flora moussa rbth

The Fabergé saga:
The fall of two empires

The fate of the great jewelry firm was intimately tied to that of Imperial Russia.
This year the House of Fabergé, the jewelry firm primarily known for its spectacular Easter eggs, commemorated the 200th birthday of its founder, Gustav Fabergé. RBTH presents the story of the famous family, which mirrors the fate of the Russian Empire itself.
In 1883, Russian Emperor Alexander III placed an order for two cicada-shaped cufflinks with a certain Carl Fabergé – a young jeweler who had caught his eye during the Russian Industrial Exposition held in Moscow a year before.

Thus began the first chapter in the long story of friendship between the House of Romanov and the man whose very name would eventually become synonymous with the grandeur and the exuberance of the Russian Empire. That same story would be abruptly interrupted some 30 years later by the Russian Revolution.

At the beginning, though, the Russian Empire was experiencing a period of peace and stability, an era of vast industrialization and splendor, marked by great artistic achievements. To satisfy the refined tastes of their clients, Russian jewelers were returning to their roots, moving away from the European standards to try and give a touch of authenticity to their works. Precious metals and gemstones were at the time a part of the everyday life for Russian monarchs and nobility. And for the House of Fabergé, this was a moment of glory.
Left: "Alexander III", V. Serov. Source: Wikipedia.org
Right: The Russian Industrial Exposition in Moscow, 1882. Source: Wikipedia.org
Bottom right: Alexander III with his family. Source: Wikipedia.org
Founded in 1842 by Gustav Fabergé, a descendant of French Protestants who fled to Russia from the Picardy region of northeast France sometime in the 17th century, the jewelry company achieved great success, partly due to its location in the center of St. Petersburg and the passion for all things French that was deeply rooted in Russian society at that time. But Fabergé's fame was mostly due to the superior quality the firm offered. That said, the sketches made by the founder himself show that, while a capable jeweler, the elder Fabergé was not especially inventive by the standards of his time.

In 1872, Gustav's son Peter Carl Fabergé took over as the head of the family business. Despite his young age – he was barely 26 – Carl was already an experienced jeweler who had studied in Europe, visiting Germany, France and Italy and picking up skills and traditions from the best of the best, according to Caroline Charron, author of Fabergé: From the Court of the Czar to Exile. During his stay in Europe, Carl learned to work with decorative glass, opal, amethyst and other materials that were not widely used by jewelers at the time.

But the young Fabergé did not stop there: Willing to acquire the skills of the artisans of yore, he offered his services to St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum, repairing and restoring jewelry from its collections free of charge, which eventually allowed him to master old techniques.
Supplier to the Imperial Court
After becoming a supplier to the Imperial Court of Russia in 1884, the House of Fabergé became a genuine heavyweight in the field, rivaling the St. Petersburg-based House of Bolin, one of the oldest jewelry houses in the world. Fabergé's secret was in fact quite simple: Carl paid particular attention to the quality of the materials and the designs, which had to be absolutely perfect before leaving his workshops. His other strong point was his ingenuity: As Charron explains, Fabergé managed to fuse European art and culture with Russian traditions.

Unlike some other jewelers, Carl Fabergé didn't exclusively use pure gold, choosing sometimes to employ alloys such as white or grey gold. As for gemstones, Fabergé always valued their aesthetic qualities over their actual price. Moreover, thanks to the enameling technique invented by his company, his items had a unique look, and the use of semi-precious stones – an innovative approach in those days – helped ensure competitive pricing for his products in comparison to those produced by Bolin.
Empress Maria Feodorovna. Source: Vostock Photo
In 1885, at the order of Emperor Alexander III, Carl Fabergé created for his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna, the first of his Easter eggs. Although in appearance a simple enameled white egg, it hid inside a golden yolk, and within the yolk was a golden hen which contained in turn a miniature diamond crown and another tiny egg in ruby. The Empress liked the gift so much that Alexander III commissioned Fabergé to produce one Easter egg every year.

The tradition survived the tsar himself and was passed on to his successor and son, Nicholas II. Of the grand total of 71 Easter eggs created by the firm, 52 were made for the royal family.

Additionally, the House of Fabergé received big orders from the Imperial family on the eve of holidays and important events, such as the formal coronation of Nicholas II, which took place in 1894, and the official jubilee celebrating the 300th anniversary of Romanov rule in 1913.

It's not just eggs: The most valuable Fabergé products apart from eggs are dandelions, which were made using actual dandelion fluff.

The dawn of a turbulent century
The Third Imperial Fabergé Easter Egg displayed among Maria Feodorovna's Fabergé treasures in the Von Dervis Mansion Exhibition, St. Petersburg, March 1902. Source: Wikipedia.org
In gratitude for Fabergé's efforts, the Imperial family helped organize an exhibition of the works of the jeweler in March 1902.

The exhibits included Fabergé jewelry provided by the Empresses Maria Feodorovna and Alexandra Feodorovna, as well as several members of the Russian nobility. The event lasted for two days and is still considered a moment of great glory for the company.

