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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.

But Fabergé made more than Easter eggs. A stream of exquisite gifts--cigarette cases, letter openers, clocks, calendars, picture frames, ashtrays--nearly all of them enameled, most of them bejeweled, flowed from the workshops in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Hundreds of everyday objects were rendered extraordinary, yet still utilitarian.

The royal family lived and walked among splendor. But familiarity did not breed carelessness--these fragile items come down to us a century later with their enameling intact in spite of their constant use and exposure. "The Lilies of the Valley Basket," the favorite Fabergé object of Czarina Alexandra, sat on her writing table from 1896 until the 1917 Revolution. It is considered the finest Fabergé object after the Easter eggs.

The basket's realistic and delicate appearance belies the hard materials from which it was made. Likely inspired by a photograph of an actual basket filled with lilies of the valley, the piece is a remarkably faithful representation of nature. Under the direction of workmaster August Hollming, craftsmen in one of Fabergé's St. Petersburg workshops reproduced the delicate blossoms from pearls and diamonds. The broad leaves at the base of the flower sprays are carved from nephrite, sliced so thin as to be translucent. The whole arrangement is fixed within a bed of moss spun from gold. Its enduring freshness allowed the czarina to enjoy the look of this charming country flower through the long, frigid Russian winters. Today it is part of the Matilda Geddings Foundation Gray Collection in New Orleans, one of several important holdings of Fabergé in the United States.

Without question, the supreme Fabergé collector was Malcolm Forbes. In some ways he was like the royal family: blessed with the funds to indulge in his love of beautiful objects. He pursued Fabergé with a collector's passion, reveling in his acquisitions, and, according to his son Christopher, gloating with pleasure when his collection of Easter eggs surpassed all others. When Forbes successfully bid for the 1900 "Cuckoo Egg" at Sotheby's in 1985, Christopher recalls, the auctioneer announced, "The score now stands: Forbes 11, Kremlin 10." Malcolm Forbes, like the royal family, used those objects intended for use. His desk was outfitted with a silver Fabergé desk set and dotted with Fabergé objects once owned by Nicholas II's family; his paper clips and pens, his notes for magazine columns, were all contained in objects made by Fabergé.

The two main branches of the firm made utterly different work, contrasting in design and in feeling, but very much in tune with the style and atmosphere of the two cities. The St. Petersburg workshop, presided over by workmasters Michael Perchin, from about 1886 to 1903, and Henrik Wigström, who took over after Perchin died in 1903, reflected the refinement of its founder, Peter the Great. His new capital, founded in 1703 and named for his patron saint, was intended as an opening to the West. He dictated that French, not Russian, be spoken by the aristocracy.

In Moscow, by contrast, indigenous Russian arts and culture were in vogue. The city was at the center of a rebirth of Russian styles and themes. The Moscow workshop production is usually recognizable at a glance--heavier in theme and often in materials, silver pieces with scenes of rampaging horses with legendary knights of medieval Russia upon them reveal a part of Fabergé that bears no relationship to the delicacy of the firm's enamel work and stone settings.

The hallmark of Fabergé is twofold: the perfection of the metalwork and the shimmering beauty of the enamel. It is the latter that draws the eye in for a closer look. Fabergé developed more than 140 subtle shades of enamel that exceeded anything known up to that time. From the most delicate pinks to regal blues and reds, the enamels are lavished on large surfaces of gold. This material is intrinsically challenging: enamel is a form of glass, made by fusing thin layers of molten glass in translucent colors upon a metal surface.

Fabergé employed the technique known as guilloché enamel. The surface was first engraved by hand or through engine turning to create a pattern of repeating, undulating waves. When covered by layers of enamel, the patterns created a moiré effect--they seemed to move and shimmer as they caught and reflected light. After each application of color, the piece was carefully fired to melt the enamel, allowing it to fuse and then harden as it cooled. Five or six layers were applied to reach the desired color. Gold leaf patterns were sometimes applied between the layers of enamel, adding to the shimmering effect. Fabergé perfected the art of enameling en ronde bosse--in the round--an exceptional tour de force in light of enamel's liquidity during the fusing process. After the final firing, the enamel surface was smoothed to perfection, the last perilous step in its creation. These pieces, even under the closest inspection, reveal the sheer flawlessness of the technique as practiced at the House of Fabergé.

More than technique, however, they are masterpieces of a combination of goldsmithing skills. At the heart of the production was Carl Fabergé's imagination and entrepreneurship. Though not a working jeweler himself, he had the vision to bring together 500 jewelers and technicians from Russia, Finland, Sweden and Germany, who contributed their special talents to the workshops at St. Petersburg and Moscow. Crafting pieces that often took a year or more, they created a body of work that has no peer. Kenneth Snowman says categorically, "Cellini, as a goldsmith, was a child compared with Fabergé."

Many of the designs were created by Carl Fabergé's younger brother, Agathon, who joined him in the business in 1882 when he was just 20; Carl was 16 years older and had taken over the family business from their father in 1870 when he himself was just 24. Two years later, Carl Fabergé married Augusta Jacobs, a woman of Swedish descent; the couple had four sons: Eugene, Agathon, Alexander and Nicholas.

The Fabergés were descendants of refugee Huguenots, driven from their French homeland by religious persecution like many before them as well as after. Native to the Picardy region, their ancestors were forced to leave home along with hundreds of other Protestants after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

The family made its way from France to Estonia, where Gustav Fabergé, Carl's and Agathon's father, was born in 1814. By 1842, the family was established in St. Petersburg. Having changed their name in order to escape France, the Fabergés eventually reassumed it even as they became Russian citizens. There, fate was waiting for them in the form of the royal family.

Carl Fabergé was educated throughout Europe, taking the best that each country had to offer. He learned goldsmithing in Germany, renowned as a training ground for jewelers, and did a stint in England to learn the language. But it was France that provided both his artistic training as well as the source of the enameling technique that he made the firm's hallmark.

Virtually unknown and unheralded are the hundreds of small animals made by the firm. It is said that Fabergé was inspired to create this output by his own collection of some 500 netsukes, small, carved toggles used as fasteners for kimono sashes. He turned to Russia's vast and varied mineral resources to find the hard stones used in his firm's animal carvings. These in no way compare with Fabergé's enamel work, nor do they reflect the exquisite carved delicacy of actual netsukes.

They do, however, serve as a reminder that one reason so much of Fabergé's output has survived is due to the use of humble materials. With the exception of gold and some small diamonds and colored gemstones, much of the material Fabergé used had little intrinsic value. Unlike other, more traditional jewelry and objets d'art made during this period, Fabergé's creations were worth more than the sum of their parts.

The opulence of Fabergé's regular output came to a screeching stop with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The firm began turning out such mundane objects as copper pots, made for Fabergé's clients to send to their sons at the front.

The change in political climate is also reflected in the Easter egg dated 1915, a strange creation indeed. Dubbed the "Red Cross Egg," it features a pure white base with a large and brilliant red cross on its sides, meant to reflect the austerity of the time. The egg forms a triptych depicting the resurrection of Christ.

Two years later, the Bolsheviks were in charge. The Romanovs never got to see what fabulous creations Fabergé had made for them that Easter.

Ettagale Blauer is author of Contemporary American Jewelry Design (Chapman & Hall, 1991).

The exhibition "Fabergé in America," a vast collection of work owned by American collectors, began a tour in New York City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this year. After appearances at the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, the show may now be seen at the New Orleans Museum of Art (Dec. 7 to Feb. 9) before concluding at the Cleveland Museum of Art (March 12 to May 11).

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