The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of Fabergé
The ancestors of the Fabergé family fled from France in 1685 and again found themselves fleeing Russia in 1918. In today's art market, the extremely valuable remaining Fabergé Easter Eggs represent the great legacy of the house that created the most opulent, sought-after jewelry and decorative objects in Imperial Russia.
A Brief History of the Fabergé Family
Originating in northern France, the Huguenot Favri family was forced to leave the country when King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, removing protection for Protestants in a mainly Catholic France. They settled in Pernau in Estonia, during the 1800s. Gustav Fabergé, a descendant of the Favri’s, was born in 1814 and later traveled to St. Petersburg to apprentice as a goldsmith before working for the Keibel firm, who served as jewelers and goldsmiths for the Russian Emperors. After his apprenticeship ended in 1842, Gustav added the accent to the end of Fabergé—giving it the famous Faber-“jay” pronunciation we know today—and opened a jewelry shop in the fashion district of St. Petersburg. He married Charlotte Jungste, and the couple had a son in 1846 they named Peter Carl.
Growing up, Peter Carl traveled Europe, taking apprenticeships and courses in England, Germany, and France, all the while visiting museums and seeing the works of the Old Masters along with other treasures of Europe. He returned to St. Petersburg in 1866, got married, and began working in his father’s shop, where he worked with and restored masterpieces, picked up forgotten techniques used in the past, and worked with gold and enamel. In 1882 he took over the company and quickly gained distinction. Tsar Alexander III saw his work at the Pan Russian exhibition and ordered it displayed at the Hermitage (a palace and museum for the Imperial art collection) as an exemplar of contemporary Russian craftsmanship.
In 1885 Tsar Alexander commissioned a special Easter Egg for his wife, Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, and gave Fabergé the title of “goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown”. Per Fabergé tradition, the eggs all contained surprises within them: a clock or mechanism, a portrait, or a small figure. The first egg Fabergé created as a gift for the Tsarina is known as the First Hen. Inside the white egg halves is a golden yolk, and inside the yolk, the recipient would have found a small crowned and golden hen. The crown for the hen is now lost. It was thought to have been modeled after the 18th century Saxon Royal Egg in Dresden’s Green Vault that Carl saw while travelling Europe. Fabergé continued to grow in popularity and made imperial eggs every year for the Romanovs along with other fine decorative objects and jewelry, and opened branches in London and Kiev. Fabergé quickly became the largest jewelry house in Russia.
In 1917 political unrest and government corruption came to a head and led to the working class and peasants—led by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik revolutionaries—to revolt against Tsar Nicholas II’s government. The Bolsheviks overthrew the government and imprisoned the Romanov family and loyal servants in Yekaterinburg and killed them on July 17, 1918 to prevent their rescue by the opposition. Throughout this, the House of Fabergé continued to work in St. Petersburg, but under strained circumstances.
Soon after, the Fabergé family was forced to flee Russia after the House of Fabergé was nationalized by the Bolsheviks, and all of their work confiscated. They left their Imperial collection of eggs behind and eventually escaped to Switzerland, where Peter Carl died in 1920. Two Fabergé sons later opened a small shop in Paris, where they restored and traded in House Fabergé objects.
Tragic and Rare
In total, 50 Imperial eggs were created for the Romanovs, and 43 of them still exist. The ornate Fabergé creations fell out of demand when the Art Deco movement became popular, but Fabergé objects regained popularity after British author Henry Bainbridge wrote the first book on the famous jeweler in 1949.
Since then, Fabergé has been studied extensively. The eggs only represent a portion of what the House of Fabergé created, including ornate cigarette cases, jewelry, clocks, small carved animal figures, and crystal flowers, among others. Peter Carl Fabergé is even seen today as a forward thinking businessman—two of his chief designers and managers were women and were given the freedom to hire their own teams and set their own work schedules.
The fascination for and rarity of the tragic Imperial eggs is also apparent in the art market. In 2015 a scrap metal dealer purchased a small gold and jewelled egg at a Midwestern flea market with a clock inside for $14,000, thinking he was paying a fair price intrinsically for the small, gold decorative object. After googling “egg” and “Vacheron Constantin watch” (the name on the back of the clock) he realized he had the missing Third Imperial Easter Egg. He quickly reached out to Fabergé expert Kieran McCarthy of Wartski in London, who estimated the egg to be worth $33 million.
Largely, most eggs can be found in museums and private collections around the world. The Kremlin Armoury and the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg both have ten eggs each, while others are spread out around the world. The Royal Collection Trust in England also has a large Fabergé collection. Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs and decorative objects and jewelry will undoubtedly continue to fascinate and intrigue people for years to come.
“Collecting Guide: 15 things you need to know about Fabergé.” Christie’s, 2019. Accessed 3/29/2019. URL: https://www.christies.com/features/Faberge-15-things-a-collector-needs-to-know-8353-1.aspx?sc_lang=en
“What was the Bolshevik Revolution.” American Historical Association, 2019. URL: https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/gi-roundtable-series/pamphlets/em-46-our-russian-ally-(1945)/what-was-the-bolshevik-revolution Bainbridge, Henry Charles. Peter Carl Fabergé. New York: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd, 1966.
Von Habsburg, Geza. First Impressions: Carl Fabergé. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.