Faberge Eggs

images-2By Maureen Timm


From the beginning of time an egg has been the object of religious adoration. Practically all highly developed nations are well aware of the symbolic significance of an egg illustrating transition from non-existence to life, it is a symbol of joy, happiness and sun which brings warmth and revival of nature. In the ancient language of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the determinative sign of an egg displays a certain potential, a life-giving seed, a mystery of being.

In Imperial Russia eggs played a significant part in the Easter ceremony. In the midst of merrymaking, processions, celebrations, feasts and gifts, the Czars gave their Czarinas an exquisite Faberge egg, the work of a company run and controlled by the legendary Carl Faberge.

images-1Master jeweler, Peter Carl Faberge, the grandson of a French Huguenot who settled in Estonia, was born in St. Petersburg, where his father was a jeweler. After an apprenticeship in Frankfurt, he took over his father’s shop and won a Gold Medal at the Pan-Russian exhibition in 1882. Alexander III was among those who attended the event and were intrigued by Faberge’ s objects of fantasy.

Faberge was named goldsmith and jeweler to the Russian Court in the mid-1880s and proposed to Alexander III the creation of an elaborate Easter egg to be presented to the Czarina. Alexander was so impressed by this first Imperial egg that the special Easter creations became a tradition throughout his reign and that of his son and successor, Nicholas II. It was agreed that the Easter gift would always have an egg shape and would hold a surprise. These projects became top priority of the company and were planned and designed months in advance. The surprise was always kept a secret.

The designs for the Imperial eggs were inspired by historical works of art that Faberge imitated or copied from his travels or from the Hermitage. However, there is a poignant representation of what is now Russian history in the design of a number of these eggs. There were eggs to commemorate the coronation of Czar Nicholas II, the completion of the Trans Siberian Railway, and anniversaries. There were eggs depicting the Imperial yacht-Standart, the Uspensky Cathedral, and the Gatchina Palace.

imagesFaberge’s primary source of inspiration came from works of previous centuries. Translucent enameling was a valued technique in the l9th century that required several coats of applied enamel and the “firing” of the object in an oven after each coat. However, only a limited number of colors were used in the 19th century and Faberge experimented until he developed over 140 shades. The most popular was the oyster enamel which varied in color depending on the light.

Materials used by Faberge included metals – silver, gold, copper, nickel, palladium, that were combined in varying proportions to produce different colors. Another technique used by 18th century French goldsmiths, and again Faberge, involved a simple tinting of the completed work using stones and enamel.

Another technique used by Faberge included guilloche, a surface treatment that could make waves and striations in the design and could be done by machine or by hand. Faberge used natural stones often found in abundance in the area. These included jasper, bowenite, rhodonite, rock crystal, agate, aventurine quartz, lapis lazuli, and jade. Precious stones including sapphires, rubies and emeralds were used only for decoration, and when they were en cabochon (round cut). Diamonds were typically rose-cut. Semi-precious stones including moonstones, garnets, olivines, and Mecca stones were used more often en cabochon.

Goldsmithing became Carl Faberge’ s primary interest, and he hired Michael Perchin, a Russian goldsmith to assist him in his experiments with gold and enamel.

They studied former works of art and attempted to replicate techniques of earlier artisans. Their efforts were so successful that even the Czar could not distinguish between the original piece and Faberge’s copy of a snuffbox in his own collection. This resulted in Faberge becoming the Supplier of the Imperial Court.

The House of Faberge was staffed with some of the finest goldsmiths and jewelers of that time. The business was divided into several small workshops, each with its own specialty. In addition to the fabulous Easter eggs, the workshop also produced table silver, jewelry, European-style trinkets and Russian-style carvings. The two master jewelers most responsible for the Faberge eggs were Michael Evlampievich Perchin and Henrik Wigstrom. Born in 1860 Perchin became the leading workmaster in the House of Faberge in 1886 and supervised production of the eggs until 1903. Those eggs he was responsible for have his MP (MP-Michael Perchin) markings. All signed eggs made after 1903 bear Henrik Wigstrom’s HW mark.

Founding the House of Faberge in 1870 at age 24, Carl Faberge reached a fine balance between art and commercial success rarely achieved by creative geniuses. His staff, at one time numbered nearly 700 and created eggs and other objects of fantasy and purchasers read like a “Who’s Who” of Edwardian society.

When the Russian Revolution caused his company to be taken over by the government Carl Faberge left Russia. He died in 1920.

The story of Theo Faberge has everything a great saga needs; royalty, riches, history, tragedy, mystery and an illegitimate birth. What is most amazing is that Theo did not discover he was the grandson of the world famous Carl Faberge until he was 47 years old.

Theo had studied to become a silversmith, then an ornamental turner and at the age of 52 he started over as a craftsman, repairing clocks, restoring furniture, then making a pair of candlesticks and a paper knife.

He became fascinated by the egg as an art form, and in 1981 created his first “surprise” egg. Anniversary eggs were next, followed by the formation of the St. Petersburg Collection.

Thls collection of approximately 30 pieces exhibits the same high standards as his grandfather. Styles are diverse, but contain things common to all his creations, and most contain a”surprise.”

A dedicated team of crystal cutters, artists, enamellers, silversmiths, gem setters and other skilled craftsmen are based at several workshops throughout England. However, Theo does the ornamental turning and most of the engraving himself. Each design is limited to 750 pieces worldwide and each is numbered and signed.

Theo Faberge’s collection is proof that the old skills are still being kept alive.

Fifty-six Imperial eggs were made, forty-four of which have been located today and another two that are known to have been photographed. Another twelve Easter eggs were commissioned by Alexander Ferdinandovich Kelch, a Siberean gold mine owner. However, the Imperial Easter egg collection commisioned by the last of the Russian Czars is the most celebrated.

Further Reading: Forbes, Christopher, Faberge Eggs, New York: Harry N. Abrams,Inc., 1980 Museum: The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2800 Grove Avenue at the Blvd. Richmond, Virginia 23221-2466 – World Renowned collection of Russian Imperial Easter eggs by Peter Carl Faberge and other Russian decorative arts.

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