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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

(continued from page 1)

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.

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