Thursday, May 26, 2011

Workmasters of the House of Fabergé: Part II

Last post we discussed the use of "workmasters" by the House of  Fabergé.   It is believed that there were 40 of these men from the time of Gustav Fabergé down to the demise of the business in 1917.  These masters of their crafts either had their own independent workshops that produced solely for the House of Fabergé or worked directly for the company.  Some transitioned into the House, beginning as independents and later joined the business.

The first workmaster of note is Peter Hiskias Pendin.  Pendin was a skilled craftsman and partner with Gustav in the business in the 1850s.  By 1865, when Carl returned to St. Petersburg from his European apprenticeships, Pendin became his mentor for almost a decade.  In 1872, Carl took over the business and the company was poised to begin its reign as the world's foremost jeweler (Pendin passed away in 1882).  As Fabergé's fame grew, the task of producing jewelry, picture frames, snuffboxes as well as the Imperial Easter Eggs after 1885 necessitated the manufacturing being divided into several workshops, with workmasters for miniature painting, silver and gold work and enameling.

One of the most famous Fabergé workmasters was Mikhail Evlampievich Perkhin (Perchin).  Perkhin was born in a rural area in 1860 but by 1884 he was registered with the St. Petersburg Craft Council.  He was named Fabergé's head workmaster in 1886, while maintaining his own separate workshop until 1900 when he came into Fabergé's new, larger facility.   It is believed that Carl designed the Hen Egg as the first Imperial Easter Egg but thereafter Perkhin was responsible for making these beloved eggs until his death in 1903. Perkhin's hallmark (see right) is found on Imperial Eggs from 1886 through 1903.

Of similar reknown to Perkhin is Henrik Emanuel Wigstrom.  Wigstrom was born in Finland in 1862 and moved to St. Petersburg in 1878, working as a goldsmith's apprentice.  By 1884, Wigstrom had entered Perkhin's business and the two men became very close with Perkhin and his spouse being Godparents to Wigstrom's children.  Upon Perkhin's death, Wigstrom became the head Fabergé workmaster and responsible for the Imperial Easter Eggs.  Wigstrom also designed many other items today considered classic Fabergé, including picture frames, cigarette cases and figurines.  A wonderful book showcasing these designs is  the "Golden Years of Faberge: Drawings and Objects from the Wigstrom Workshop," by Peter and Mark Schaffer (available on  Wigstrom's mark is "H.W." and he worked until the Russian Revolution brought it all to an end.  Wigstrom died in Finland in 1923.  A classic Imperial Easter Egg by Wigstrom is the 1912 Tsarevich Egg featuring diamond encrusted Romanov eagle frame of the boy's miniature portrait; the shell is made from six pieces of carved lapis lazuli overlaid with Rococo gold motifs.

Tsarevich Egg and surprise (the original egg stand vanished during the revolution)
Spanning the decades of both these great head workmasters was the House of Fabergé's head designer François Birbaum.  Birbaum worked from 1896-1917 and  but there were other designers of that era who made great contributions to the company's legacy.  Alma Theresia Pihl conceived of the beloved "Winter Egg" of 1913, a vision of icy rock crystal and platinum.  This egg held the contemporary auction record for a single Imperial Easter Egg, selling at Christie's in 2002 for $9.58 million.  That price was eclipsed by a piece not owned by the Romanovs but by the Rothschild family with the cockerel clock egg going for a record $16.5 million at Christie's in 2007.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Workmasters of the House of Fabergé

I have often been asked if Theo Fabergé personally made all the items created under his signature.  The answer is "No, he did not do every piece."  Theo crafted all of the wooden eggs in the early days, often with his daughter Sarah assisting by adding vermeil trim to the objet d'art.  As Theo's health began to fail as he approached 80 years of age, he turned over his beloved restored Holtzapfel lathe used for the wooden eggs to an expert who worked under Theo's supervision.  When using other materials, eggs were designed by Theo down to the smallest detail and then given to specialists -- in lapidary, jeweling, crystal engraving and enameling to name a few -- to be completed.  This was done since the launch of the St. Petersburg Collection in 1985 and continues today in keeping Theo's vision alive in executing his posthumous portfolio of designs.

Theo Faberge

Actually, the system used by Theo was exactly that employed by his grandfather Carl at the House of Fabergé.  Many Fabergé enthusiaists are familiar with the term "workmaster" and the names Perkhin and Wigstrom are well-known.  However, there may have been nearly 40 workmasters, dating from the time when Carl's father Gustav founded the business.  These men often had their own independent workshops that produced solely for the House of Fabergé, while some worked directly for the company.  Others began as independents and later joined the business.  

 Both Theo and Carl  were recognized for their achievements as highly accomplished craftsmen.  Carl received the status of Master Goldsmith in 1882 in St. Petersburg.  Just short of 100 years later, his grandson Theo in 1978 was awarded the Lady Gertrude Crawford medal,  Britain's highest honor for ornamental turning, for his Queen's Silver Jubilee Ivory Casket..   That same year he was elected as a Freeman Prizeman of the Worshipful Company of Turners, an award that had not been given out since 1956 by this organization which dates back to the old guilds of England.  In 1979, Theo's work was accepted for exhibition by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths at Goldsmith's Hall in London.  So both grandfather and grandson were recognized for their skill  in their own right; yet each knew in order to craft the pieces demanded by their clientele that they must engaged equally talented artisans for their respective workshops.

Next post I'll introduce the most notable workmasters of the Romanov era.