Some of Russia's most famous works of art are Faberge eggs created by the Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergè as Easter presents for tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II, their families and other aristocratic clients like the gold-mining industrialist Alexander Ferdinandovich Kelch. Fabergé usually delivered the eggs himself as they were received with great pomp and ceremony. At least 53 Imperial eggs were created between 1885 and 1916. The majority of them were given to the two tsarinas: Maria Feodorovna and Alexandra . Only 43 survive. Eight are unaccounted for. [Source: Randy Sue Coburn, Smithsonian magazine]

Fabergé eggs contain thimble-sized palaces, miniature gilded carriages and entire trains the length of a worm. The ten jewel-and-enamel Fabergé eggs are in the Kremlin Armory collection. Usually only some of them are displayed at one time. One opens up like a clamshell, revealing a gold- plated globe inside. Decorated with tiny portraits of the Romanov family, this tiny work of art was a gift from Nicholas II to his wife Alexandra in 1913. Another one made from jade, rubies and diamonds opens to a gold model of the Alexander Palace, the favorite home of the royal family. Another opens to reveal a gold Trans Siberian train with a platinum engine and a ruby headlamp.

Fabergé also made fancy umbrella handles, rocaille boxes, rock-crystal pots, delightful animal carved into natural stones, and cigarette cases with maps made with three different colors of gold and cities marked with diamonds and precious stones. Fabergé made an agate pig with ruby eyes and carnelian teats. The highest price ever paid for a clock was $1,652,500 for a clock made Fabergé sold in New York in 1996.

Fabergés and Their Business

Fabergé cam efrom a long line of Huguenot jewelers that had their roots in France but migrated to the Baltic region after the Huguenots were forced leave France after the 1685 revocation of the Treaty of Nantes. Carl's grandfather became a Russian subject. His Estonian-born father Gustav opened a jewelry and goldsmith shop in 1842. in St. Petersburg, where the Russian tsars had their home.

Carl was Gustav's eldest son. He studied at the elite Gymnasium Svetaya Anna and completed his education in Dresden. He served as an apprentice to the goldsmith Friedmann in Frankfurt am Main. During a grand tour of Europe, he carefully studied the works of art in the Louvre and watched the master goldsmiths and enamelers at work in Florence. He returned to St. Petersburg in 1870 at the age of 24 and took over his father' business.

In 1882, Carl was joined by his talented younger brother Agathon. The two of them made a big impression at Moscow's Pan-Russian Exhibition, where their pieces were distinguished by their emphasis on design rather than expensive materials. Their work was awarded a Gold Medal and drew the attention of Alexander III.

The Fabergé's work attracted international attention at the Paris Exhibition in 1900, where Fabergé was given a Légion d'Honneur. The small Faberge shop grew into an impressive four-story building with workshops and apartments for family members. Carl Fabergé was known as a tough but fair boss who handsomely rewarded his workers for their long hours and tedious work. At one time he employed 500 craftsmen. His success was based more on his management style than his personal skill.

Queen Alexandra, the sister of Marie Feodorovna, was the consort of King Edward VII of England. Edward often gave his wife Fabergé presents and friends gave Edward Fabergé gifts. Fabergé artisans made models of all the animals at Sandringham—the king’s estate—out of nephrite, obsidian, rock crystal and jasper.

Fabergè Egg History

The first Fabergé egg was designed for Alexander III to give to his wife Marie Feodorovna. Rather simple and understated, it was white on the outside and contained a golden yoke inside with a little golden hen with rubies for eyes. It was give to Marie in 1884, the same year the House of Fabergé received a Royal Warrant. Nicholas II's wife Alexandra were particularly found of the Fabergè eggs. The tsar gave eggs not only to her but to his mother as well.

The Fabergè eggs were made under a shroud of secrecy and their owners usually kept them in their private apartments. A couple Fabergè eggs were displayed at the Paris Exposition in 1900, when Fabergè received a medal, but the general public for the most part wasn't aware of the eggs’ existence until Fabergè died in 1920.

