The 1917 Bolshevik revolution may have forced the Fabergé brand into what some would consider the wrong hands, but the Russian family that was behind the very first egg is back to reign over its dynasty once again and is making sure that Fabergé not only reclaims its stake as a luxury brand of note but adapts to the modern marketplace. Rob Corder reports.
When Russian Tsar Alexander III set out to impress his wife on the occasion of their 20th wedding anniversary, he wanted to make a lasting impression. No ordinary piece of jewellery would do for his beloved Empress Maria Fedorovna, so he commissioned the Imperial Crown’s goldsmith to create a spectacular gold egg.
It was 1885, and the goldsmith, Peter Carl Fabergé, used the commission to give full vent to his passion for combining art, luxury and precision engineering. The egg he produced, known only as the First Hen Egg or the Jewelled Hen Egg, was made of gold and coated with opaque white enamel to give it the appearance of an egg shell. The egg opens along its diameter to reveal a gold yolk that contains a multicoloured tiny hen with ruby eyes.
Fabergé’s passion for miniaturisation did not stop there. The hen itself also opened to disclose two further surprises: a gold and diamond replica of the imperial crown, within which was suspended a tiny ruby pendant.
The Empress was reported to be delighted with the gift, which prompted Tsar Alexander to retain the services of Fabergé. Between 1885 and 1917, 52 eggs were made, a peerless body of work that makes up the Imperial Collection. Each egg took about one year to make, and was worked on by a Fabergé workforce that numbered 500 people at its peak, according to Fabergé historians. This peak would not last long, however. In 1917 the Bolshevik revolution forced the Fabergé family, and the company’s staff, to scatter. The workshops were abandoned and much of the work was lost.
At least 42 of the Imperial eggs survived, and are now in the hands of private and institutional collectors around the world, but the Fabergé family business effectively vanished, and even the right to use the Fabergé name was sold in 1951 by descendents of the historic brand for a mere US$25,000 (£16,000).
Over the past few decades, the name has changed hands more than once, with Unilever and, more recently, Pallinghurst Resources, a mining investment company, laying claim to ownership of the brand.
But the family was not quite finished and in 2007, 90 years after the last Imperial egg was completed, a consortium fronted by great-granddaughters of Peter Carl Fabergé reclaimed the name and started preparations to relaunch it as a commercial brand.
Tatiana and Sarah Fabergé, together with John Andrew, a long-standing friend of the Fabergé family, created the Fabergé Heritage Council, which has overseen the rebuilding of the brand as an icon of excellence and exclusivity.
“I dreamed of this moment for decades," says Tatiana Fabergé, with heartfelt passion. "It has been my life’s ambition to restore the unsurpassed standards of design and workmanship that characterised my great-grandfather’s treasures. Now, finally, we have the basis for fulfilling this ambition. I am very pleased to be a part of one of the most significant developments in Fabergé’s history.”
It took almost three years for Fabergé to reveal its first creations. In September 2009, Les Fabuleuses collection of multicoloured, intricately set, one-off jewellery creations was launched. Three months later, a Fabergé boutique opened in Geneva, and was applauded as an extraordinary work of art in its own right.
Fabergé’s second collection, Carnet de Bal, arrived 15 months later, using cascades of white diamonds to evoke historic Russian winter celebrations during the opulent Belle Epoque period overseen by the tsars.
Katharina Flohr, Fabergé’s creative and managing director, explains that the collection made no apologies for drawing inspiration from the period that preceded the 1917 revolution. “The Carnet de Bal collection blends opulence and freshness, capturing the fine balance between historical grandeur and modernity,” she says.
She also hints at the explosion of commercial and creative activity that the brand was unleashed this year. “In continuing our expedition as creators of endearing and enduring personal treasures, we strive to set Fabergé apart in terms of creativity, design and craftsmanship," she says. "Perpetuating Peter Carl Fabergé’s love of surprises, we also naturally had something special in store for 2011.”
Perhaps Fabergé historians should not have been too surprised by the launch of this year’s first collection, which was not of jewellery, but of watches. Peter Carl Fabergé was, after all, a passionate horologist and often found ingenious ways of incorporating clocks and watches into his jewelled objects.
Three watch collections were unveiled at the international BaselWorld exhibition in March – Alexei, Agathon and Anastasia – all featuring distinctive guilloché engraving and intricate enamelling on the timepieces. The watches may be modern works of art and engineering, but they also borrow from Fabergé’s history with touches including egg-shaped cabochon and diamond crowns, along with hand-engraving on selected movements, and gem-set buckles (see box on opposite page).
