September 24, 2020 marked the 100th death anniversary of one of the greatest goldsmiths, jewellers and designers in Western decorative arts world – Peter Carl Fabergé, jeweller to the Russian imperial court.
Before he took over his father, Gustav Fabergé’s jewellery business, Fabergé catalogued, repaired, and restored masterpieces in the Hermitage (the museum founded by Catherine the Great as a court museum). Little did he know back then that his creations, too, would end up in museums several years later.
The Imperial Eggs created by Fabergé for the Russian Tsars amongst other decorative objects are revered masterpieces and can be seen at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, The Kremlin Armoury Museum and Fabergé’s own museum, apart from other museums and private collections.
The brand, now owned by Gemfields, continues to be inspired by the craftsmanship, aesthetics and creativity of Peter Carl Fabergé, even hundred years after his death.
Dr. Géza von Habsburg, Fabergé Curatorial Director talks to LuxeBook about Peter Carl Fabergé’s bejewelled legacy.
How has PeterCarl Fabergé’s artistry influenced the world of jewellery and decorative objects?
Peter Carl Fabergé, son of the Baltic German jeweller, Gustav Fabergé, began his career as a traditional jeweller in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1882, by taking over his father’s business. In that same pivotal year, he exhibited, together with his brother Agathon, innovative copies of ancient Scythian gold artefacts to great acclaim at an exhibition in Moscow.
These lead Fabergé to the discovery of a niche in Russian applied arts, namely the creation of ingenious, affordable objects of art with exquisite craftsmanship and novelty of design. Fabergé’s use of semi–precious stones and objects inset with small decorative gems, often in the form of cabochon rubies and sapphires, set his artistry apart from those of his predecessors, contemporaries and successors whose products were often overloaded with expensive gemstones.
The success of Fabergé’s creations created numerous emulators, both, in Russia and abroad. The fame of his Easter eggs, made for the Imperial family and smaller ones created for the Russian society, engendered hundreds of imitations, including, at least, one by Cartier.
Could you throw light on the jewellery techniques he revived?
Fabergé’s activities as a restorer in the Imperial treasury as a supplier to the Imperial Court, and later as a Court Jeweller, led him to the discovery of French 18th century art and the technique of translucent enamelling, called guilloché, virtually unknown in Russia.
This is the technique that applies and fires multiple successive layers of glass-like enamel to a surface of precious metal engraved by machine or by hand. This helped one create elegant objects of art in the French style, which was very popular in St. Petersburg at that time.
Over the years, Fabergé’s enamellers self-taught goldsmith Mikhail Perkhin (active 1886-1903), developed an ever-growing selection of enamel colours. Legends has it that clients could choose from 145, mostly pastel, hues. The most popular colours were white, emerald green, salmon pink, primrose yellow and lapis or sapphire blue. More exceptional effects were achieved with red, purple, orange and brown enamel.
Are the same techniques still used by the brand today?
Only a handful of goldsmiths has mastered the craft of guilloché enamelling. Fabergé collaborates with one exceptional German master, Victor Mayer, a firm that goes back to the time of Carl Fabergé. They still use the same 18th century techniques and machines.
How has Peter Carl Fabergé influenced the brand over the years?
Many of Fabergé’s lofty ideals are still in practice. His creations of comparatively affordable, exclusive and one-of-a-kind objects and jewels are, perhaps, no longer commercially viable. However, what has survived is the ever-lasting fashionable chic and elegance of a Fabergé jewel, its distinctive style and its unique craftsmanship. Fabergé today is not a slavish imitation of the great Russian master’s art, often using only a Fabergé idiom or perhaps a mere detail of an earlier creation as its inspiration.
What were the factors that differentiated Peter Carl Fabergé from the other imperial jewellers such as Bolin and Hahn?
Fabergé stood out among his contemporaries. Most pieces are instantly recognisable by their delicacy and elegance as examples of St. Petersburg’s Belle Époque society. Bolin’s jewels are generally heavy and laden with precious stones. Hahn’s objects of art, while making use of the French techniques introduced by Fabergé, have a differing style. They are less inventive and more restricted in their use of Fabergé’s vast palette of colours. The same applies to other gifted competitors of Fabergé in St. Petersburg: Alexander Tillander, Friedrich Koechli, Ivan Britzin and Carl Hahn, Carl Blank, all suppliers to the Court, as well as Avenir Sumin and the Third Artel.
Which is the most iconic imperial egg produced according to you?
The best-known Fabergé Easter-egg is the 1897 Coronation Coach egg, formerly owned by Malcolm Forbes in New York, since 2013. It is the best-known exhibit in the glorious Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg. It contains, as a surprise, a model of the 18th century coach in which the future Empress Alexandra entered in Moscow for her coronation in 1896. Its shell is inspired by the design and the colours of the vestments worn by Nicholas and Alexandra at their coronation in Uspensky Cathedral.
In my opinion, the one egg best representing Carl Fabergé’s ideals is the brilliantly conceived 1913 Winter Egg, which is currently part of a private collection in London. One of the very few objects designed by a woman, Alma Pihl, it is comprised of three blocks of rock-crystal encrusted with 2000 rose-cut diamonds. It contains a basket of spring flowers, together ingeniously representing the end of winter and the arrival of spring. If the egg’s components are of relatively small intrinsic value, the egg’s artistic value is estimated in tens of millions.
Could you tell us about other iconic objects produced by Peter Carl Fabergé during his lifetime?
Fabergé’s most famous surviving jewels are his miniature replicas of the Russian Imperial
crown jewels. The originals are in the Almazny Fond, in the Kremlin Armoury Museum. Fabergé received permission from the Tsar to replicate these in miniature as exhibits for the Paris World Fair in 1900. They were hailed as masterpieces of jewellery, superior in craftsmanship to anything created by his French competitors and were, partially due to the Russian craftsman, awarded the Legion of Honor for his overall artistic achievements.
In my opinion Fabergé’s artistic masterpiece is his Basket of Lilies of Valley, created in 1896 as a present for one of the merchants of Nijzhny Novgorod to Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. It is said to have been her favourite object by Fabergé.
It stood on her desk until the Russian Revolution and is exhibited today at the Metropolitan Museum in New York as a long-term loan of the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation. It, too, was much admired at the Paris World Fair in 1900.