Peter Karl Faberge became a staple in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1882, when he received several awards at the Pan-Russian Expedition in Moscow. Several years later, in 1885, Faberge was named Jeweller to the Tsars by Alexander III and became the most famous Russian jeweller. Faberge has been a personal fascination of mine for some time, long enough that I can’t remember when I was first introduced to it. I have always been fascinated by intricately detailed works of art, mostly because I will never have the patience to even begin a work of art with any detail. Since that was not the case I thought I would introduce Faberge to the world from perspectives, such as mine and a few fellow students as well as our guide from the Faberge Museum, Helen. Faberge is, for some reason, relatively unknown by people outside of Russia, Russian studies, and art critics. The pieces I will discuss are important in a cultural sense because they were created in a very turbulent time of Russian history.
The Faberge Company has always been an important establishment in St Petersburg. Karl Faberge and his employees built their fame around their beautiful and extravagant creations. When Alexander III began the tradition of giving the gift of an egg on Easter to his wife, Faberge’s popularity became prominent in high society. These eggs gained popularity because of their amazing craftsmanship and beauty, but Faberge created more than just Imperial Easter Eggs. His workshops also crafted other jewelry and trinkets including timepieces, necklaces, and cigarette boxes to name a few. Karl Faberge’s works impacted Russia in the last thirty years of the Romanov Dynasty, and to this day still remind the world of the grandeur and lavishness of the Imperial Era.
After his debut in the Moscow Pan-Russian Exhibit of 1882, Faberge’s works became noticed by the Tsar and his adoration of the First Imperial Egg brought Faberge fame, especially when he was named jeweler of the Imperial Court in 1885. This meant that Faberge had the opportunity to create all of the Imperial family’s accessories and exclusively use the double headed eagle symbol. The Faberge workshop was nationalized during the Soviet Union and the majority of works owned by the Romanovs were sold to private buyers to create funds for state support. For fear of the Bolsheviks, Faberge fled to Germany where he fell ill, and eventually died in Lausanne, Switzerland on September 24, 1920. Outside of the Soviet Union, Faberge’s works were becoming prominent after having been sold by the Bolsheviks. Seven of the fifty two Imperial eggs are lost, five of which are suspected to have been destroyed. The most recent discovery of an Imperial egg was in 2015, when a man in the Midwestern United States bought the Third Imperial Egg from a flea market for $14,000. He was planning to sell it for a quick profit, but soon discovered the egg’s real worth, thirty three million dollars, and sold it to a private collector. These eggs are not just coveted by museums, but by private collectors like Viktor Vekselberg, who owns the Imperial eggs in the Faberge Museum in St. Petersburg, or Majorie Merriweather Post, the buyer of two Imperial eggs and many other Faberge pieces that are now housed at the Hillwood Estate in Washington, D.C.
Beginning in 1885, Emperor Alexander III began the tradition of commissioning and giving these eggs. In the Orthodox Church, it is traditional to gather eggs around Easter time, paint them, and then bring them into church for a blessing. Alexander III took tradition one step further by designing an egg with Faberge for his wife, the Empress Maria Fedorovna, and commissioned Faberge to craft an egg of precious metals and stones. Traditionally, the tsar and Faberge’s craftsmen worked closely together to create these eggs, which became a tradition of giving within the Romanov family. The eggs, and other pieces by Faberge, are very representative of St. Petersburg because the lavishness, while tasteful, portrayed the old Russian nobility. Jewels were the way for nobility to segregate themselves from the non-nobles. St. Petersburg was the traditional home of the tsars and it shows. After Peter the Great constructed the “Venice of the North,” the great families of Russia were forced to move there to govern Russia. At court, lavishness and opulence were everywhere, and someone had to fabricate the jewelry for the nobles. These people were Faberge’s most constant clients, and they treated him and his company with utmost respect.
Imperial eggs were crafted of precious metals and stones that Faberge procured and learned to craft as an apprentice in Paris while his father was founding the main workshop on Bolshaya Morskaya Street in St. Petersburg. Not only are the eggs works of art, but all represent an important event in the lives of the Romanovs and the Russian people, including the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad (1900) or the tercentenary of the Romanov dynasty (1913). Fifty-two eggs were created in the span of thirty-two years, but these were Romanov Imperial eggs. Other eggs were created by Faberge’s workshop for other people, including the Rothschild family, the Duchess of Marlborough, and Alexander Kech. These eggs are not as lavish as the Imperial eggs, but are still of the highest quality craftsmanship offered by Faberge. Many authors have written about Faberge, whether entire books devoted to Faberge, or just fiction based upon a piece or pieces of his craftsmanship. Nicholas B.A. Nicholson’s the Object of Virtue tells the story of a lost figurine, Snegurochka, a fictional Faberge figurine, and her reemergence into the world. The main character’s family used to own the figurine in pre-Bolshevik Russia, but now the main character works for the auction house in New York City that is selling it. In the end, the figurine is sold and old family drama reconciled. I was fascinated by the description of the figurine, and quickly wondered what happened to other pieces of Faberge post-1917 and during World War II. There are many movies and documentaries about missing art, including Monuments Men and a documentary series called Raiders of the Lost Art. Movies and documentaries have the ability to capture and engage audiences about topics they previously were aware of.
