Fabergé and Tsar QualityBy James Sherwood
The 50 Fabergé Imperial Easter eggs made by special appointment to two tsars of Russia between 1885 and 1916 are some of the greatest feats of craftsmanship ever executed in gemstones and precious metal. Of the 43 known to survive, 10 reside in the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow and nine, acquired for over £100 million in 2004 by Ukraine-born Russian Oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, are on display in the Shuvalov palace in St Petersburg. Her Majesty the Queen owns three.
The Fabergé eggs were first commissioned as an Easter gift from Tsar Alexander III to his consort the Empress Marie Feodorovna. After the Tsar’s death in 1894, his son Nicholas II continued the tradition, ordering a jewelled egg for his mother and one for his Empress Alexandra. These precious whimsies were deeply personal gifts known only to the Imperial family and the workshops of Peter Carl Fabergé, whose father Gustav had founded the St Petersburg jewellery house in 1842. Production ceased exactly a century ago in 1917 when the Russian Revolution swept the 300-year old Romanov dynasty from power.
The first egg, crafted in 1885 for the Empress Marie, was a series of surprises working on the model of a Russian doll: a white enamel egg that opened to reveal a golden egg yolk. Within the yoke was a multi-coloured golden hen with ruby-set eyes. The hen, a jewel box, contained a diamond Imperial crown in miniature and a ruby egg pendant. Fabergé’s ingenuity would be tested over the next 31 years as he was challenged to create ever-more elaborate jewelled eggs – symphonies of gold work, gem-setting, miniature painting, guilloché enamel and carved hard stones – with increasingly audacious surprises.
From their earliest inception, the Fabergé eggs incorporated clock-making and automata to amuse the vivacious Empress Marie. Made by Fabergé chief jeweller Augustus Holmström in 1887, the Third Imperial Easter Egg is a ridged yellow-gold beauty standing on a tripod pedestal encircled by gold garlands, diamond-set bows and cabochon sapphires. The egg opens to reveal a Vacheron Constantin lady’s watch with a white enamel dial and openwork diamond-set gold hands. The clock face is set on a hinge to stand upright.
The Third Imperial Easter Egg is an exceptional Fabergé design in miniature standing only 8.2cm high. It is also the world’s most expensive clock with a story worthy of a romantic novel. Though the Dowager Empress escaped to the Crimea with one Fabergé egg when the Revolution erupted, the rest of her treasures were removed from her Anichkov Palace in St Petersburg in 1917 and taken to Moscow’s Kremlin Armoury. Many were sold as part of Stalin’s “Treasures into Tractors” initiative, including the Third Imperial Easter Egg. For the rest of the century, the egg was considered lost until 2012 when an American buyer approached London’s Fabergé expert Wartski having bought the piece at a flea market for its scrap value at £8,000. Wartski, whose chairman Emanuel Snowman had bought nine Imperial eggs from the Bolshevik regime between 1925 and 1935, acquired the Third Imperial Easter Egg for a collector for a rumoured £20 million.
The magic within the Fabergé Easter Eggs is a combination of their impossible beauty and the foreshadowing of tragedy. The 1914 Mosaic egg belonging to the Queen is arguably the most exquisite work to come from the Fabergé workshop. The egg is handmade from a trelliswork of platinum within which foliate motifs are described in gemstones surrounded by pearls. The Empress Alexandra’s cipher is visible beneath a white diamond on top of the egg. The surprise inside is a medallion ivory portrait of the five Imperial children who were shot by the Bolsheviks with the Tsar and Tsarina in 1918. The clockwork eggs are some of the most engaging pieces echoing Imperial splendour and the extravagance of the autocratic Romanov regime. The 1895 Blue Serpent Clock egg made for Dowager Empress Marie is set with a revolving girdle of numerals and a diamond-set serpent that indicates the hour. The 1898 Lily of the Valley egg is one of two in Art Nouveau design that is smothered in pearl-and-diamond lily of the valley sprays. When a pearl is twisted, portrait miniatures of the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana appear. The 1911 Bay Tree egg is a three-dimensional sculpture made with 325 nephrite leaves, 110 opalescent white enamel flowers, 25 diamonds, 20 rubies, 53 pearls and 219 rose cut diamonds. When wound, a jewelled bird pops out of the top of the egg, flaps its wings and sings.
