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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution

Fabergé, Tiara,1904, Artie & Dorothy McFerrin Collection, Houston Museum of Natural Sciences

Victoria & Albert Museum until 8 May 2022

The Victorian & Albert Museum in London is holding an exhibition that is sold out from months, dedicated to one of the most famous craftsmen and jeweller of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century: Peter Carl Fabergé.

Although the production of the Fabergé firm was active for a relative short period from 1882 to 1917, its fame was remarkable and international.

Many are the reasons of its fame: unrivalled technical mastery and craftmanship, an innovative instinct, a high organized workshop, highly specialised craftsmen and the ability to transform an everyday object in a piece of art. The unicity in the Fabergé’s work originated by the combination of several sources from antiques to oriental art, from the Louis XV style to the Art Nouveau.

The majority of the objects were unique handcraft pieces based on designs that won’t be repeated in other objects.

Fabergé's paternal ancestors were Huguenots, who fled from France first to Berlin, then in 1800’s to the Baltic province of Livonia, part of the Russia Empire.

Peter Carl was one of the sons of Gustav Fabergé, the founder of the famous jewellery legacy House of Fabergé.

He studied at the beginning with his father and after he embarked upon a Grand Tour of Europe where he studied in Frankfurt, Dresden and Florence before to return to St. Petersburg and took the sole responsibility for running the family business.

In the Pan-Russian Exhibition held in Moscow in 1882, he replicated perfectly a gold bangle from the Kertch (or Shintyan) jewels in the Hermitage Museum. Fabergé was awarded a gold medal and gained the admiration of the Tsar, Alexander III.

This was the start of Fabergé’s long-lasting relationship with the Russian Imperial Family, that allowed the firm to shift its focus from the jewels that had brought it to the spotlight, to the objets de fantasie for which it is now famous for, Fabergé eggs.

The Fabergé eggs started in 1885 when he was assigned the title Goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown of that year.

The Tzar Alexander III wanted to gift his wife the Empress Maria Feodorovna with an Easter Egg to celebrate the twenty years anniversary from their engagement.

He commissioned the egg to the Fabergé house so the first egg was born as precious and sophisticated one.

Fabergé, Hen Egg, containing miniature Hen, 1884-5, Fabergé Museum, St. Petersburgh

It is made of gold completely coated with opaque white enamel to look like a real egg and as many other Fabergé eggs, has a Matryoshka’s structure. The surprise is a round "yolk" of gold with a matte finish.

This yolk itself opens to reveal a varicoloured gold hen set with ruby eyes. The hen is hinged on the tail feathers which allows it to also open up to reveal still two further surprises, a gold and diamond replica of the imperial crown and a tiny ruby pendant that was suspended within it on a chain, both of which are now lost.

This type of egg is believed to have been inspired by an ivory hen egg made for the Danish Royal Collection in the 18th century. The egg is also a symbol in the Orthodox Easter of rebirth and of the arriving of the spring after the really cold Russian winter.

The Tsarina was impressed and delighted by the Easter egg and Alexander decided to commission on an annual basis. After that, Peter Carl Fabergé was apparently given complete freedom to design future imperial Easter eggs, and their designs became more elaborate, the only requirements were that each contain a surprise, and that each be unique.

After Alexander III's death on 1 November 1894, his son, Nicholas II, presented a Fabergé egg to both his wife, Alexandra Fedorovna, and his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna. Records have shown that of the 50 imperial Easter eggs were created till the Russian revolution in 1917.

The Fabergé House was organised in several independent workshops highly specialised in a particular material.

Peter Carl Fabergé, sorting gemstones, 1905, Wartski, London

The skill craftsmen of several ages were coming from different places of the Russian Empire (with different language, religion and customs) and they were working all together in the same tables solving structural problems and bringing innovation and creativity.

Despite the large number of workmasters working for him, Fabergé had full control and supervision of the design and the production process, ensuring the highest quality standards and a consistency throughout the firm’s output.

