Fabergé In London: Romance To Revolution At The V&A-
Pt.2: The Imperial Eggs
The following article is a personal selection of Peter Carl Fabergé’s ‘Imperial’ eggs, examined together with others made. Although the majority discussed are currently presented in ‘Fabergé In London: Romance To Revolution’ at the V&A; I have also included details of several other significant examples not in the show. Chosen to hopefully give the reader a more rounded and detailed picture of the subject.
Although Fabergé’s signature works may not be the exclusive focus of the above show; it is perhaps inevitable that due to their mystique and royal provenance; they preoccupy the expectant minds of most of the visitors. We see an amazing 15 examples on display; all of which are distinctive and unique creations.
However, the eggs are significant not just due to their fame and status as objects of desire. Each one also sheds light on a complicated story about those for whom they were made. Entwined with those who actually conceived, developed and fashioned them.
(This is one of three articles exploring the current exhibition ‘Fabergé In London: Romance To Revolution’ at the V&A. Please view the other two at gideonhall.co.uk)
It might come as a surprise to some people that the Imperial eggs were not made by Fabergé directly. Instead he supervised their production by one of his talented Workmasters; whoever came up with a particularly good idea. Each design was then painstakingly developed and exquisitely fashioned by skilled members of a Workmasters’ team; specific individual skills being sought to ensure that the highest levels of quality were maintained throughout the process. A collaborative effort that required a large investment of time and talent.
Each Imperial egg was a ‘one off’; tailored to reflect an aspect of the life of its intended recipient. For example, a Royal event such as a birth, anniversary or journey could serve as a starting point for a design. Or perhaps a national achievement, like the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway (the theme of the 1900 Imperial egg, presented by Tsar Nicholas II to his wife). Certain Imperial eggs are broader and less specific in subject; their designs of a more poetic nature. Meditations on nature and the seasons, for example, that have a universal appeal.
The most successful of these eggs shows how each designer was able to run with a particular theme and give it a twist; often in quite unexpected and subtle ways. Many function on a symbolic level, using flowers and plants to reflect deeper meanings. Or take religious themes. An imaginative flight that no doubt required a significant degree of intuition on the part of their designer, in order to hit the right note. Some eggs are playful- especially those that include animals. Several verge on the sentimental, whilst others commemorate war and loss. Even after a century, certain eggs remain visually striking and the best examples demonstrate an originality that arguably lift Fabergé’s designs into the realms of fine art. However, it cannot be denied that in a few cases, their ornamentation becomes a tad excessive- at least to my taste. But even so, actually viewing the workmanship makes clear the skilled efforts of those who made each one.
Today we are used to increasingly high standards of engineering, miniaturisation and finish on products; microscopic in scale and made by machine. So when we look at eggs created by the Fabergé workshops over a century ago, this is something worth keeping in mind. Back then, their levels of quality and refinement would have existed in only a very few places; such as here in fine jewellery or areas like precision Watchmaking. Where, by hand, eye and with tools that would seem basic by today’s standards; it was possible to condense and compress fine detail into a tiny space with little or no subsequent loss of quality upon closer inspection. A pre industrial perfection attained only by the best jewellers of history.
Please note, due to the ever complicated copyright issues relating to Fabergé eggs, I have reluctantly refrained from including images. Therefore, please view these online. They are not hard to find!
The Imperial Eggs
The Imperial Eggs began with a request from Tsar Alexander III for Fabergé to produce an Easter gift for his wife, the Empress Marie Feodorovna. The recipient was so pleased and enchanted by the result, that another egg was requested for the next year and so began a tradition that continued from the late 19th Century until the eventual demise of the Romanov dynasty. A period of just over 30 years.
Each ‘Imperial’ egg was produced by Fabergé’s workshops and took roughly a year to complete. This meant that Fabergé was having to finalise a design a year in advance. Not only that, after the accession to the Throne of Alexanders’ son Nicholas in 1896, Fabergé was obliged to produce two eggs a year. One for the new Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and one for the Tsar’s mother. Both individuals very different in character and temperament.
