian family. Hence, it comes as no surprise that every member of the upwardly mobile middle classes, who could afford his works of art, would flock at his shop and buy the most unusual and decorative bric-a-bracs. The story of how he acquired the Tsar's patronage is rather interesting. Agathon and Karl had decided to exhibit their work at a fair in Moscow, and Tsar Alexander III, who happened to be a great admirer and supporter of all kinds of arts, was walking through the halls of the fair. His Tsarina, Maria Feodorovna, was very impressed by a pair of gold cufflinks shaped in the form of cicadas that were on display at the Fabergé's stall. The Tsar's association with Karl began at that point and two years later he requested Karl to fashion an Easter egg for his wife. Karl designed his first, and rather simple, Easter egg. It was small and was decorated with white enamel work to represent the shell of a real egg. This egg, with a slight twist, would reveal a miniature golden hen! After that, the Tsar requested for a new design every year upon the occasion of Easter, paving the way of Karl's tremendously popular Imperial Easter egg designs. In addition, he was granted the prestigious title of Supplier to the Royal Court and soon after the royal family chose only Fabergé merchandise as gift items. Today, at least forty seven Easter Eggs, belonging to the royal family, are known to survive.
Karl's business expanded when he met Allan Bowe in the year 1886. Allan was not an artist by any stretch of imagination, but he was a shrewd business man. Eventually he became Karl's right-hand man and business partner. It was this association that led to the stupendous growth of his business. Around five hundred people were employed at the firm and given the task of producing the much in demand commodities. It is estimated that more than one hundred fifty thousand items of jewellery, silverware and tableware were produced in the early 1900s.
The shop in Moscow was opened in 1887, and began catering to the landed gentry, nobles and the mobile upper middle classes. The latter were quite anxious to show off their newly acquired wealth. There was a great demand for what Geza von Habsburg terms 'old fashioned' articles, usually made of solid silver and of an Oriental make. Apart from objects such as candle holders, table silver was very much in demand.
Coming back to the topic of Easter eggs, one must discuss in detail the variety of designs that the ingenious Fabergé kept coming up with. The only stipulation laid out by the Tsar was that every one of these egg shaped jewels must always contain a surprise. It is said that not even the Tsar himself knew what the surprise would be. Easter eggs that are worthy of mention are the Renaissance Egg of 1894 (which copied the design of a 17th Century casket present in the treasury of the King of Saxony) and the Coronation Egg of 1897 which celebrated the coronation of Nicholas II and Alexandra. This egg, only five inches in height, contains an exact replica of the Imperial coach within its chamber. The coach itself is made of gold, platinum, precious stones and enamel. The 1890 Danish Egg is a stunning beauty. All of 10.2 cm in height, it is made of gold, enamel and rose-cut diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and has a velvet lining. The egg opens to reveal beautiful ten miniature panels depicting palaces and residences in Russia and Denmark. The Trans-Siberian Railway Egg, as its interesting nomenclature points out, heralds the opening of the new railway in the year 1900. The egg contains a miniature train of gold and platinum, decked with expensive jewels. The surprises do not end here. This train is equipped with a special gold key, and when wound, the train's engine and the five carriages move at the same time.
The Memory of Azov Egg is carved from a brilliantly green piece of heliotrope jasper. As the name suggests, it contains a replica of the cruiser Pamiat Azova, set afloat on a bed of aquamarine. This egg can today be seen in the Kremlin Armoury Museum in Moscow. Legend has it that the Tsarina never grew fond of this gift. The use of aquamarine to represent a water-body is also seen in the 1906 Swan Egg. This egg, made entirely of gold, is covered with matt mauve enamel with a twisted ribbon trellis of rose cut diamonds. Hidden in the hollow of the egg is an artificial 'lake' made of a large aquamarine, decorated richly with water lilies. The silver-plated gold swan can be made to move around the lake by a winding mechanism.
These Imperial eggs are the best known objects of art that belong to the House of Fabergé. However, there are other artifacts that are just as innovative and awe-inspiring. There are twenty-five small carved flower arrangements that are present in the collection of Queen Elizabeth. These flowers were decked with numerous precious jewels sourced from Russian mines. Apart from the patronage of the Russian royal family, it is a known fact that in the early 1900s, Fabergé enjoyed the patronage of the British royal family as well.
Fabergé was inspired by the spirit of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in France. His designs also drew heavily from Oriental sources. In the early days of his business, there existed a steep difference between the clientele of St Petersburg and Moscow. St Petersburg was the home of the elite and the stylish, people who were acutely aware of Western fashion trends and preferences, while Moscow, with its roots in erstwhile Russian culture and architecture, preferred the 'Old Russian' make. This led to the success of the seventeenth century style silverware, produced by Fabergé, which had a robust Russian edge.
With the advent of the First World War began the decline of Karl Fabergé's thriving business. Russia was reeling under the burden of a deep economic crisis. Items made of steel, brass and copper replaced the fancier, aesthetically appealing tableware and silverware that had once thronged the tables of the rich. Most of the specialist craftsmen, employed at the factory, were drafted into the army and the workshops were almost entirely converted into factories for churning out war artillery such as grenades and shells. Post the 1917 Revolution, the Bolshevik invasion, the murder of the Russian royal family and the nationalization of the House of Fabergé, Karl Fabergé was compelled to escape from Russia with his family. He took asylum in Switzerland but it was a short-lived reprieve as he died shortly thereafter. The approach that the Soviets took to the artifacts of Fabergé's creation was one of disgust. They considered these eggs to be a remnant and a reminder of a period of boundless decadence. Many of the Imperial Eggs were confiscated and sold at auctions. As a result, Fabergé's creations remain scattered all across the globe today.
Closely related to the October Revolution is another of Fabergé's Easter eggs: The Birch Egg. Crafted out of an unusual combination of gold and birch, it was a sign of the downturn suffered by the Russian economy. However, the egg contained an expensive hidden surprise enclosed within was a mechanical elephant studded with eight large diamonds and sixty-one smaller diamonds. Lying beside the elephant was a golden key with 'MF' engraved upon it. This was to be Nicholas's last gift to his Tsarina. The elephant is now lost in the annals of history, probably stolen by the mutinous soldiers, while the egg has recently resurfaced in the Russian National Museum.
On 28 November, 2007 Christie's at London, King Street put on auction a jewelled vari-coloured gold-mounted and enamelled egg on plinth, incorporating a clock and an automaton by Karl Fabergé, workmaster Michael Perchin, St. Petersburg, dated 1902 under Russian Works of Art Including The Rothschild Fabergé Egg section. The size being 10 5/8 in. (27 cm.) high, closed 12¼ in. (31 cm.) high, with bird raised, the plinth 4½ in. (11.5 cm.) wide, total gross weight 3,645 gr. The base engraved and dated 'K. Fabergé 1902', the mounts stamped 'Fabergé' in Cyrillic, workmaster's initials of Mikhail Perkhin [Perchin], assayed 56 for St. Petersburg, 1899-1908, the silver body marked under the enamel 'Fabergé' in Cyrillic, assayed 88 for St. Petersburg, 1899-1908. The estimated price for this lot 55 item was £6,000,000 - £9,000,000, where as the price realized was £8,980,500.
Sotheby's London on 26 November, 2008 had put a large porcelain Easter Egg from Imperial Porcelain Manufactory under Russian Works of Art, Faberge and Icons section. The lot 225 item was sold for 61,250 GBP, while the estimated price was 15,000 - 20,000 GBP.