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Gifts of the Czar

Carl Fabergé's Gold-and-Enamel Eggs Have Survived Their Romanov Patrons As Triumphs of the Jeweler's Art
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

Mr. Fabergé himself has brought me this most beautiful egg. Inside is a sedan chair carried by two Africans with Catherine the Great in it. And she has a little crown on her head. You wind it up and the two Africans walk. Can you imagine?" So wrote Maria Feodorovna, mother of Czar Nicholas II of Russia, in a letter to her sister, Alexandra, the queen consort of England, upon receiving the 1914 Easter egg that became known as the "Catherine the Great Egg." We needn't imagine the amazing piece with its "surprise"--we can gaze at it with awe and admiration as it makes its way around the United States on a yearlong exhibit culminating at the Cleveland Museum of Art next spring. When the objects return to their generous lenders, many pieces may be seen at a variety of museums as part of their permanent collections.

With the breath of the Russian Revolution nearly blowing down their necks, the Russian royal family carried on in exquisite oblivion. It was during the twilight of the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty that the workshops of (Peter) Carl Fabergé produced some of their most exalted creations, which filled the royal palaces and served as magnificent gifts whenever the czar went on a state visit. When the end came for the czar and the family, it came too for the House of Fabergé.

Although Carl Fabergé did not meet a grisly finish like that of the Romanovs, the outbreak of the First World War and the Russian Revolution in 1917 put the firm out of business. Kenneth Snowman, the most important chronicler of Fabergé, noted that when private businesses were taken over by the Bolsheviks, Fabergé asked for "10 minutes' grace to put on my hat and coat." He died three years later in Lausanne, Switzerland. The renown of the firm is inseparable from that of its most famous patrons; it is fitting that they ended simultaneously.

Even with the hindsight of history, it was not a foregone conclusion that the end was in sight for the Romanovs. For 30 glorious years, the Romanovs and Fabergé (along with his hundreds of skilled artisans), were joined in a unique marriage. Here was a jewelry firm with the skills and artistry to invent and create the most exquisite objects, matched to patrons with both money and an unquenchable thirst for objects that enchanted the eye, delighted the hand and indulged the passions of the people who received them.

Fabergé's firm made the first of its renowned Easter eggs for Czar Alexander III in 1884. Shortly thereafter, the czar granted Fabergé its royal warrant, and the rest is the exquisite history we can still see today.

The annual Easter egg orders, a tradtion continued enthusiastically after Alexander's death by his son, Nicholas II, allowed Fabergé the time and means to express his extraordinary imagination and perfect the myriad techniques used in these objects. These are not merely indulgences for the rich; they are enduring examples of the height of the enamelist's and goldsmith's arts. They express the difficult and delicate balance of artistry coupled with precision engineering and mechanical skills needed for the surprises nestled within each egg.

The surprises comprise a variety of techniques. For the "Imperial Lilies of the Valley Easter Egg," dated 1899, exquisite miniature enamel portraits of Czar Nicholas II and his eldest daughters, the grand duchesses Olga and Tatiana, were set in tiny gold frames and popped up at the touch of a button. The pink enamel egg itself is set within a four-legged gold stand. Tendrils of lilies of the valley cling to its surface, which is segmented by narrow bands of small diamonds.

Within the "Danish Palaces Easter Egg," circa 1895, a miniature 10-panel screen waits to be revealed. When unfolded, segments of the screen portrayed royal Danish palaces that Princess Dagmar had known in her native Denmark before she married Alexander in 1866. Other panels show imperial Russian yachts and Russian residences that were part of her life.

The Fabergé skill with mechanics is revealed in the automatons--wind-up figures, such as Catherine the Great's sedan chair, that strut their way out of the eggs. Another featured an Indian elephant with his mahout seated on top, the surprise of the "Pine Cone Egg" of 1900. When the elephant is taken from the egg and wound up, it lumbers along, shifting its weight from one side to the other, all the while turning its head and flicking its tail.

The "Imperial Orange Tree Easter Egg" is in fact quite round, rather than ovate, and is entirely covered with leaves made of neprite, a form of jade. The egg is fixed atop a gold trunk standing in an agate planter with oranges, fashioned from citrines, dotted all around. When the correct orange is turned, a singing bird emerges from the top of the tree.

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