All in all, there were 52 ‘Imperial’ eggs produced for the Royal Family (of which 46 are currently known and located). These numbers are complicated by the fact that in some years, no eggs were produced.
Other equally grand and beautiful eggs were created by the Fabergé workshops. Highlights include those for the Rothschilds and the Kelches. However, although incredible on their own terms, these cannot be designated as ‘Imperial’.
Many of Fabergé’s designs were derived from existing jewellery, such as the first of the Imperial Eggs: The ‘Hen’ egg from 1885. The idea for which came from an 18th century design, found in Rosenborg Castle. This is the location of the Danish Crown Jewels and near to Marie Feodorovna’s childhood home in Denmark- an early example of Fabergé’s meticulous research on behalf of his Royal clients. Marie Feodorovna loved it, just as the Tsar had hoped. The egg no doubt recalling carefree memories of her happy upbringing.
The ‘Hen’ egg opens up in layers like a Matryoshka doll; going in from the enamel gold lined egg ‘shell’ that separates in the middle, through a golden spherical yolk, to reveal a little golden hen, sitting on its nest as the surprise. Originally inside the hen (which opened, hinged from the back) was a diamond miniature of the Russian crown. Within the crown, Fabergé had originally intended to place a ring. However, after an indirect request from the Tsar, this then became a ruby pendant. Sadly though, both these items have been lost.
When considering the design and its layered metallic interior, it reminded me of something diametrically opposite to this beautiful object: the polished inside of an early nuclear device; something that is also constructed through interlocking ‘Matryoshka’ like layers¹. Another thing about the ‘Hen’ egg is apparent in the designs’ concept. That is the play on the ‘hen that laid the golden egg’ from various fairy tales like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’.
The ‘Hen’ egg was made under the supervision of Workmaster Erik August Kollin and is currently on display in ‘Romance To Revolution’. Unlike the next three eggs, that are however among Fabergé’s finest creations and worth seeing- if you are fortunate enough to visit The Kremlin in Moscow, the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore or the Fabergé Museum in Saint Petersburg.
The ‘Steel Military’
Talking of weaponry, one of the most striking eggs is the ‘Steel Military,’ created for 1916 by Workmaster extraordinaire Henrik Wigström, as a gift from Tsar Nicholas II to Empress Alexandra. During this difficult time, as Russia was in retreat on all fronts and the Tsar had taken personal (and disastrous) command of his army; the egg must have struck a patriotic and defiant tone. Especially as it is made from steel with no adornment or gemstones; emblazoned with the Romanov eagle and propped up on four artillery shells. It’s spartan polished surface a modern feature (previously, the egg had a blackened patina). The surprise within is a portrait of the Tsar and Tsaravich looking at maps with other senior officers. An embodiment of the future of the dynasty (or so it was hoped, though doubtful). The journalist Stephen Smith remarked that this egg resembles a hand granade. Something incendiary; concocted by a Marinetti or Boccioni, to be hurled into some kind of Futurist happening. Whatever the case, it was one of the few Imperial Eggs to remain in Russia after the revolution. To my eyes, it’s unapologetic and pseudo-utilitarian military appearance is (ironic in the circumstances) suggestive of something that could have emerged in Germany- the design’s resemblance to a Pickelhaube helmet pretty obvious.
The ‘Rose Trellis’
Several of the eggs that have come down to us are missing their original surprises, but still have the power to take your breath away. For example, there is little to match the perfection of the exterior of Henrik Wigström’s 1907 ‘Rose Trellis’ Imperial egg. The surface of which is especially detailed, resembling a rich brocaded textile. Made in translucent green enamel and latticed with rose cut diamonds; the egg is decorated with leaves in emerald green, with opaque light and dark pink enamel for the roses. Their stems in varying shades of gold and green. Although the diamond necklace and ivory miniature of the Tsaravich ‘surprise’ are missing, this egg is a marvel in asymmetry.
