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Feb 13th, 2010 | By | Category: Articles

Family Jewels Faberge heirs buy back the name and relaunch the jeweller

by Ivan Lindsay

Fabergé, jeweller to the last tsars, the British royal family and the European aristocracy before WWI, has been re-launched this summer by Sarah and Tatiana Fabergé.  The two cousins, the last surviving great-granddaughters of Peter Carl Fabergé, have teamed up with the British private equity firm Pallinghurst Resources and the South African firm Investec to buy back the Fabergé name from Unilever, who have been using it to sell Brut aftershave and deodorant.  That the brand has survived is due to the enduring mystique of the Romanovs with their fabled riches and the tragedy of their brutal and bloody demise.

The name Fabergé derives from the Latin faber meaning “smith” or “maker”, and Carl Fabergé (1846–1920) was descended from a long line of Protestant Huguenot craftsmen who had fled from La Bouteille in Picardy after Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1645.  After spending time in Berlin and Dresden, the Fabergés arrived in St Petersburg where Carl was born in 1846.  In 1864 Carl embarked on a grand tour of Europe where he received tuition from the finest goldsmiths and studied objects and jewellery at Europe’s leading museums.  By 1866 he was back in St Petersburg working in the jewellery workshops of the family business which were also cataloguing and restoring objects from the Hermitage Museum.  By 1882 Carl had been awarded the title Master Goldsmith and the tsars began to take notice of him after he won a gold medal at the Pan-Russian Exhibition held in Moscow in 1882.

Fabergé struggled to obtain royal patronage and, even a decade after taking over his father’s business in 1872, royal accounts reveal he was paid only 6,400 roubles (today US$64,000) in 1883 by the Imperial family whilst four other St Petersburg jewellers received more.  A request for a royal warrant in 1884 was denied.  The breakthrough came in 1885 when the Tsar, Alexander III, was trying to decide what to give his wife for Easter, an important occasion for present giving in Russia.  For Alexander was the richest man in the world at the time, and his wife Marie Fedorovna already had everything a woman could dream of.

Marie Fedorovna, daughter of Christian IX of Denmark, was a small, dark and husky-voiced beauty.  On her arrival in Russia she became the leader of society and at Imperial balls she danced the mazurka spiritedly in front of several thousand guests.  At such balls she showed off her jewels; huge pigeon blood rubies from the Mogok mine in Burma, flawless diamonds the size of quail’s eggs from Golconda in India and assorted tiaras, brooches, necklaces, earrings and rings.  The stones were “so large”, according to the wife of the American envoy to St Petersburg, that “they would not be handsome worn by any other person; as in that case, they would not be supposed to be real.”  The Tsarina’s decorators came in from Paris and her tailors from Milan.

An egg is a traditional gift at Easter in Russia and the Tsar commissioned Fabergé to make a special egg, the Hen Egg, which cost him 4,151 roubles (today US$43,000). Three days before Easter the Tsar wrote to his brother, the Grand Duke, “I am grateful to you, dear Vladimir, for the trouble you have taken in placing the order and for the Execution of the order itself, which could have not been more successful.”  He adds, “I do hope the egg will have the desired effect on its future owner.” What that effect was we do not know, but the Tsarina must have been pleased because so started a tradition in which first Alexander, and then his successor, Nicholas II, gave their wives exotic eggs full of layers and surprises, leading to the creation of around 50 Imperial eggs.

The outer cover of the Hen Egg is enamelled white to simulate eggshell and is opened by three bayonet fittings to reveal a matted gold yolk which in turn opens to reveal a vari-coloured gold hen in a suede-lined nest on stippled gold strings to resemble straw.  The hen also opens and is meticulously chased with tiny cabochon ruby eyes.  Fabergé took the idea from an early 18th-century egg, of which there are three versions, currently located at Rosenberg Castle in Denmark, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, and in a private collection (formerly in the Green Vaults in Dresden).  The egg was such a success that six weeks after Alexander presented the egg to Marie on 1st May 1885, the court gave Fabergé an Imperial warrant.

With the arrival of the Imperial warrant and further royal patronage, Carl Fabergé’s business took off and the increase in sales allowed him to elevate the artistry in his jewellery to a level that had not been seen before. The eggs continued on an annual basis with Fabergé allowed complete artistic licence, the only stipulation being that they had to contain a surprise.  After his succession, Tsar Nicholas II took to ordering two eggs annually, one for his wife and one for his mother.

