The fascinating history of Peter Carl Fabergé's exquisite creations
The ultimate collector's items, Fabergé's fabled gemstone-studded Easter eggs are considered the pinnacle of luxury. A hundred years since the House of Fabergé was shut down by Bolshevik revolutionaries, the illustrious history of those bejewelled oval-shaped treasures is revealed in an award-winning documentary, Fabergé: A Life of its Own. We take a look at the incredible story behind the famous eggs.
The story begins in 1842, when Baltic German jeweller Gustav Faberge opened his eponymous store in Saint Petersburg. Looking to appeal to the Francophile Russian aristocracy, he added an accent to the final 'e' in his surname to make it sound posher and more 'French'.
Peter Carl Fabergé
Gustav's son, Peter Carl Fabergé – the family had now adopted the final accented 'e' – was born in 1846 and educated at the best schools in Russia. Fabergé Senior moved to Dresden, Germany in 1860, leaving the House of Fabergé in the capable hands of workmaster Hikias Pendin, while Peter Carl stayed and completed his education in Saint Petersburg.
At age 18, Peter Carl embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe, picking up invaluable skills from master goldsmiths in Germany, England and France, and studying great works of art in Europe's most renowned galleries and museums.
Return to Saint Petersburg
Upon his return to Saint Petersburg in 1872, 26-year-old Peter Carl had already amassed a spectacular array of jewellery-making techniques and ideas. Under the mentorship of then-Fabergé boss Hiskias Pendin, he worked at the company for the following 10 years honing his skills to perfection.
Hiskias Pendin died in 1882 and Peter Carl took over as boss of the family firm. That same year, Peter Carl was awarded the accolade of master goldsmith and his talented younger brother Agathon joined the company to act as his assistant. Pictured is a gold Fabergé cigarette case.
The House of Fabergé had been tasked with restoring objects in Saint Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, and was invited to exhibit in the museum. The company's uncanny copy of an ancient gold bangle from the Scythian Treasure (pictured), caught the eye of Tsar Alexander III in 1885, who was amazed by its craftsmanship.
The same year, Tsar Alexander III commissioned the House of Fabergé to craft a precious Easter egg for his beloved wife, the Empress Maria Fedorovna. As a child in the Royal Danish Court, Maria was mesmerised by an egg that belonged to her aunt, which comprised five parts: an ivory egg shell, gold egg shell, hen, crown, and ring. This egg (pictured) is the inspiration behind Fabergé's famous creations.
The first Fabergé egg
Peter Carl and his team set to work and created the first Imperial Easter egg, known as the First Hen Egg. More than a nod to the egg Maria had so admired in her childhood, the first Fabergé egg is made from white enamelled gold and opens to reveal several surprises: a gold yolk and hen, along with a diamond replica of the Imperial crown and chain, which have since been lost.
A resounding success
The Empress (pictured) was absolutely thrilled with her Easter gift. Later in 1885, Tsar Alexander III made Fabergé the official goldsmith to the Imperial Russian Court and commissioned an egg for the following Easter. From this point on, Fabergé was given full creative control. The Tsar only stipulated that each egg be unique and contain a surprise. A tradition was born.
Total egg count
In total, Fabergé made 69 eggs: 50 Imperial Easter eggs from 1885-1917, of which 43 survive; and as many as 19 bejewelled eggs for well-heeled private clients including the Rothschild family, the Duchess of Marlborough and Prince Felix Yusupov. These days, the surviving eggs are either owned by museums, charitable foundations, or private collectors including oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.
Third Imperial Egg rediscovered
The Third Imperial Egg from 1887, which was thought to have gone missing, surfaced in 2012 at a scrap metal dealership in the American Midwest, where it was bought for $14,000 (£8,000). The ridged gold egg, which is set on a jewel-encrusted tripod and contains a surprise timepiece by Vacheron Constantin, was sold to a private collector via jewellers Wartski in 2014 after the buyer finally realised what he had bought. Its value is estimated at £20 million.
Diamond Trellis Egg and the lost elephant surprise
This relatively pared-down Fabergé egg was crafted for Easter 1892. The egg is carved from pale green jadeite and wrapped in a lattice of rose-cut diamonds with gold mounts. The surprise, a gemstone-studded ivory elephant, was thought to be missing for many years. Luckily, in 2015 the precious elephant was discovered languishing in a Buckingham Palace cabinet.