It has been said that Faberge’s "diamond encrusted baubles helped spark the communist revolution" for what they represented. The Easter eggs and other costly display items were ingenious in design and superb in workmanship. Most were mundane conceptions whose principal purpose was conspicuous consumption.

Faberge wasn’t the first to make enamel and jewel eggs. In the 18th and 19th century, members of the Russian ruling family exchanged enamel eggs at Easter made by the Imperial Porcelain Factory. The eggs were decorated with landscapes and icons of Russian patron saints. Of the 1,000 or s remaining eggs about 250 of them are owned by Harold Whitbuck of San Francisco. The best enameled eggs made today come from the Petrochenkov, a jeweler in St. Petersburg.

Fabergè Egg Features

With his Easter eggs, Fabergé had a free hand to create anything he wanted as long it housed some kind of surprise hidden inside. Many Fabergé eggs contained a cleverly placed pearl or diamond that when pushed, opened the egg, revealing portraits of the royal family, singing birds, royal crowns or some other delight.

The Fabergés were regarded as masters of combining difficult materials: different colored golds, translucent and matte enamels and precious and semi-precious stones. His signature “en plein” and “guilloché” enameling were prized for its even quality and smoothness and required such high temperatures and complicated processes that are rarely used today.

Carl Fabergé usually carried his passport in the case he was called on to appear in a European capital to assist a client. His biographer and Fabergé shop manager Henry Bainbridge wrote, " He always lived very much to the point, conditioning himself very much to the business of the moment. The whole man was sharpened and there was no waste about his actions or speech."

Famous Fabergè Eggs

One of Fabergè's most famous works, the Pine Cone Egg, contained a scalloped blue enamel shell with swags of tiny diamonds. Inside was a walnut-size mechanical elephant that, when wound, swished its tail, moved its head, and moved forward. In 1989, the Pine Cone egg was auctioned at Christies for $3.1 million and bought by Joan Kroc, the widow of the founder of McDonald’s. In 1994, the Imperial Winter egg brought $5.6 million.

The Coronation Egg, given by Nicholas II to Alexandra in 1896 to mark their coronation, took a 23-year-old craftsmen 15 months to make. It is a golden egg with replica of their coronation coach inside made with rock-crystal windows, platinum tires and diamond-set gold trellis. The Renaissance Egg looks like a miniature pink decorated punch bowl and cover. Given by Alexander III to Marie, it was topped by the date (1894) set in diamonds.

Fabergé's "Tricentennial" egg contains 18 miniature portraits of all 18 Romanov monarchs. Other famous Fabergé eggs include the Spring Flowers Egg, given by Alexander III to Marie in 1889, with a gold-and-strawberry-red enamel cover stamped with the Imperial Warrant and platinum basket inside with diamond roses and green garnet and white chalcedony flowers.

Fabergè Egg Collection

As of 2004 the largest collections of Fabergè eggs are owned by the Kremlin (10) and Forbes magazine (9). The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in the United States owned five. Queen Elizabeth owned three. Others were in Monaco and Switzerland. Armand Hammer and Marjorie Meriweather Post were serious collectors of Fabergé Easter eggs and icons.

The Forbes collection was the largest private collection of Faberge eggs. It contained the Lily of the Valley egg, encrusted with gold, enamel, diamonds, rubies, pearls and rock crystal. The goal of the Forbes family—the owners of Forbes magazine—was to create a collection larger than the Kremlins In 2004, the Forbes collection of nine Faberge eggs and 180 other Faberge pieces was put on the market. Their total value was listed at $90 million to $120 million, with the eggs alone set to fetch between $65 million and $95 million.

The sale was a major event. Only seven eggs had been auctioned in the previous 65 years. One sold by Christies in April 2002 went for $9.57 million,. The Soviets only allowed their sale in 1930.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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