As you might expect the last and largest gallery is given over to a breathtaking display of the Imperial legendary Easter Eggs. It is the largest display of these in a generation and many are being shown in the UK for the first time. Some of them were designed by Alma Theresia Pihl, one of the few women employed in the workshop of St Petersburg but her unicity is that she was one of the best designers of Fabergé. She belonged to a Finnish jeweller family, she was the granddaughter head jeweller August Holmstrom and the niece of Albert head jeweller August Holmström, both employed in Fabergé. Alma displayed a natural talent for drawing at a very early age and at the age of 20, she was employed as a draftsman at the workshop of her uncle, Albert Holmström, then Fabergé's chief jeweller.

Alma Pihl, designer at her uncle Albert Holmström, 1912
Alma Pihl, Ice Shard Pendant, 1913, Artie & Dorothy McFerrin Collection, Houston Museum of Natural Sciences

Alma designed jewels but she became famous for two Easter Eggs: the Winter Easter Eggs (1913) and the Mosai Easter (1914).

Alma Pihl, Winter Egg, 1912-13, Private collection

The first Egg, the winter Egg, was created by Alma for the Empress Maria Fedorovna, commissioned by his son the Tzar Nicholas II, was considered the most expensive Eggs ever done with a cost in 1913 of 24.700 rubbles. The exterior of the egg resembles frost and ice crystals formed on clear glass. It is studded with 1,660 diamonds, and is made from quartz, platinum, and orthoclase. The miniature surprise flower basket is studded with 1,378 diamonds and is made from platinum and gold, while the wood anemones are made of white quartz and the leaves are made of demantoid.

Alma Pihl, Mosaic Egg, 1913-14, The Royal Collection, H. M. Queen Elizabeth II

The mosaic Egg was commissioned by the Tzar Nicolas II for his wife Alexandra in 1914. Alma Pihl designed the egg as a mosaic that was inspired by needlework fire screens found in aristocratic sitting rooms of the time.

The Egg was made of yellow gold, platinum, brilliant diamonds, rose-cut diamonds, ruby, emerald, topaz, sapphire, garnet, half-pearls, moonstone, white enamel and opaque pink enamel.

This is one of the most original creations and sophisticated structure of the Fabergé Easter Eggs: it is made by a yellow gold frame that hold a platinum grid which are pavé-set with diamonds and a variety of gems in a floral pattern, providing a look of petit point tapestry work.

The platinum grid the stone are perfectly cut to be place in the small places in the grid and some of them are left empty to create the effect of a non-finished work. The technical precision of the design was complemented by platinum that was cut, rather than welded. The surprise is a jewelled and enamelled gold frame holding an enamel portrait of the Tzar and Empress’s five children in profile.

In 1900, Fabergé's work represented Russia at the World's Fair in Paris. The House was awarded a gold medal and the city's jewellers recognized Carl Fabergé as a maître.

What sets Fabergé apart from his contemporaries such as Cartier or Tiffany, is the unrivalled technical mastery and craftsmanship in each object.

Fabergé, in addition to its Saint Petersburg headquarters, expanded the company with branches in Moscow, Odessa, Kiev and London.

Despite his personal success in Paris, Fabergé didn’t choose the French capital for the opening of the only shop outside Russia but London.

One of the principle reasons was that the King Edward VII married the Princess Alexandra of Denmark, sister of the Empress Maria Fedorovna of Russia, great Fabergé’s collector, another reason was that London being the capital of the British Empire received royalty, aristocrats, American heiresses, exiled Russian Grand Dukes, Maharajas, financiers with newly-made fortunes, and socialites flocked to the boutique (opened in 1903 and later moved to New Bond Street in 1911) to buy gifts of unparalleled luxury for each other.

Fabergé's premises at 173 New Bond Street, Fersman Mineralogical Museum, Moscow

The British Royal Family had a collection of more than 800 objects by Fabergé, many of which were presented as gift among the royal families.

Edward VII and Queen Alexandra were some of the greater collectors of Fabergé as King George V, his sister Princess Victoria and his wife Queen Mary and later Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.

