The story of the Fabergé egg started in 1885 when Emperor Alexander III of the Russian Imperial family decided to give his wife, Maria Fedorovna, an Easter egg, possibly to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their betrothal. “It is believed that the Emperor’s inspiration for the piece was an egg owned by the Empress’s aunt, Princess Wilhelmine Marie of Denmark, which had captivated Maria’s imagination in her childhood,” says John Andrew, member of the Faberge heritage council. This was commissioned to Carl Faberge and that’s how the first Imperial Easter egg was made. Known as the Hen egg, it was crafted from gold, and its opaque white enamelled shell opened to reveal a matt yellow gold yolk. The surprises didn’t end there, the yolk in turn opened up to a vibrant gold hen, which led the beholder to a diamond replica of the Imperial crown, from which a small ruby pendant was suspended. In the same year, Alexander III also bestowed the House of Fabergé with the title ‘goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown’.
Carl Fabergé was soon joined by his son, Peter Carl, who took on the responsibility for running the company and soon came to be known as the artist-jeweller. He also revived the virtually lost art of enamelling. For several years before he took over the reins of the business, he had been restoring items in the Imperial collection, which included French 18th century snuff boxes decorated with guilloché enamel. According to Andrew, this was a very precise technique in which the surface of the metal had to be first mechanically decorated with intricate and repetitive linear patterns. Enamelling would then help fuse coloured glass in powdered form with a surface, usually a metal one. And Peter Carl Fabergé started using this extensively in the eggs and jewels.
Over time, the eggs became increasingly elaborate, with each one taking a year of more to make, involving a team of highly skilled craftsmen, who worked in secrecy. “Although the theme of each egg changed annually, a common factor was the element of surprise,” explains Andrew. “These ranged from a perfect miniature replica of the Coronation carriage that took 15 months to make to miniature portraits of the Imperial family.” According to him, one of the most expensive of these was the 1913 Winter Egg invoiced at 24,600 roubles which was then £2,460. “In today’s money, using the Bank of England UK Inflation Calculator, this is about £283,335,” he adds.
The Winter Egg was made of carved rock crystal, as thin as glass. This was then embellished with engraving, platinum and diamonds so as to resemble frost. The egg rested on a rock-crystal to mimic a block of melting ice. The surprise lay in the platinum basket of wood anemones and flowers were made from white quartz, nephrite, gold and demantoid garnets. “This egg sold at Christie’s in New York in 2002 for US$9.6 million,” says Andrew.
In 1903, Fabergé opened a London branch as well. However, no Imperial eggs were made in 1904-05 due to the Russo-Japanese war, in which some of the staff members had been recruited for military service. And then with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, there was a severe shortage of precious metals. So, during that time, Fabergé produced copper articles such as cruets, plates, mugs, and more. The workshops also made syringes and equipment for the military.
Over time, Fabergé Inc changed hands several times, from Unilever to Pallinghurst Resources in 2007, which announced the reunification of the brand with direct descendants of the 19th century founder of the House of Fabergé. In 2007, the Fabergé Heritage Council was also formed, which now has Sarah Fabergé, great granddaughter of Peter Carl, as one of its members. However, some of the objects created by the House of Fabergé are now lost. “Of the 50 Eggs Fabergé made and delivered to the Imperial family from 1885 through to 1916, the whereabouts of 43 are known,” says Andrew.