Sunday, March 27, 2011

How the Faberges Came to England

          The extravagant Romanov era came to an abrupt end in1917 with the devastation caused by the Bolshevik Revolution.  The last Tsar was executed along with 17 other family members.  The House of Fabergé was seized and shuttered by the new government.  The Fabergés were now bankrupt, shocked that Carl’s son Agathon was arrested by the new regime.   

Peter Carl Faberge
Carl escaped to Switzerland accompanied by his wife and sons Eugene and Alexander, only to die a broken man in 1920.  His sons attempted to resurrect the business in Paris, “Fabergé et Cie” but without royal patronge lost to two world wars and skilled artisans, the effort failed.          

Carl Fabergé, however, was not the first of his family to craft extraordinary baubles, nor the last.   The legacy carries on to 21st century London with artists Theo and Sarah Fabergé, 165 years after the first St. Petersburg workshop opened.  And this is how it happened.

By a fortunate twist of fate, Nicholas — the youngest of Carl’s four surviving sons — had been sent to England in 1906 to run the company’s export business.  Steamships loaded with crates of wondrous items from the House of Fabergé left the docks of St. Petersburg and journeyed to London.  Here Nicholas attended to the royal family of Britain, where representatives would select creations from an incredible display as the contents of the trunks were opened and spread on long, wooden tables.   

The remaining items were repacked and the ship set off for the Far East, as Nicholas also sold to the King of Siam, now known as Thailand.  Both these royal families boast the largest collections of Fabergé items in existence today as evidence of Nicholas’ success.  Carl’s son also sold to the rising class of industrialists, other European royalty and the merely wealthy from the company’s shop in London’s West End.

England was a safe haven in post-World War I Europe and with the House of Fabergé in ruins, Nicholas started a second career as one of the earliest fashion photographers.  Along the way, he fathered a son, Theodore, in 1922 with one of his most beautiful models, Dorise Cladish.

          For many years Theo did not know of his famous heritage as he was not raised a Fabergé but as a Woodall.  Dorise had entrusted Theo to her married sister Linda and he was raised as Linda’s son.   Theo’s favorite aunt while growing up was really his mother, while his erstwhile father and mother were his true aunt and uncle, his brother actually his cousin.

Feeling strangely out-of-place within his own family, young Theo actively pursued his artistic yearnings, not so fondly recalling smashing his finger with a hammer while crafting a little boat at the age of four!  World War II intervened and Theo joined the British Royal Air Force, setting him on a path to study engineering and ultimately becoming the owner of a very successful aircraft instrumentation company.   But in his spare hours, his love of art blossomed into hobbies of ornamental turning and antique restoration.

          Decades later, a chance remark by an aunt at a funeral led Theo to discover his true ancestry as evidenced by his birth certificate as the son of “Nicholas Leopold Fabergé, artist.”    

Theo's birth certificate
 Thus, the explanation for Theo’s natural creative talents was finally revealed along with the stunning revelation that his beloved Aunt Dorise was his mother.  For awhile, Theo didn’t know what to make of this incredible turn of events and with his usual humility, did not want to appear to take opportunistic advantage of his sudden inheritance of one of the most famous names in art history.

Known then as the “lost Fabergé,” Theo declined to make eggs for some time as he viewed his grandfather’s work as the ultimate.  How would the public view his own modest designs, made with his own hands in a small workshop?  Better to continue on with commission work from his devoted clients, he decided.

Finally, Theo publicly displayed several of his pieces and the response was overwhelmingly positive.  One of his earliest works is his ivory, sterling silver and ruby Queen’s Silver Jubilee casket made in 1977.  This piece  earned him the highest award for ornamental turning in England, the Lady Gertrude Crawford Medal and was exhibited at elite Asprey’s jewelers on London’s Bond Street.   Theo’s own goldsmith’s hallmark “T.F” was granted by the British Assay Office in 1979 in recognition of his ability and integrity.

With this acclaim came increased pressure to design eggs and take up the mantel of his legacy.  At long last, in 1985 Theo Fabergé launched the St. Petersburg Collection — named in honor of his ancestral home  — of limited edition handmade eggs and objets d’art.  Applauded in Europe and America, his designs feature many of the elements that made the Imperial Eggs delight – miniature surprises, exquisite hand-crafted details in fine and precious materials.  One hundred years after the first Fabergé Easter Egg, Theo made the art of the egg his own with a unique sense of style, yet incorporating a bit of that old Carl Fabergé magic and mystery into each creation.