The house of Fabergé fell with the Romanovs. Peter Carl Fabergé died in exile in Switzerland in 1920. The family continued to trade as Fabergé et Cie in Paris but the trademark was sold without the family’s permission. The name became synonymous with perfume until 2009 when Fabergé Ltd launched its first high jewellery collection with the blessing of Peter Carl’s great granddaughters Tatiana and Sarah Fabergé, who sit on the Fabergé Heritage Council. Now owned by Gemfields, a world-leading supplier of responsibly sourced coloured gemstones, Fabergé could once again reclaim its history as a maker of ingenious bejewelled timepieces inspired by the Imperial Easter eggs.
Fabergé’s first fine watch collection was unveiled at Baselworld in 2015 and won the Grand Prix D’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) Mech Ladies category for the Lady Compliquée Peacock model that features an ingenious integrated movement created for Fabergé by Geneva-based independent master watchmaker Jean-Marc Wiederrecht and his company Agenhor. The starting point for the Lady Compliquée Peacock was the Imperial Easter Egg made in 1908 for the Empress Marie comprising a carved, jewelled rock crystal egg that splits opens to reveal an intricately enamelled gold peacock standing on a golden bough. The bird is automated to strut and display its feathers. Now in the private Sandoz Collection, the Peacock Egg is rarely exhibited.
The sentimental nature of the Fabergé Imperial eggs and the surprises hidden within was the starting point for the Lady Compliquée. At its heart is an engraved golden peacock whose feathers fan to mark the minutes. As the feathers move, they reveal and conceal a snow-set mosaic of Pariba tourmalines, green tsavorites and white diamonds faceted to make myriad reflections. A mother-of-pearl hours ring rotates to tell the hour and the platinum case is encircled with white diamonds. Manually wound, the Lady Compliquée Peacock is worthy of Peter Carl Fabergé, each peacock feather moving independently and at separate speeds to achieve the conceal and reveal of the gemstones beneath. Three more models were made with a pavement of black sapphires, rubies and emeralds beneath the feathers.
The Imperial Easter Eggs played with time, concealing clock faces and marking the hour with a diamond serpent’s head and a revolving dial. It is gratifying to see that the house of Fabergé today has continued the tradition with masterpieces such as the Fabergé Dalliance Fabergé Lady Levity watch. The concept began with a silver gilt, enamel and rock crystal desk clock made in 1910 with a “man in the moon” relief at its centre. This Fabergé has replicated with a mother-of-pearl man in the moon watch face surrounded by a white mother-of-pearl ring dial and gold sun and moon peripheral indicators that revolve around the moon face. The man in the moon is crafted from printed platinum on a domed sapphire crystal overlaid with mother-of-pearl. In the spirit of Imperial Fabergé, the moon face is only visible when the light catches the watch face.
The technique of overlaid platinum relief can be replicated with any bespoke motif a customer might wish to commission. In 2016 Fabergé set two masterpieces for the Dalliance collection: Lady Libertine I & II. The extraordinary abstract designs were inspired by the Gemfields-owned Kagem emerald mine in Zambia. A rose-gold case with 1.84cts of brilliant cut diamonds surrounds a central dome representing Zambian terrain in snow-set polished and rough hand carved emeralds. Gold filigree outlining describes the banks of the region’s rivers. For Lady Liberty II, a white-gold case surrounds a dome set with 2.22cts of hand-shaped strands of satin-finished emeralds accented by white gold and diamonds.
Another prize-winning design – the Fabergé Visionnaire DTZ timepiece that won the GPHG Travel Time Award in 2016 – is perhaps the most-subtle interpretation of the Imperial Easter eggs in contemporary watchmaking. For the automatic winding Fabergé Visionnaire DTZ, Agenhor manufacture created a watch that tells two time zones visible only to the wearer. An aperture at the centre of the watch face amplifies the numeral of the second-time zone that is a secret between wearer and watch.
The Fabergé Visionnaire DTZ is a handsome, contemporary watch with the element of surprise that would doubtless have enthralled the Imperial Russian royal family. The Fabergé eggs are a masterclass in design that few have the skill – let alone the authority – to work from as a blueprint for contemporary gem-setting and watchmaking. After the bravura display of the Lady Compliquée Peacock, the worlds of watches and jewellery can only wait to see where Fabergé’s imagination will take the Mosaic, the Blue Serpent or the Lily of the Valley designs into the future.