Fabergé: The Im­pe­rial Jew­eller

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The Kun­sthis­torisches Mu­seum, Vi­enna, Aus­tria, marked the 90th an­niver­sary of the Aus­tro-Rus­sian Cul­tural Sea­sons (2013-2015) and the 525th an­niver­sary of the first diplomatic con­tacts be­tween Moscow and Vi­enna, by ded­i­cat­ing an ex­ten­sive ex­hi­bi­tion from Fe­bru­ary 18 to May 18, 2014, to show­case the works of Carl Fabergé, the pe­riod’s lead­ing and most in­flu­en­tial Rus­sian jew­eller, and the dec­o­ra­tive arts in Im­pe­rial Rus­sia at the turn of the 20th cen­tury. Cu­rated by Paulus Rainer of Vi­enna and Tat­jana Mun­tian of Moscow, the col­lec­tions were loaned from two of Moscow’s largest museums – the Moscow Krem­lin and the Fers­man Min­er­alog­i­cal Mu­seum.

The House of Fabergé crafted the most out­stand­ing jew­ellery pieces – a com­bi­na­tion of imag­i­na­tion and ex­pert crafts­man­ship us­ing the best of ma­te­ri­als. This is par­tic­u­larly true for ob­jects cre­ated for mem­bers of the Im­pe­rial Rus­sian fam­ily af­ter 1885, the year Fabergé re­ceived a Royal War­rant.

In 1872, Peter Carl Fabergé took over the com­pany from his fa­ther, and be­gan to re­store his­tor­i­cal gold and sil­ver arte­facts in the Her­mitage Mu­seum, and to as­sist in the new in­stal­la­tion of the Im­pe­rial Trea­sury. This care­ful study of his­tor­i­cal jew­ellery and gold­smith work may be the rea­son why the fam­ily firm evolved from a jew­eller to a com­pany cel­e­brated for their ob­jets d’art. In ad­di­tion to these arte­facts, Fabergé is well-known for the Im­pe­rial Easter eggs that Peter Carl Fabergé and his crafts­men cre­ated for the Rus­sian Im­pe­rial fam­ily – one of the rea­sons why he was known as the “Cellini of the North”.


Fabergé cre­ated his first Easter egg in 1885 for the wife of Em­peror Alexan­der II, Em­press Maria Feodor­ovna (born Princess Dag­mar of Den­mark). It was

in­spired by an early 18th cen­tury Easter egg now in the Dan­ish Royal col­lec­tion. Two sim­i­lar baroque eggs have also sur­vived, one of them in the Kun­stkam­mer in Vi­enna. These golden eggs con­tain an enam­elled hen in a nest made of bril­liants. The hen, in turn, con­tains a crown that holds a ring.

Fabergé cre­ated a gold egg cov­ered in white enamel en­clos­ing a hen, a crown and a small ruby egg. Em­peror Alexan­der III and his wife, Em­press Maria Feodor­ovna, loved the “Jew­elled Hen” egg, and each Easter they com­mis­sioned a new egg from Fabergé. So at the start of each Holy Week, the owner of the House of Fabergé would present his Im­pe­rial pa­trons with a new egg, sur­pris­ing them again and again with un­usual sub­ject mat­ters and his virtuosity. Fol­low­ing the death of Em­peror Alexan­der III, his son and heir, Em­peror Ni­cholas II, or­dered two eggs each year: one for the Dowa­ger-Em­press, Maria Feodor­ovna, and one for his wife, Alexan­dra Feodor­ovna. Each egg had to be dif­fer­ent from its pre­de­ces­sor, sur­pass­ing it in terms of in­ven­tive­ness, com­po­si­tion and un­usual de­sign. In all, Fabergé cre­ated around 50 Easter eggs for the Im­pe­rial fam­ily, 42 of which have sur­vived.

The ex­hi­bi­tion in­cluded four eggs: the “Mem­ory of Azov” egg of 1891, the “Trans-Siberian Rail­way” egg, which con­tains a minia­ture work­ing model of a train of the Trans-Siberian Rail­way (1900), the large “The Moscow Krem­lin” egg, and the “Con­stel­la­tion” egg, which fea­tures the

Tsare­vich’s star sign; this was the last egg ever be­gun by Fabergé but events in the course of the Great War and the out­break of the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion in Fe­bru­ary 1917 pre­vented its com­ple­tion. This egg fea­tur­ing the star sign of the doomed Crown Prince is a poignant sym­bol of the fall of the House of Ro­manov.

Im­pe­rial Mem­o­ra­bilia & Hard­stone Carv­ing

In ad­di­tion to the four Easter eggs by Fabergé, the ex­hi­bi­tion show­cased per­sonal ob­jects that be­longed to mem­bers of the Rus­sian Im­pe­rial fam­ily. Among them were pre­cious ob­jects for ev­ery­day use such as cig­a­rette cases, ob­jects to be placed on a writ­ing desk, seals and fans. How­ever, a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus of this ex­hi­bi­tion is on a sec­tion of the dec­o­ra­tive arts-pro­duc­tion that flour­ished at this ex­alted level only in Rus­sia: hard­stone carv­ing.

Thus the ex­hi­bi­tion draws a line from the Rus­sian to other im­pe­rial col­lec­tions, es­pe­cially the Kun­stkam­mer Vi­enna. Hard­stone carv­ing was much ad­mired

and col­lected in Kun­stkam­mer by the 16th and 17th cen­tury princely con­nois­seurs; how­ever, this genre re­tained its pop­u­lar­ity only in Rus­sia, and the ob­jects pro­duced in the Im­pe­rial-Rus­sian man­u­fac­to­ries at Peter­gof and Yeka­ter­in­burg in the 19th cen­tury were greatly ad­mired all over the world. Peter Carl Fabergé opened his own stone­cut­ting work­shop at St. Peters­burg. It pro­duced pre­cious ves­sels but also an­i­mal fig­ures cut from semi-pre­cious stones that were pop­u­lar presents at court and in so­ci­ety, the choice of an­i­mal re­flect­ing the re­cip­i­ent’s ap­pear­ance or char­ac­ter.

Over 30 of these small hard­stone sculp­tures de­pict­ing an­i­mals, plants or peo­ple were on show in the ex­hi­bi­tion; they were pro­duced ei­ther in the Im­pe­rial stone carv­ing work­shops or by the house of Fabergé.


Another sec­tion of the show fo­cuses on Fabergé’s enamel work, cel­e­brated for its

virtuosity, and the firm’s sump­tu­ous jew­ellery. Only a hand­ful of the lat­ter has sur­vived in Rus­sia; most were bro­ken or re­worked, and many of the pre­cious stones re­set. A rare ex­cep­tion is the hoard of mag­nif­i­cent pieces of jew­ellery dis­cov­ered by chance in the 1990s dur­ing re­build­ing work in a Moscow house. We now know that they were hid­den by one of the di­rec­tors of the hold­ing com­pany C. Fabergé; this is how they sur­vived the tur­moil of the 20th cen­tury. These rare arte­facts were on show in the ex­hi­bi­tion, to­gether with other mag­nif­i­cent ex­am­ples of Rus­sian gold­smith work.

The ex­hi­bi­tion doc­u­mented that Fabergé’s fame was but­tressed not only by his Easter eggs but also by his wide range of fine gold­smith work, mak­ing him Rus­sia’s lead­ing jew­eller at the turn of the 20th cen­tury.

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