The ‘Lillies-Of-The-Valley’ egg was made by Michael Perkhin and presented by Nicholas to Alexandra in 1898. The egg stands on three Cabriole legs, which are attached to the ‘shell’. This is decorated with a complex shimmering two-colour guilloché enamel surface- one of Fabergé’s finest- in pink and golden yellow. The egg is segmented by rose diamonds, adorned in the finest detail with enamel and golden flowers, tipped with pearls and rubies. For me personally, the stand out feature of this egg is the delicate ‘Art Nouveau’ arrangement of these flowers- an exquisite balance of forms.
A pearl and gold button activates the egg’s ‘surprise’, which slowly rises from the top of the ‘shell’ when pressed. Three small portraits emerge under a rose diamond studded replica of the Imperial Crown, topped with a cabochon ruby. These splay out as they rise, framed by a banner set in diamonds. The surprise is an event: a central portrait of Nicholas, with his two older daughters Olga and Tatiana on either side.
The egg was well received by the Empress, but must also have been a reminder that she hadn’t yet given birth to a son. As a design, the ‘Lilies-Of-The-Valley’ is seen by some as one of Fabergé and Perkhin’s most distinctive. It remains a favourite for many people today and is rightly seen as a significant and striking work in the ‘Art Nouveau’ style.
The ‘Diamond Trellis’
In ‘Romance To Revolution’ we see the 1892 Diamond Trellis egg – a gift from Alexander III to his wife. The egg was made by August Holmström of finely carved green Jadeite: the carving of the shell, from such a difficult hard stone, being an extraordinary achievement in itself. The overlaying ‘trellis’ pattern is made from gold and diamonds.
The surprise inside is a tiny automaton ‘Elephant and Castle’- the first we know of produced by Fabergé’s artisans and made from ivory and precious stones. The elephant can move when wound by the tiny key, also on display. Originally thought lost, this surprise was found by curator Caroline De Guitaut in the British Royal Collection and matched to the egg in 2017.
This endearing little ‘Elephant and Castle’ surprise was recently restored by Robert Ball, a jeweller at the Royal Collection and can be seen dismantled in photographs online. You can see it in motion too, together with the story of its rediscovery at https://youtu.be/xT_1htB5dpY
The ‘Diamond Trellis’ egg once sat upon a base held up by three silver Putti or Cherubic figures; although this is now lost.
The ‘Rock Crystal’
Another intriguing egg harks back to a distant time: the ‘Rock Crystal (with revolving miniatures)’ from 1896- the year Nicholas II ascended the Throne. This egg can be said to have a Byzantine appearance; reflecting the popular idea in Tsarist circles about the destiny of Russia being the restoration of Orthodoxy to Constantinople. Its clear rock crystal shell again being a fragile and difficult material; the carving of which demanded great skill and patience.
Created by workmaster Michael Perkhin, this reliquary like object was the Tsar’s gift to Alexandra; containing 12 miniatures of scenes that would have been familiar to her such as the Coburg Fortress (where she became engaged to Nicholas) and Balmoral. All were painted by Johannes Zehngraf. These are held on an internal rotating spindle structure and can be viewed by pressing a large 27 carat Siberian emerald on top of the egg that activates a mechanism, bringing each one into view.
The ‘Tricentenary’ was made by Henrik Wigström to commemorate 300 years of the Romanov dynasty and is rightly considered one of the finest of all the Imperial eggs. Although perhaps not the most subtle design, it not only celebrates the Tricentenary itself; but presents for the viewer a certain optimism about the future of the Empire. A certainty that must have been reassuring to Nicholas and Alexandra; however illusory it might have been in reality. Opening the hinged top reveals the interior, containing a rotating blue enamel globe that pivots on its axis with the precision of an aircraft gimbal. The globe shows the extent of the Russian Empire from the beginning of the dynasty in the 17th century up until the year of it’s presentation (by Nicholas to Alexandra) in 1913. Like others, this exquisite egg is a synthesis of rare materials that were all sourced within Russian territories. But it is the quality of the paintings on the exterior of the egg; depicting earlier Empire Builders like Catherine and Peter (as well as Nicholas), that really capture one’s attention. These delicate miniatures, painted by Vassily Zuiev, appear magnified by the cabochon rock crystals which they sit behind. The egg is exquisitely rendered in golds of various colours and on display in ‘Romance To Revolution’.