Sandringham Hall, Norfolk, photograph, by Sir Benjamin Stone, 1907, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra loved to escape and relax with the court in Sandringham, their countryside house, where they pursued their interest in animal husbandry, as horses and dogs.

This gave the inspiration to the London branch of Fabergé to adapt to the simplest taste of the British court that preferred simplicity to the pointless luxury.

This allowed to create “the Sandringham commission”, that arose from the demand for Fabergé gifts to give to the King and Queen. The collection uniting their passion for the animals kept at Sandringham and the pleasure they derived from Fabergé's lapidary works (cutting, polishing and engraving gems and stones).

The collection also respected the believe that the 'art of royal present giving' have to rest on the gift costing as little as possible.

Fabergé sent an artist named Boris Frödman-Cluzel from Russia to sculpt the preparatory wax models of the animals at Sandringham.

The wax models of horses, gooses, ducks, turkeys and dog were sent to Russia and Fabergé's lapidaries in St. Petersburg carved all but two in hardstone. Fabergé exploited Russia's immense mineral wealth to find suitable hardstones for the Sandringham carvings. The stones were chosen for their colours and markings to mimic those of the original animals.

Fabergé, Norfolk Black Turkey, 1908-09, The Royal Collection, H. M. Queen Elizabeth II
Fabergé, Hoe Forest King, 1908, The Royal Collection, H. M. Queen Elizabeth II

Some of the pieces in the Sandringham commission were mosaics made from a combination of hardstones.

Fabergé, Persimmon, 1908, The Royal Collection, H. M. Queen Elizabeth II

The two Sandringham models not made in hardstones were instead made from silver – Persimmon, King Edward's prized racehorse, and a Borzoi hound named Vassilka were both cast in silver and mounted on hardstone bases.

Fabergé, Vassilka, 1908, The Royal Collection, H. M. Queen Elizabeth II

Vassilka was one of a pair of Borzois given to King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra by Empress Marie Feodorovna and Emperor Alexander III of Russia.

Fabergé also supplied a portrait of King Edward's favourite dog Caesar, carved in white onyx and wearing an enamel gold collar inscribed 'I belong to the King', identical to that on Caesar's actual collar.

Fabergé, Caesar, 1910, The Royal Collection, H. M. Queen Elizabeth II

Some of the everyday objects were made with an extreme elegance and beauty as the cigarette cases.

Fabergé, cigarette case, 1905, The Royal Collection, H. M. Queen Elizabeth II

One of the most beautiful was made by Fabergé in 1908 in red gold fired with layers of translucent royal blue enamel over an engraved moiré ground and decorated with diamonds shaping a snake holding its tail, known as an Ouroboros, and symbol of eternal love.

The cigarette case was commissioned by Alice Keppel, mistress of King Edward VII, who gifted to the king in 1908. At the death of the king in 1910, the Queen returned several Fabergé gifts given to the King by his close friends to be and enduring keepsake of their relationship.

Mrs Keppel returned in 1936 the case to royal hands by sending it to Queen Mary to be added to the Royal collection of Fabergé.

Fabergé, Wild rose, 1908, Private collection

In the Royal collection holds several of Fabergé’s flower studies, 27 of the 80 made, that were inspired from nature, from the oriental art and from the bouquets of jewels of the 18th century design for the court.

The time and the skills request to make these objects are reflected in the cost of the production and materials and in the selling costs that were remarkable.

The delicacy of the objects, the finely engraved flowers, leaves, stems and the use of rock crystal that give the impression of being a half-filled glass, made these objects unique.

The golden period of Fabergé was arriving to an end.

The outbreak of the First world war in 1914 stopped the hedonistic existence of all of his clients, making the expensive research of beautiful objects completely inappropriate.

In Russia after the revolution of 1917 all of Fabergé's workshops were confiscated by the Bolshevik and conscripted to produce munitions, cancelling their business and selling all the remaining objects to support the revolution.

The London branch closed definitely in 1917.

Peter Carl Fabergé never recovered from the shock of the Russian Revolution. He died as a refugee in Switzerland on September 24, 1920.

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