Many other authors and scholars write on Faberge and his designs and their effect on their buyers and admirers. There are several compilations of Faberge’s sketches and drawings in the Earl Gregg Swem Library. Several other books have biographies of Faberge, his family, his craftsmen, and some of his clientele, like Faberge Eggs: Imperial Russian Fantasies by the Faberge Firm. Faberge not only created pieces for the Romanov’s but for other prominent Russian families and wealthy clients outside of the Russian empire, including the British Royal Family. The clientele of Faberge in St Petersburg, London, Odessa, Moscow, and Kiev created a large demand for the finely crafted items. After the 1917 Revolution, the firm was shut down because the Faberge family had to flee from the Bolsheviks. Faberge’s name generally evokes past glories, but even now the firm creates small jewelry and timepieces that represent what Faberge was before Soviet collectivization.
Faberge and St Petersburg are collectively a site of memory because both represent a time period in Russia that is long since gone. The end of the Romanov dynasty proved to be a trying time in Russian history, with tensions between the nobility and Bolsheviks. Faberge’s company created pieces that define their short thirty-year prominence through precious stones, metals, and extravagance. With the dawn of the Soviet Union, lavish pieces of art and jewelry were sold to create more funds for the state. The pieces are now spread across the world, but are still inherently Russian. In the end, by selling much of their art, the Soviets ensured that these previously privately owned treasures would be consumed by the publicand collectors alike.
Faberge in Real Life
In July 2016, I had the opportunity, together with our group, to tour first the Hermitage Museum and the Faberge Museum. Our guide, a Russian woman called Helen, created a conducive atmosphere for the enjoyment of learning and made us feel much safer when the babushkas in the rooms tried to shoo us out. Helen was sarcastic, witty, and sharply intelligent. She had an opinion on every tsar or tsarina and all of the paintings she showed us. When I learned that she would be leading one of the two groups at the Faberge Museum, I was ecstatic. So, the day finally arrived for our visit to the
museum. I had my camera charged and in hand ready to see all of the pieces. The entrance to the museum is flanked by a lavish staircase with lush red carpet and pristine white carved walls. People were milling about and once we had placed our bags in lockers and put on booties to protect the flooring, we had permission to go upstairs to view the exhibits. Once on the stairs it was quiet, and we had our
earpieces in listening to Helen while she told us about the architecture of the palace. The first room after climbing the stairs was full of silver. Silver platters, plates, samovars, and clocks filled well-lit glass cases. Here Helen informed us that Faberge and his company were the only people allowed to use the insignia of the Romanovs in their work. The silver was all used in its time and are incredible examples of craftsmanship.
This elaborately crafted double headed eagle was placed on top of a samovar crafted in a Faberge workshop for the Romanov family. The silver is beautiful and elegant, but the next rooms held the real treasures. The next room opened up to reveal nine glass cases evenly spaced throughout the room, which was lavish itself. The walls had blue satin wallpaper and thick blue velvet curtains with gold trim, which just added to the ambiance. In each glass case there was an Imperial Egg. When entering the room, hushed voices were excitedly discussing each egg, it’s design, and it’s surprise. Nine Imperial Eggs reside in the Faberge Museum, all of them owned by Viktor Vekselberg. The most famous eggs there are the First Imperial Egg, or the Hen Egg, which was the first of the series given to Maria Feodorovna by Alexander III. Another is the Imperial Coronation Egg, made in 1897 and was gifted to Alexandra Feodorovna. The egg itself is crafted of gold with yellow enamel to represent the robe the tsarina wore during her coronation. The surprise was a replica of the coronation chariot that currently resides in the Moscow Kremlin.
My personal favorite egg was the Renaissance Egg, crafted in 1894 for Maria Feodorovna. It simple in design, but exquisitely crafted. A renaissance-esque lattice pattern made of gold and emeralds covers the top half of the egg and the egg itself is made of an opaque stone. This was the last egg Alexander III gave to his wife, and the surprise it lost, but is speculated to either be pearls or another egg, the Resurrection Egg. The more popular
theory is that the Resurrection Egg is the surprise of the Renaissance egg because the pattern on the base of Resurrection matches
the pattern that covers the top of Renaissance and Resurrection perfectly fits inside of the Renaissance Egg. What I enjoy
about the Renaissance Egg is its simplicity. Many of the Imperial Eggs are so extremely lavish that there is almost too much too take in, but that is not the case with the Renaissance.
Helen had so many facts to say about these eggs that I couldn’t absorb all of them while attempting to take the perfect photos for this blog post. What I do remember was her showing us a mantlepiece in a room, this mantelpiece was where the Shuvalov family hid their precious belongings before fleeing Russia during the 1917 Revolution. This fact in particular struck me because these families assumed they would come back to their homes, or even to Russia, but they never did. One of Helen’s favorite pieces in the museum was an intricately carved and detailed samovar with cups. The reason she loved this particular piece so much was because it looked like if you touched it, you would feel linen, not metal.
This is a close up of the metal linen Helen loved so much, but when you were farther away from the case, you could not tell whether it was linen or metal. Faberge’s craftsmen were experts in their respective crafts, and the museum showcases it excellently.
My experience with Faberge seemed to capture what most of Saint Petersburg is, especially near Palace
Square. Mansions of the old nobility line the streets, even though they now house businesses or museums. The city itself is a replica of what Saint Petersburg was built for, and in some areas the Soviet influence is minimal. Looking at these elaborate and finely crafted pieces of art, or as the Bolsheviks
thought, expensive junk, I was struck by what these items really are: sites of memory. Memory isn’t just held in a physical place, but in times as well. When looking at an Imperial Egg, I wondered what Faberge
thought when he was designing it, what joy the tsarina showed when she received it, and what the first owner after the fall of the Imperial Family thought when they finally held it. These eggs and some other items hold more memory and significance than many buildings in Saint Petersburg. Once the lost Imperial Eggs resurface, there will be much more history and memory to discover. Saint Petersburg and Faberge are intertwined in their opulence, luxury, and memory, there cannot be one without the other.