One thing you realise when actually viewing the eggs is just how small they are. The majority of photographs don’t really present them with any references to scale; especially those taken with white or neutral backgrounds. This is certainly the case with the ‘Tricentenary’.
The ‘Winter’ Egg
The 1913 ‘Winter’ egg was originally a gift from Nicholas to his mother. Conceived and developed by Workmaster Alma Pihl, it is one of the most striking and enigmatic of all the Imperial eggs. The designer, having been captivated by seeing ice rivulets forming on a moist window; came to an inspiration that created an effect dramatic yet understated.
The ‘Winter’ egg is made of rock crystal and over 1600 tiny diamonds; as well as platinum, gold, orthoclase and white quartz. All of these jewels and precious materials however are used as elements of the design itself and not for their own sake.
The actual egg ‘shell’ and base are white quartz and orthoclase, with certain features highlighted in platinum. It has a variably opaque surface- often fully transparent. But with no decorative adornment, other than delicate patterns resembling the effects of frost and ice described in diamonds, or incised. To which a hinged door on its side allows access. Inside the egg is a small double-handled trelliswork basket, also made of platinum. Wood Anemones, representative of the rebirth of nature and resurrection, are found inside the basket. These are meticulously rendered from a single piece of white quartz, with gold for the stems and the leaves in nephrite. The centre set with a demantoid garnet.
Ultimately, the ‘Winter’ Egg is a meditation on the true meanings of Easter- in Orthodoxy, a more significant religious event than any other. Yet it also evokes a yearning for the return of Spring; of the sun and ultimately life. Such things are deeply felt in a country like Russia, which has great seasonal variation and contrast. All these themes are bound together in this masterpiece of decorative art, which can be seen in ‘Romance To Revolution’.
Finally, although this might not make much sense, I personally think the small scale of the egg adds to its impact. Also, that when the door is closed, it helps define and emphasise the form of the shell.
The ‘Memory Of Azov’
The ‘Memory of Azov’ was designed to remind Marie Feodorovna of her son’s circuitous 1890 journey across the world as Tsaravich. Given to her by Alexander III in 1891, this egg was produced by Workmasters Michael Perkhin and Yuri Nicolai.
An extraordinarily intricate object, the egg shell was carved from a single piece of heliotrope jasper in a Louis 15th style by Master Stone Carver Karl Werfel. It is evenly encrusted with tiny diamonds, set in each leaf of the golden Rococo plant flourishes on it’s surface.
The egg is hinged near the top and opens, by a drop ruby and diamond clasp, to reveal a green velvet lined interior holding the surprise: a tiny model of the Russian Cruiser ‘Memory of Azov’, crafted by August Holmström. This was the ship aboard which Nicholas had recenty been travelling and is rendered in tiny detail. Platinum with gold filigree rigging and dimonds for the windows, presented on a small oval platter of Aquamarine representing the sea. The model can be removed from the egg by a adjacent loop on the platter.
However, what should have been a memento of a coming of age excursion by her son, turned out to be something else- given that Nicholas was nearly assassinated in Japan during the trip. As a result, ‘Memory of Azov’ might not have been one of Marie’s favourite eggs, but remains a beautiful object nonetheless.
The ‘Mosaic’ is one of the most technically accomplished of all Fabergé’s Imperial eggs; consisting of a small yet incredibly intricate yellow gold and platinum lattice egg shaped frame. This is pavé-set with tiny rosette and brilliant diamonds, sapphires, rubies, emeralds, moonstone, garnet, topaz, half pearls; plus pink matte and white enamel.
The egg was created by August Holmström, but its lattice surface holds a floral mosaic design by Alma Pihl; who seems to have been able to pick up on experiences that most people overlook or ignore and use them as sources for creative reverie. Because this subtle and delicate pattern was inspired by seeing the light from a fireplace through an embroidery. Something that results in a carpet like, stippled or pixel effect.
