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.