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