The surprise inside shows the Tsar’s children in profile, on a white cameo with pink background. Mounted on a bejewelled stand that fits back into the egg. This was Nicholas’s Easter gift to Alexandra in 1914, but it ended up being purchased after the revolution in 1933 by King George V. A gift for Queen Mary which is now part of the Royal Collection. On display in ‘Romance To Revolution’.
Also included in the exhibition is the ‘Peacock’ egg from 1907-8, which was given by Nicholas II to his mother. This is an especially ornate design from Workmaster Dorofeiev and inspired by James Cox’s ‘Peacock Clock’- an 18th century automaton in The Hermitage, once presented by Prince Potemkin to his Empress, Catherine The Great.
This egg is fashioned from clear rock crystal and lies on it’s side, atop an asymmetrical Rococo styled gold base. A clasp holds the two transparent hemispheres that make up the ‘shell’ together; through which you can glimpse a golden tree- the flowing forms of its branches ending with tiny blooms, also rendered in gold. Both of these continue the flow of the scrolling on the base. A similar pattern is etched along the edges of both hemispheres, which are finished with patterned gold.
Sitting in the boughs of the golden tree is the surprise- an intricately engineered Peacock automaton- that can be removed by separating the two hemispheres, as these divide along the centre. When wound up, the Peacock walks and struts along on a flat surface. Stabilised by a balancing rod protruding from it’s side.
Dorofeiev, it was said, worked on the Peacock for three years to get it right. Not only does it possess character, but metallic wings iridescent in blue and green ruffle as it moves.
Recently restored by Swiss watchmaker Michel Parmigiani, this magnificent clockwork bird is an example of how Fabergé and his team could take a subject and embue it with charm. Able to observe the details and querks of a subject and exaggerate these for effect. We see it shown outside the egg for easier viewing.
As a design it is similar in form to the earlier ‘Rock Crystal (with revolving miniatures)’ from 1896- even though this egg sits vertically rather than horizontally. Another similar Imperial egg from this period is the ‘Standart’ by Henrik Wigström. All three of these examples are masterpieces of crystal carving.
The ‘Peacock’ was one of the first eggs Fabergé’s company created after a difficult period of war and revolution in Russia; during which no Imperial eggs were produced. Could it’s Phoenix like appearance perhaps be a metaphor for the survival of the Romanov dynasty? Or of the company or even the nation? Probably not, but its a thought.
The ‘Alexander Palace’ Egg
A year later, Nicholas presented his wife with the Alexander Palace egg, on display in ‘Romance To Revolution’. This was produced by Henrik Wigström under Fabergé’s supervision and depicted the favourite home of the Royal Family. A place it was said they felt safe and at ease, away from the intrigues of Saint Petersburg society.
The egg itself is rendered in green Siberian Nephrite, almost translucent with a complicated golden and bejewelled garland motif decorating the surface. A tiny detailed model of the Alexander Palace is presented on a small gold tray on legs, which fits inside the egg. The enameled light green roof of the Palace matching the egg’s exterior.
On the exterior of the egg are Individual oval portrait watercolours, set behind rock crystal and depicting all of the Tsar’s children. Each one is painted on ivory and surrounded by tiny diamonds. They are poignant reminders of the closeness of the Imperial family- the intimacy of their lives together. Above the portraits is the first letter of each child’s name, elaborately written in jewels. The garlands surrounding these portraits converge under each in ribbon designs and rubies.
It is also possible to see the dates of birth of the children from inside the egg, behind each of their pictures. ‘AF’ for Alexandra Feodorovna is visible atop the ‘shell’, as the five lines which bisect the egg converge.
The beautiful ‘Swan’ egg on display was made as a gift for Marie Feodorovna from the Tsar and presented in 1906. This egg is enamelled in mauve, decorated in rose cut diamonds and arranged in a twisted ribbon trellis pattern. At the base and apex of the ‘shell’ are portrait diamonds.
The top of the egg- designed to shut tight and conceal the door to the interior- can be raised to reveal a basket like aquamarine platter, covered in gold Water Lillies of varying colours.