The influence of the Fabergé Heritage Council was also very much in evidence with jewellery and jewelled objects that were also seen for the first time in Basel. The Constructivist Collection is influenced by early 19th century artistic movements including Futurism and Bauhaus, which influenced the House of Fabergé at the time and led to structured and austere designs more commonly associated with architecture.
The Constructivist Collection by Fabergé includes the Composition Rouge et Verte Necklace, the Lazlo bracelet, described by the company as “mesmerising”, and the Kazimir pendant. The jewellery was launched alongside a series of objects with multifaceted enamel panelling in the Constructivist style.
However, it was not until June this year that Fabergé completed its resurrection with a collection that the world had waited 94 years to experience – a brand new interpretation of Fabergé eggs.
First to be hatched was an exclusive collection of one-of-a-kind egg pendants called Les Fameux de Fabergé. The first creation, from what will become a series of 12, was launched as a part of Les Saisons Russes high jewellery collection at Paris Couture Week. Each of the pendants is inspired by an old Russian proverb that is brought to life by the finest craftsmanship in the world today. The Train des Fleurs Egg (pictured on the previous page) takes inspiration from a proverb that reads “He that travels knows much”, which refers to a train that brought flowers from the South of France to St Petersburg during the winter party season. The Ribbon Egg’s proverb is “A gift is better than a promise.”
Within the price range of the merely super-rich (as opposed to oligarch-rich) are Les Frissons De Fabergé, a collection of fine jewellery egg pendants that “recreate the abundance, joy and diversity of Peter Carl Fabergé’s original egg pendants,” the company claims.
There are more than 60 designs in all, each drawing inspiration from the historic Fabergé eggs. The collection as a whole uses as many styles and techniques as were found in 20 years of egg creation in the company’s heyday. Carved hard stones and minerals including rock crystal, chrysoprase, snowflake obsidian, lavender jade, jadeite, pink opal, rutilated quartz, jasper and turquoise, provide a broad palette of colours and textures. Oxidised silver; gem-glinting rococo openwork; along with enamels and lacquer are also included.
In keeping with the modern Fabergé’s insistence on giving its collections a narrative, each group of small fine jewellery egg pendants has its own story to tell – from the 18th century Rococo style favoured by Peter Carl Fabergé, through the tales of the minerals and magical stone flowers of the fabled Mistress of Copper Mountain, to the many gifts and presents that were an essential part of life at the Imperial Court.
But unlike the original batch of eggs, the reborn Fabergé is not locking itself away in the untouchable recesses of haute joalleire only fit for kings; in fact, it has gone so far as to embrace, dare we say it, fashion.
While Fabergé may be from a steadfast tradition, in 2011 it has aligned itself with the fast nature of fashion and modern retail by opening a pop-up show during this season’s Paris Fashion Week. While the venue might have been hotelier stalwart The Ritz and it used the space to show off its more untouchable high jewellery lines, as well as the more affordable Couture Egg pendants, it was a clear message that the brand is modernising and revitalising itself while ensuring that its design signature remains characterised by historical continuity, narrative and story-telling.
In just four years since the rebirth of Fabergé, it would seem that the heritage company that is now back in family hands at long last, and which was created during the heady and hedonistic days of pre-revolutionary Russia, has found a new and commercially fascinating interpretation in today’s modern European market.
Time for Faberge
Fabergé unveiled three collections of watches at this year's BaselWorld - the Alexi, Agathon and Anastasia. Each range is slightly different, from the diamond-set Anastasia to the classically styled Alexi, and offers a new facet to the business as it regenerates.
The Alexei (pictured): Designed to become immediate contemporary classics, the Alexei range blends the softness and modernity that characterise original Fabergé creations, and showcase artisanal brilliance in the fineness of its hand-engraved guilloché dial.
The Agathon: Showing off the same expertise with guillochéd enamel dials, but with sportier detailing than the clean Alexei designs in chronograph and regulator pieces.
The Anastasia: Alluringly glamorous, available either in full diamond pavé or opalescent white enamel over rose gold dressed in diamonds, these are timepieces that noblewomen at an 1890 St Petersburg dance would be proud to wear.
This article was taken from the November issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue online, click here.