Besides the famous eggs, the House of Fabergé produced all kinds of jewelry, statuettes and dishes made of precious metals, each a true masterpiece.

Fabergé's products were highly valued not just inside the empire, but also abroad: They were often offered as gifts to European monarchs. The House soon opened stores in Moscow, Odessa, Kiev and London, also becoming a supplier to the King of Siam and the British royal family.

For Carl Fabergé, despite the vast sums commanded by his gemstone-studded pieces, it was nonetheless the creative process that he valued highest. "If you compare my business with such firms as Tiffany, Boucheron or Cartier, they probably have more jewels than me," he once said, distancing himself from his rivals. "There you can find a ready-made necklace worth 1.5 million rubles (about $65 million in current prices). But they are traders, not artisan jewelers. I am not really interested in an expensive thing if its price is so high just because they stuck a lot of diamonds or pearls in there."

According to the memoirs of H.C. Bainbridge, who was Fabergé's representative in London from 1908 to 1917, King Ferdinand I of Bulgaria once even offered the jeweler the chance to become one of his ministers. "Your majesty, please," Fabergé replied, "The only post I could really take would be a Minister of Jewelry Affairs."

Admittedly, one of the reasons for the firm's success was the marketing and management savvy demonstrated by Carl Fabergé. According to Valentin Skurlov, author of a biography of Fabergé, the man had an ability to find the best artisans and salesmen. To make his products accessible to the clients living in remote regions of Russia, the jeweler started distributing catalogues of his wares. At the beginning of 1914, his jewelry empire comprised nearly 100,000 unique works.

Nevertheless, the company took a serious hit with the outbreak of the First World War. As the demand for luxury products plunged, Fabergé's successes were quickly negated by a series of defeats.

Like many Russian companies, the House of Fabergé tried to reorganize itself to meet the needs of the military – it started accepting orders made by the army and producing decorations for officers. But the glorious saga of the House was nevertheless brought to end by the abdication of Nicholas II and the fall of the Russian monarchy: The new Bolshevik authorities declared a war against the old regime, beginning by eliminating any and all traces of capitalism.

The Fabergés' residence, located on 24 Bolshaya Morskaya Street in St. Petersburg, included a workshop, the main office of the firm, the apartments of Carl and Eugene and a special vault dubbed "The Fabergés' Golden Room." This was in fact an armored elevator designed to store the jewelry belonging to Fabergé and some of his most esteemed clients; the total value of the stored goods amounted to 7.5 million gold rubles (around $3.75 million, an astronomical sum for the times). When not loaded or unloaded, the elevator was stopped between the ground floor and the first floor and its walls were electrified.
Most of Fabergé's clients were forced to flee the country, while others were arrested. The company was nationalized and its five branches closed. Carl himself left Russia in September 1918; by then, the Imperial family, his former benefactors, had already been executed.

Carl Fabergé passed away in Switzerland in 1920 – deprived of his life's work, he never managed to find a place in the new world.

Two years later, two of his four sons, Alexandre and Eugene Fabergé opened their own company in Paris, dubbing it Fabergé et Cie. However, they were unable to replicate the success of the jeweler of the Russian tsars.
The afterlife
The priceless works created by the House of Fabergé still fascinate luxury enthusiasts and collectors. In 2007, the Fabergé Rothschild egg was sold by Christie's for $18.5 million to the Russian businessman Alexander Ivanov, making it the most expensive example of Russian applied arts in history. In 2009, Ivanov opened a private Fabergé museum in the German city of Baden-Baden, displaying a wide collection of Fabergé items with the Rothschild egg as the centerpiece. In December 2014, Ivanov gave the masterpiece to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in turn presented it to the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg to commemorate the museum's 250th anniversary.

The Fabergé brand lives on. Alexander and Eugene sold the brand to businessman Sam Rabin, who founded the company Fabergé Inc, specializing in perfume production. From then onward, the firm was frequently resold, changing hands numerous times until 2012, when it was acquired by the multinational natural resources company Gemfields for the meager price of $142 million.

Carl Fabergé's grandson Theo followed in his grandfather's footsteps. After restoring Carl's old lathe in 1950, he began developing designs and crafting elegant items of ivory and rare wood. Soon, Theo started receiving orders from Fabergé collectors and famous museums. The year 1984 marked the rebirth of the Fabergé collection in the global market of precious metals, gemstones, enamel, porcelain and stone-carved items. Theo Fabergé passed away in 2008, but his daughter Sarah carries on the family tradition to this day.

Story by Flora Moussa.
Photo credits : AFP / EastNews, Tom Kelly / Flickr.com, Ekaterina Borisova / wikipedia.org, A.Currell / flickr.com, Alex le Breton / flickr.com
Main photo by Carlos Octavio Urango / Flickr.com
Design and layout by Ekaterina Chipurenko.
Evgenia Chipova contributed reporting.
© 2014 All rights reserved. Russia Beyond The Headlines.

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