Although Fabergé is best known for the Easter eggs, he made an extensive range of objects, from tableware to fine jewellery.  With 600 employees and a headquarters in St Petersburg, offices followed in London, Kiev, Moscow and Odessa.  From 1882 until 1917 Fabergé produced between 150,000 and 200,000 objects.  Items ranged from humble silverware for the middle classes to necklaces for millionaires and empresses, from little animals (so beloved of the English royal family) made of semi -precious stones to flowers set in rock-crystal vases, cigarette cases, cane handles, vases, picture frames, paper knives, clocks, vodka bowls and crucifixes.  They were chased, spun, blown, gilded, enamelled, turned and carved and decorated in styles ranging from prehistoric Scythian through classical and baroque to contemporary Russian.  Materials included the full range of metals, enamels, leather and precious stones.

The intricate workmanship was too fussy for some.  The English journalist Harold Nicolson wrote after  a visit to Fabergé’s St Petersburg shop, “Those society trinkets appeared to me as symbols of Czarist Russia.  Inside that warm and brilliant shop the silly enamelled eggs would be laid out upon a black velvet napkin; outside the rime gathered slowly on the coachman’s beard.”  Likewise, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov recalled his sleigh “drifting past the show windows of Fabergé whose mineral monstrosities, jewelled troikas poised on marble ostrich eggs, and the like, highly appreciated by the Imperial family, were emblems of grotesque garishness to ourselves.”

Sensing trouble in 1916, Carl Fabergé formed his business into a joint stock company with a capital of three million roubles.  By 1918 the House of Fabergé was nationalised by the Bolsheviks and shortly afterwards it was no more.  The royal family were executed at Yekaterinburg and the property of the deceased emperor was transferred by decree to the state.  With the change in the world order, Fabergé’s ornate style fell out of fashion and the value of his work collapsed.  Carl Fabergé never recovered from the tragedy of what had happened to his adopted country and the loss of his business, and he died in Switzerland in 1920.  Two of Carl’s sons, Eugene and Alexander set up a new company, Fabergé et Compagnie in Paris in 1921 but it was not successful.  The brothers eventually sold the name to Samuel Rubin in 1951 for US$25,000 (today US$250,000) and he used it for a cosmetics range.

Although Fabergé was out of fashion, certain enthusiasts realised the value of the eggs and Soviet Russia, which desperately needed hard currency, began selling off the Imperial jewels, including the eggs.  By the mid 1930s only 10 of the 50 eggs given by the tsars to the tsarinas remained in the Kremlin.  An early collector was the company A la Vieille Russie who managed to buy six eggs in 1920, which, although genuine, were not royal commissions. Emanuel Snowman of the British jewellers Wartski bought nine eggs.  Armand Hammer actually took Fabergé goods on consignment from the Soviets, including several eggs which he sold in the USA.  Early private collectors of the eggs included Henry Talbot de Vere Clifton, Lillian Pratt, Jack and Belle Linsky, Marjory Meriwether Post, King Farouk and Dr Maurice Sandoz. Later, Malcolm Forbes managed to acquire eleven, nine of which were recently bought by Victor Veckselberg, who pre-empted the 2004 Sotheby’s sale with a bid of around US$120m, taking his total to fifteen.  This collection is reputedly once again available for acquisition en bloc at the right price.

With the emergence of rich Russian businessmen in the last decade, interest in Fabergé has risen.   Christie’s and Sotheby’s include Fabergé in the Russian sales in London and New York and an ex-Rothschild Fabergé egg made a record £8.9m in 2007 selling to Alexander Ivanov.  The new owners of Fabergé reportedly paid Unilever US$40m for the name and have already started trying to protect their investment, taking exception to the so-called “Fabergé museum” in Baden Baden, Germany.  Unusually, they are planning only to sell their range online.  Prices range from US$40,000 for a ring to US$7m for a bracelet inspired by Monet’s Water Lilies.  With a design team that includes Mark Dunhill, former president of Alfred Dunhill, they aim to re-create the success of Carl Fabergé, who, a hundred years ago exactly, was the most famous and successful jeweller in the world.

Tags: Faberge, Faberge egg, Ivan Lindsay, Romanovs

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