The Glory of Fabergé

With snow forecast and flurries already falling we had to cancel our March lecture. Luckily we were able to rearrange it and, this time in glorious sunshine, Clare Phillips took us on a wonderful journey through amazing examples of Fabergé’s work.

Born in 1846, in St Petersburg, he studied in Dresden and was tutored in goldsmithing in Frankfurt, France and England before returning to the family jewellery business. He assisted in an appraisal of The Hermitage Collections and gained an appreciation of different levels of craftsmanship. His younger brother worked with him until his early death in 1895. The family firm built up an unsurpassed reputation. Shops opened in Moscow and Odessa and in1903 London. The company looked East as well as west and in 1913 the Siamese Court ordered a huge collection to mark the Year of the Pig. The eggs were the most prestigious commissions but were only a tiny part of his output. A wide range of luxury goods underpinned his success. Each piece exquisitely made. Before 1914 and the 1917 revolutions, his clients included many of the crowned heads of Europe. His work not only brought delight but also induced an inquisitive instinct in the recipients. Often concert performers would visit the St Petersburg workshop and indicate pieces they’d like their admirers to buy!

The Rose Trellis Egg, presented by Tsar Nicholas II to his wife, Alexandra Fedorovna, Easter 1907. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Tsar Alexander was impressed by the superb quality of Fabergé’s craftsmanship and in 1884 gave it the equivalent of a Royal Warrant to the Imperial Court. Alexander commissioned an Easter egg as a gift for the Tsarina. It began an annual tradition, continued by his son, Nicholas. That Hen Egg had a gold enamelled shell with a gold yolk inside, enclosing a gold chicken that opened to reveal a miniature Imperial Crown. The 1898 Lily of the Valley Egg, in the Art Nouveau style, recalled one of the Tsarina’s favourite flowers. Nephrite-Jade was used for the leaves as it didn’t crack so easily when carved. Over 50 of these eggs were made. Each had to contain a surprise. No design was repeated and political events were avoided. Russia was rich in minerals and semi-precious stones and this was to Fabergé’s advantage in production of his creations.

Not obviously expensive except for the box, his hardstone sculptures were very popular. The London shop sold 250 of which 170 are in the Queen’s collection. The Fabergé elephants range from charm size to 3.5“. As a present for Queen Alexandra, Edward V11 gave him a commission to copy all the animals at Sandringham. A spotted dormouse of 1911 was a favourite of Queen Alexandra. More complex were the hard stone figures; portraits of recognizable figures or statues of figures seen such as the 6” High Street Vendor. While his competitors offered up to 70 enamel shades, Fabergé offered 144 and used more layers of enamel than others. The 1900 Paris Exhibition, being the first time Fabergé’s work was seen widely outside court circles, brought in a lot of business. Picture frames were a large part of the business. Using 1300 diamonds in the settings, he made in miniature the regalia of the Russian Royal family.

A chinchilla carved in grey chalcedony with cabochon sapphire eyes mounted in gold, Fabergé c.1910. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

In a natural light environment, the workshops employed 2 to 300 quite young workers. The Russian shops were busiest at Easter and in London it was Christmas. The closer Russia came to collapse, the more exquisite and decadent the jewellery became. Committed to producing the finest quality at the best possible price, the 1898 Mail Order Catalogue offered a wide range of goods from a 3.5 rubles simple brooch to a large diamond necklace at 35,000 rubles. Fabergé was unusual in allowing their hallmarks to include the initials of the workmaster. With the outbreak of war many of the workforce were conscripted and the St Petersburg workshops produced grenades. After the Revolution, Fabergé put the company in the hands of the employees. Most of the possessions of those who remained in Russia were confiscated. Many of the pieces are in Europe and USA today as the Bolsheviks sold pieces to Western leaders until 1938.

At our next meeting on Thursday September 6 at 2pm in Grayshott Village Hall, Janet Canetty-Clarke will guide us through one of the operas being relayed live to Haslemere Hall this autumn.

For more information please contact Caroline on 01428714276.