Fitted into the ‘basket’ rests a silver Swan automaton, based upon another of James Cox’s 18th century (automaton) masterpieces: the ‘Silver Swan’, to be found in Bowes Museum, County Durham. When removed from the basket and wound, the Swan is placed on a flat surface. Activated, it glides and waddles along, lifting its’ head from time to time. All in a most endearing and graceful manner.
Initial research suggested that this egg might have been a gift for Alexandra, because mauve was her favourite- she had her own ‘Mauve Boudoir’ and often wore the colour. But it was subsequently proven to be a gift from Nicholas to his mother.
The ‘Swan’ egg is among the most captivating of them all and a lovely surprise to see in ‘Romance To Revolution’- it wasn’t one I was expecting!
‘Red Cross (With Triptych)’
Compared to earlier examples, the 1915 ‘Red Cross with Triptych’ (on display) looks parred down, without excessive decoration. The ‘shell’ of the egg is characteristically rendered in guilloché enamel; all over in plain white, with two prominent central red crosses, bordered in gold and attached to each side. Its simplicity is a fitting design- because by this point, there was a war of national survival going on and Russia had suffered huge losses. In the centre of each cross is a portrait miniature, also bordered in gold. On one we see the Grand Duchess Tatiana and on the other, the Grand Duchess Olga. Both painted by Vasilii Zuiev. Like their mother the Empress, the two sisters had become trainee nurses to the wounded returning from the Front.
Yet again, Fabergé and Wigström appear to have accurately judged the sentiments of their most significant clients. Even over a century’s distance, this tiny egg has something of the memorial or shrine about it. Although it was actually a personal and private item- commemorating the Nursing efforts of the Empress and her daughters- its features resemble an Icon or some other religious object of intercession or worship. I like to think it might also have been a reminder to the Tsar and his family of the poignant sacrifice of Russia’s people during the First World War.
Hinged at its sides, the egg opens up as a triptych; revealing a golden interior and depicting ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ in its centre (a subject in Christian art symbolic of Anastasis or Resurrection). Saint Olga and Saint Tatiana, painted by Adrian Prachow; are each shown on the adjacent segments- counterpoints of their namesakes on the exterior of the ‘shell’. On one door panel is the Empress’s Crown monogram and initial. On the other the date ‘1915’- the year of its presentation by Nicholas to Alexandra.
This egg captures something of the patriotic faith of the Tsar and his family. Nicholas had always related to the sufferings of the Prophet Job. Resigning himself to whatever fate had in store, because he believed all that occurs is God’s Will. As the tide of events during the war became ever darker and overwhelming for Russia, it is possible to imagine this egg as a small source of solace and consolation for the Imperial Family. A devotional object as they waited in expectation for news from the Front. Even if, in addition to the fact that Russia was acutely unprepared to conduct a modern war; it was their catastrophic wartime leadership that hastened the end of their dynasty.
To my eyes, there is a healing or balming quality about this egg that comes through in the relative severity of the design itself- looking at first glance like something medical or perhaps made by Joseph Beuys.
‘Red Cross (With Imperial Portraits)’
There is a companion to the ‘Red Cross with Triptych’ from the same year, which is similar in design and also produced by Henrik Wigström. The ‘Red Cross with Imperial Portraits’ egg is slightly more ornate and rests in a gold stand. Made of sliver with a white exterior and emblazoned with a red cross; inside this egg are portraits on ivory of Nicholas’s sister Grand Duchess Olga, his daughters the Grand Duchess’s Olga and Tatiana, Empress Alexandra and Grand Duchess Maria, the Tsar’s cousin. All are portrayed in their white wartime nurses’ uniform. The Empress before Marie Feodorovna- Alexandra’s predecessor, it is interesting to note- was also from Hesse-Darmstadt and an actual founder of the Russian Red Cross. Marie Alexandrovna was the first wife of Alexander II: ‘The Tsar Liberator’.
This egg was presented to Marie Feodorovna by Nicholas. The former was President of the Red Cross in Russia and had served in the 1877 Russian Turkish War.
