Between two exiles – the first triggered by Louis XIV’s anti-Protestant revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and the second following the Russian Revolution in 1917 –, the Fabergé family, originally from the French province of Picardie, pursued an uncommon destiny in the world of jewelry and launched the Easter egg – beyond its religious associations – as one of the 20th century’s most emblematic art objects: a symbol of luxury and refinement, and a myth regularly sustained by timely reappearances and record-breaking auction results.

Fabergé A selection of Fabergé eggs. Image via Artnet

A Russian childhood

It was in Saint Petersburg that Gustav Fabergé, a goldsmith, set up a jewelry shop in 1842. The shop, rapidly gaining a following on Bolshaya Morskaya Street, one of the city’s most elegant main roads, was left in the hands of trustworthy managers in 1860, the year when the family moved to Dresden.

Fabergé The first Fabergé shop in Saint Petersburg. Image via jewellerymag.ru

Fabergé Interior of the first Fabergé shop in Saint Petersburg. Image via jewellerymag.ru

Gustav and his wife Charlotte Jungstedt, the daughter of a Danish artist, had a 14-year-old son at the time: Pierre-Karl, known as Karl. After his Russian childhood, Karl studied in Dresden’s arts and crafts school, before setting off, in 1864, on a tour of Europe with the aim of finishing off his training alongside great master jewelers.

Fabergé Gustav Fabergé and his wife Charlotte (left) and Augusta Julia Jacobs Fabergé (right). Images via Wikipedia and the Universal Compendium

In 1872, Karl returned to Saint Petersburg where he wed Augusta Julia Jacobs, who would bear him five children. He took over the family business, assisted by one of his father’s former employees, Hiskias Pendin. At the end of the 19th century, when the Maison Fabergé picked up an active role in restoring and enhancing the Hermitage Museum’s gold and jewelry pieces, it fell into favor with the Tsars Alexander II and III.

Fabergé Premises at Bolshaya Morskaya St. contained workshops, a design studio, offices, Karl’s apartment and a show room. Image via rnm.ru

Its business developed to such an extent that it had to move to new, more practical premises – still on Bolshaya Morskaya Street (the original house would be rebuilt at the turn of the century by architect Carl Schmidt, father of the “brick” style and Art Nouveau in Russia) –, drawing closer still to the seats of power. In 1882, Karl earned the title of master goldsmith, and backed up shortly afterwards by his brother Agathon, also a graduate of Dresden’s arts and crafts school, he began producing fantasy objects, which made even more of a splash than his jewelry in Europe’s courts.

Winning over the tsars

Two years later, the Maison Fabergé became the official supplier of the Imperial Court of Alexander III, who also ordered the Hermitage to make space for Karl and Agathon’s creations. The goldsmith brothers remained in the tsar’s good books after Nicolas II’s rise to power.

Fabergé Karl Fabergé at work. Image via Wikipedia

On the eve of the First World War, the family business made around 100,000 pieces per year. On top of the workshop-boutique on Bolshaya Morskaya Street in Saint Petersburg, it had two branches in Moscow and Odessa.

Fabergé During World War I Fabergé also made domestic items like tea glass holders, syringes, and military equipment. Image via faberge.com

When the Russian Revolution broke out, the Maison Fabergé – associated with the Romanov dynasty’s lifestyle – fell into the hands of a workers’ committee and became a cooperative that soon channeled its resources into producing war weapons. Karl, having raised the family jewelry business into a small luxury empire, was forced to leave his country of birth for Switzerland. He died in Lausanne in 1920 and is buried at Grand Jas cemetery in Cannes.

Laying the Hen Egg

Even if the Maison Fabergé exceled in making a wide range of jewelry and gold pieces (including figurines, clocks and boxes), it is above all its eggs – whose paternity is attributed to Karl – that secured the brand’s renown all over the world and their founder’s posterity. An endurance that is perfectly in keeping with a symbol of rebirth or even resurrection.

Fabergé The 1885 Hen Egg was the first Imperial egg created by Fabergé. Image via jewellerymag.ru

Tsar Alexander III was the first customer to order an Easter egg from Fabergé in 1885, as a gift for his spouse. For as a child, Empress Maria Feodorovna had been fascinated by a similar decorative object belonging to her aunt in Denmark. Known as the Hen Egg, Karl Fabergé’s creation opened up, in the manner of Russian dolls, to reveal a first surprise – a gold yolk – further holding a gold hen, which in turn concealed a replica of the crown with a ruby pendant lodged inside.

Chicken with golden eggs

The gift was a hit, and the Fabergé egg became part of the imperial couple’s Orthodox Easter tradition. In all, 54 eggs were made at the request of Alexander III, then his son Nicolas II who continued to spoil his mother, and also his tsarina, with these creations, increasingly original in presentation and precious in value due to their choice of metals and stones (gold, silver, lapis lazuli, nephrite…). Seventeen eggs were also manufactured for wealthy customers during this period.

Fabergé Lilies of the Valley Egg was presented by Nicholas II to his wife Alexandra Fyodorovna on Easter 1898. Image via arthistoryproject.com

Divided up and sold off to support the war effort against the Russian Revolution, these eggs became objects of speculation, hunts and desire… One of them, matched with a Vacheron-Constantin watch, and discovered by chance at a flea market in the United States, was purchased in 2014 by an anonymous collector for 24 million euros.

Fabergé A scrap metal dealer discovered this €24 million Fabergé egg at a bric-a-brac stall. Image via ibtime.co.uk

While post-communist Russia broke open its piggybank to bring a pair of imperial eggs back to the mother country, today over forty or so eggs belong to overseas museums and private collectors, namely in the United States, Germany, Britain, Switzerland, and France. At the latest auctions to feature eggs, their estimated value ranged from 10 to 25 million euros each. But seven of the historic eggs are still missing, perhaps lost forever…

Today, the Maison Fabergé has spawned a new collection of eggs, relaunched in 2017 by Karl’s great-granddaughter. The prices are – put it this way – more affordable… Go Easter egg hunting on Barnebys.

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