Theo soon welcomed his only child, Sarah, to assist in his studio.  Sarah sat at the bench and practiced the family’s art, hand trimming Theo’s wooden creations with silver and gold.  She augmented these skills by taking design courses and visiting St. Petersburg to learn more of her famous heritage.  In 1992, Sarah designed her first creations — solid 18 karat gold enameled pendants and delicate decorative eggs.  Echoing the Russian Baroque style, her works are distinct from those of her famous father and great-grandfather.  
Theo and Sarah Faberge

         Sadly, Theo Fabergé passed away on August 20, 2007, just a month shy of his 85th birthday.  Since 2002 he had been stepping back from the day-to-day concerns of the business to focus on his Masterworks series and special commissions for charitable causes.  Theo also left a portfolio of designs to be released after his death, as all the wonderful eggs he had created in his mind could not be made during his life.  The "Art of the Egg" goes on!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Why We Love the Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs

With the first Imperial Easter Egg,  a legacy was born that still astounds us decades later.  Under the patronage of the Russian Tsar, the name Fabergé became the first international luxury "brand."

Princes, pashas and potentates; emirs and emperors; billionaires and barons; kings and queens all crossed the threshold of the House of Fabergé seeking a suitable gift, something extraordinarily beautiful for an anniversary, christening or wedding.  No personal event could be celebrated without a surprise from the House of Fabergé.

For the Romanovs, that included jewelry, pictures frames, clocks, pill boxes, furniture and even a children’s china tea party set for the four daughters of the last Tsar.  But none struck the fancy of connoisseurs and the man in the street alike as much as the Imperial Eggs.  After Alexander III’s death, the tradition expanded as new Tsar Nicholas II gifted not only his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna, at Easter with a bejeweled Fabergé Egg but also his wife, the beloved Empress Alexandra. 

What are the enduring signatures of these Fabergé designs?  It wasn’t a lavish use of diamonds but a lavish use of imagination, fantasy, whimsy.  Each Imperial Egg contained a surprise in miniature that would magically appear from its shell:  bouquets of flowers to greet the new spring; family portraits as keepsakes; mechanical cocks-a- crowing or a finely detailed train to delight and entertain.  These surprises were hidden inside ornately decorated eggs, many featuring guilloche enamel, hand engraving, gemstones and diamonds.

Coronation Egg

One of the most beloved designs is the Coronation Egg,  presented by Tsar Nicholas to Alexandra for Easter of 1897.   Under the direction of workmaster Mikhail Perkhin, the piece supposedly took 15 months to complete while laboring 16 hours a day.  The five inch lime yellow guilloche enamel shell is adorned with multi-colored golds, black and blue enamel accent and diamond.  The surprise of the piece upon opening, a miniature of the the coach used in Nicholas' 1894 coronation ceremony -- three and a half inches of perfection crafted of gold, platinum, red enamel, diamond, ruby and rock crystal.  (A small emerald egg pendant was part of the surprise, in the coach interior, but that has been lost.)

Lilies of the Valley Egg

The following Easter, Alexandra received another exquisite gift, the Lilies of the Valley Egg.   This confection of pink guilloche enamel is decorated with those flowers of spring, Lilies of the Valley, fashioned from gold, green enamel and pearls.  Over seven inches tall, the piece has a surprise of three portraits -- Tsar Nicholas II and daughters the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana.  These pictures are revealed, rising with the cabochon ruby crown finial, when a pearl button is pressed.  Again, Mikhail Perkhin is the workmaster.

Both the Coronation and Lilies of the Valley Eggs were part of the Forbes Collection that was sold to Russian Viktor Vekselberg and will be on display in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Fabulous Fabergés: George Clooney & Brad Pitt?

And now, for the next few weeks on the blog, I’d like you to let your imaginations soar, as we enter a time machine of sorts going back to a splendorous era in Russia and an opulent lifestyle never seen before or since.   But these relatively few years yielded the enduring legacy of the Fabergé Family, where art and history meet a bit of magic and mystery.