‘Catherine The Great’
The 1914 ‘Catherine The Great’ Imperial egg by Henrik Wigström is missing it’s automata ‘surprise’, which resides separated from the egg itself. This was the automaton of the Empress Catherine, seated in a Sedan chair, which can be wound up, so that her bearers appear to walk along carrying the Queen. It was so extraordinary to Marie Feodorovna that she wrote to her sister Alexandra about Fabergé being ‘incomparable’…..
”the greatest genius of our time”.
Fabergé’s workshops also produced eggs for other, less Regal but no less exclusive customers. Many were masterpieces but not all. In fact, certain examples are rather too fussy, over decorative and cluttered to my eyes- but maybe that’s just me. For the most part however, these were magnificent works of decorative art.
Although not an ‘Imperial’, in ‘Romance To Revolution’, we see the 1902 ‘Rothschild Clock’ egg by Michael Perkhin; rightly regarded as one of the finest Fabergé ever produced. From atop it’s Classical style base, the egg itself sits with a surface decoration in exquisite and complicated gold detail. In it’s centre is the clock. On the hour, from a hatch at the apex of the egg, a cockerel, resplendent in diamonds pops out; his little nodding dance turning into a joyous event. After which, the clock chimes the hour.
The ‘Rothschild Clock’ was created for Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild as an engagement gift to Germaine Halphen, who was betrothed to her brother Édouard. Not only is this egg indicative of the levels of micro-engineering attained by Fabergé’s workshops, but it was reportedly the most expensive.
Next to this egg is a smaller, slightly similar looking variant with the initial ‘Y’ for Youssopov, one of the richest families in Russia. Both are rendered in exceptionally vivid pink guilloché enamel.
The Fate of Surprises
Many ‘surprises’ were taken or sold separately from their eggs and as a consequence, disappeared or are considered lost. With certain examples however, like the 1917 ‘Karelian Birch’ Imperial by Henrik Wigström (presented to Marie Feodorovna); the egg was rediscovered in 2001, but minus the surprise. This was an elephant automaton for which it’s key survives.
Another elephant automaton was recently discovered to belong to August Holmström’s 1892 ‘Diamond Trellis’ egg, thanks to extensive research by Caroline De Guitaut. She estimated that they had been separated since about 1922 and when she fitted the key (from the egg), the automaton set off straight away. Upon further examination, she also found that this elephant surprise was the earliest automaton created by the Fabergé workshops. In this case, by Michael Perkhin. The surprise’s design appears to be based upon the Danish ‘Order Of The Elephant’ and had been gifted to Queen Mary by George V in 1935- it’s connection to the ‘Diamond Trellis’ egg by that time unknown. Both egg and surprise are reunited in ‘Romance To Revolution’.
Over the years, a few eggs once thought lost have resurfaced, in situations where they had previously been unrecognised. Such as the ‘Third Imperial’ from 1887; another gift from Alexander III to Marie Feodorovna, created by August Holmström, which is also on display in the exhibition.
All of which offers the would be Fabergé hunter the faint possibility that one day they may find something truly special out there (ps. let me know if ‘whoever you are’ finds the lost ‘Nécessaire’ egg- I’d really like to see it!).
Fabergé: The Jeweller In A League Of His Own
As I previously noted, Fabergé and his team were at their best when left to realise ideas without interference. That initial edict from Alexander III to produce an Easter gift for his wife, provided them with a flexible enough template to realise very different designs, like the ones outlined above. Each of which- in addition to being an important and high profile commission- resulted in a whole significantly greater than the sum of its parts.