As the years passed, the eggs became more and more ornate and opulent. The Caucasus Egg, which was made by Fabergé workmaster Michael Perkhin in 1893 and presented by Alexander III to his wife that Easter, is studded with diamonds and pearls and contains a series of miniature surprise paintings.
The first Fabergé egg commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II, the Rosebud was presented to Empress Alexandra Fedorovna in 1895, a year after the death of Tsar Alexander III. The sumptuous egg is finished in red enamel and fine gold, which opens to reveal a yellow-enamelled rosebud. This rosebud contained two surprises, a bejewelled crown and ruby pendant, which have gone AWOL. From 1895, Fabergé produced two Imperial Easter eggs a year, one for the Empress and another for the Dowager Empress.
Imperial Coronation Egg
The Rosebud was the last Fabergé Imperial Easter Egg to feature a predominantly red colour scheme – Tsar Nicholas II and his wife developed an aversion to the hue as their son, the Tsarevich Alexis, had haemophilia. In 1897, Fabergé created one of its most iconic eggs, the Imperial Coronation. Made to commemorate the new Tsaritsa, Empress Alexandra Fedorovna, the golden egg contains an exact replica of the Imperial coach.
Lilies of the Valley Egg
The House of Fabergé was all about embracing the trends of the moment. The Lilies of the Valley is one of two Fabergé eggs in the Art Nouveau style that was super-fashionable at the time. The egg, which is covered in pearls, was gifted from Tsar Nicholas II to his wife on April 5 1898. Three miniature portraits make up the egg's surprise.
Imperial Pelican Egg
This beauty was presented by Tsar Nicholas II to his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna, at Easter 1898. The Pelican Egg is made from engraved red gold and mounted with an enamel pelican. The surprise is a selection of eight watercolour miniatures depicting charities patronised by the Dowager Empress.
Gatchina Palace Egg
The Dowager Empress received another sumptuous creation at Easter 1901 when her son presented her with this Fabergé masterpiece. Dotted with pearls and finished in fine enamel, the egg houses a gold replica of her country residence, the Gatchina Palace, complete with a flag, cannons and a statue of Tsar Paul I.
Moscow Kremlin Egg
The largest of the Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs, the Moscow Kremlin Egg is a sight to behold. Crafted for Easter 1906 and presented by Tsar Nicholas II to his wife, the supersized egg replicates the Kremlin's Cathedral of the Dormition, the venue for Russian Imperial coronations, in gold, onyx and enamel. An inspired touch, the surprise is a music box contained in the base that plays two Easter hymns.
Love Trophies Egg
One of the most valuable Fabergé eggs, the Love Trophies Egg was gifted to the Dowager Empress in Easter 1907. Now part of a private collection in the US, the egg is made from fine gold, pale blue and green enamel, and studded with precious jewels. The surprise, which has gone missing, was a miniature of Tsar Nicholas II's children.
The Tsarevich Egg was created in 1912 for Empress Alexandra Fedorovna in honour of her son, Alexei Nikolaevich, Tsarevich of Russia. Peter Carl Fabergé, who was aware of the Tsarvich's hemophilia and frequent brushes with death, crafted the egg as a tribute to his survival. The lapis lazuli and gold egg contains a surprise miniature of the Tsarevich and a tiny Russian double-headed Imperial eagle.
The most expensive Fabergé egg ever crafted, the Winter Egg was presented to the Dowager Empress in Easter 1913. The obscenely decadent egg, which has a starring role in the Fabergé: A Life of its Own documentary, is made from platinum, quartz and orthoclase and studded with 1,660 diamonds. The surprise, a platinum and gold flower basket, contains a further 1,378 diamonds. It is thought to be worth at least £49 million.
Created on the eve of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the last Fabergé Imperial Easter eggs, the Karelian Birch Egg and Constellation Egg (pictured), were never finished or presented to the Tsar. Not long after, the Russian Royal Family were brutally murdered and the House of Fabergé was nationalised and then shut down. Peter Karl and co fled Russia for Germany, where he died in 1920, reportedly of a broken heart.
Thankfully, the Fabergé story doesn't end there. The brand was bought and sold a number of times over the years, and finally relaunched as a high-end jeweller in 2009, with the blessing of the Fabergé family. Among other treasures, the company now make egg pendants, including this stunner, the Emerald Diaghilev Egg, which retails for £200,000.
Tzar Akexander III (My favourite)