In 2004, CNN was one of the first media to report an astounding sale.  The cable television’s news alert broke the story that the Malcolm Forbes Collection (at that time, displayed to the public in New York City) of nine Fabergé Imperial Eggs, once owned by the last Romanov Tsars, and more than 180 other Fabergé items had been sold to a new-age Russian tycoon Viktor Vekselberg for the incredible sum of over $120 million.  The Collection was leaving the United States and heading across the ocean, home to St. Petersburg after an absence of more than 90 years.

The public’s imagination was yet again captivated in this new millennia by the master jeweler of an earlier era, Carl Fabergé.  From 1885 to 1916, the Fabergé workshops produced 50 Imperial Easter Eggs of such exquisite detail and beauty that they remain the most beloved objets d’art in the world.  Attributing to this continuing affection is the plot of the recent film Ocean’s Twelve, as cinema fans delighted to the escapades of George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts as they sought to steal a Fabergé Egg in order to be crowned best thieves in the world.

Eight Imperial Eggs are missing and presumed lost forever due to the chaos of war and revolution or perhaps outright theft such as the one in Oceans’ Twelve.  We can only wonder if any of these will be seen again.

But what of the creators of these treasures and their fate? 

The saga of the Fabergés itself is truly worthy of a Hollywood movie:  daring escapes with life in the balance; unimaginable wealth and excess; the death and destruction of war; and an out-of-wedlock, unknowing heir to a legendary name and legacy.

The Fabergé story begins with a perilous flight from France to avoid religious persecution during the time of Louis XIV in the 1600s.  Moving eastward across Europe for decades, the family finally settled in St. Petersburg — the old Russian capital.   In this bustling city, Gustav Fabergé, Carl’s father, started a business in 1842; thus, the mystery is solved as to how a French name came to be known as that of the most famous Russian jeweler of all time.

Gustav enjoyed modest success, enough so that his oldest son Carl could be thoroughly educated in the family’s craft.  Carl studied abroad in France and Germany, training his eye to classical design while learning the techniques behind the art.  At the age of 26, Carl was asked by his father to take over the House of Fabergé.

In 1882, Carl was invited to participate in the Moscow Pan-Russian Exhibition.  It was at this event that Tsar Alexander II became acquainted with the House of Fabergé and was enchanted by its beautiful display of jewels and objets de luxe.  In 1885 the Tsar bestowed upon Carl the distinction of “Supplier to the Court of His Imperial Majesty.”  This opened the doors to what many consider the finest jeweling era in history, with the Romanov treasury financing the flights of fancy of Carl and his work masters.   The first Imperial Easter Egg, “The Hen Egg,” was commissioned by the Tsar as a gift for his wife that year, commencing a thirty year period of artistic and commercial success for Carl.

But why an egg?  Eggs have been symbolic to mankind since the dawn of time.  The Phoenicians, the Egyptians, Hindus and many other ancient civilizations maintained that the world was hatched from an egg made by the Creator.  For centuries, the egg has represented life and the spirit of hope to mankind.  But nowhere was the egg more revered than in Eastern Europe as a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ.

The beginning of Lent saw the start of preparations for Easter Sunday, with eggs of various materials – sugar, wax, porcelain, crystal – being made and lavishly decorated.  However, the humble hens’ eggs played the most significant role in the seasonal celebration.  During Eastertide in 1842 at the beginning of the Fabergé era it has been estimated that the 500,000 inhabitants of St. Petersburg consumed a massive quantity of eggs both in preparation of meals and, the decorated ones, as presents.  Does anyone care to guess how many eggs were used in 1842?  Well, ten million hens’ eggs is the answer – 20 for every man, woman and child!

And thus with Alexander’s Easter gift,  Tsarina Maria Fedorovna came to have the finest of all these in the whole of Mother Russia.  This first Fabergé Imperial Egg featured an unadorned white enamel shell that opened to reveal a gold yolk which yielded a further surprise, a gold hen containing a ruby decorated Romanov crown pendant.  This egg, perhaps the most humble of all the Imperial Eggs, launched the House of Fabergé on its road to unimagined success.

Our next post will continue the story, highlighting several of the most beloved Imperial Easter Eggs of all time.