In general, the Imperial eggs were designed to commemorate or in some way document, the private lives of those for whom they were created. In other words, they were not made as public objects, unlike for example the Crown Jewels, which were symbols of pageantry- designed to be conspicuous and radiate the authority of the Crown. Perhaps that is part of the reason we are drawn to them. Because of the hidden stories they tell. Having said that, what happened after the Russian revolution, made certain eggs more widely known. These were exhibited in museums, galleries and even a department store. Lost, sold off cheaply and in one case- so the legend goes- even used as a projectile in a domestic argument. Provenance also added a host of other diverse characters to this eggy saga; finders, buyers or owners including Armand Hammer, Malcolm Forbes and Viktor Vekselberg.²
Although Fabergé and his team might have derived certain ideas, themes, motifs or subjects from earlier periods or styles for their eggs; in the final analysis, nothing diminishes the fact that their work stands out as distinctive and in most cases, unique. Not only are they as desirable as ever, but today the appetite to find or acquire Fabergé eggs remains intense. All despite the fact that the master and his workshops produced superior designs in other forms. The eggs however- through their illustrious provenance- remain perfect embodiments of a lost Royal privilege and continue to eclipse all other designs created by Fabergé and his company.
That all of such a lost world could condense into the space of a tiny egg- each the only one of it’s kind in existence- made them all the more desirable. Yet strangely not in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s revolutionary time of crisis. For example, during the 1920s, the ‘Hen’ egg was sold in London at a giveaway figure less than £100.
Armand Hammer was an American entrepreneur-cum-opportunist, who had contacts among the early Bolsheviks. Known as ‘Lenin’s Chosen Capitalist’, he managed to procure a number of the eggs left in Russia, together with many other items by Fabergé; from the Antikvariat- the Soviet outlet for works and antiquities confiscated or otherwise acquired from the Russian aristocracy. These were taken and introduced to America; thereafter becoming objects of the New World for the rest of the 20th century. Hammer was extremely canny in rebranding Fabergé as an exotic ‘must have’ status symbol, for those wealthy and looking for their own little piece of history. As time passed, the designers’ name became associated with all things luxury: a brand of the jet age with an illustrious back story. Fabergé had become a ‘European with a twist’; famous and eccentric in the American public eye, like Salvador Dali or what remained of the European aristocracy itself. A relic of a lost and poorly misunderstood world, that made good Press.
Publicity is all and Fabergé objects gradually attracted the attention of the grandees of Corporate America. Bidding ever larger sums in the hope of acquiring the ‘best’ pieces- for their executive status and provenance to be sure; but also as a sound investment. This was perhaps a fate not difficult to reconcile with their original role as exclusive tokens of affection or conversation pieces. To paraphrase the late great Malcolm Forbes, who by the 1980s had acquired hundreds of Fabergé pieces, including many eggs: ‘Whoever is left with the most toys is the winner’. Forbes However, like Hammer before him (and Viktor Vekselberg afterwards) wasn’t going to hide away his prizes; instead we’d see him photographed in magazines with armfuls of eggs; smiling as happy as Larry. This fate however, in which aesthetic values played little or no part in relation to celebrity, did tend to obscure the true value of Fabergé’s work- however much fun it all looked. But let’s not be a spoilsport.
In stark contrast to this aura of exclusivity was the fact that during the 70s and 80s; the Fabergé brand was acquired and used to sell toiletries- something not just ironic with a capital Iron; but also wonderfully democratic and American.
So what of Fabergé today? How do we view these objects in the 21st century? Although the subject of umpteenth ‘coffee table’ tomes that are far too heavy to lift or read; in recent years, in addition to increased scholarly interest; the general public are also looking closer at Fabergé’s work as art.
Even though the objects themselves inevitably remain the preserve of the super rich, all of the media attention around anything with the monikers ‘Fabergé’ or ‘Royalty’ attached; ultimately help to propagate a curiosity which has led to even greater interest. Thankfully for us ordinary mortals, well thought out and substantial exhibitions like ‘Fabergé In London: Romance To Revolution’ bring us closer to these objects of history. Putting- sorry about this, but I’ve got to say it at least once- The Fab back in Fabergé.
(c) Gideon Hall 2022
1. In fact the Hydrogen Bomb design, later developed by the Soviets under Andrei Sakharov, was called a ‘Layer Cake’. Concentric spheres layered upon each other.
2. A tale further told by Toby Faber in his 2008 book ‘Fabergé’s Eggs’.