The house of Fabergé was founded in 1842 in St Petersburg by Gustav Fabergé (1814-1893). Of Huguenot heritage, the family fled the Picardy region of France in the late seventeenth century due to religious persecution, eventually settling in Russia. Though earning commissions to the court of Tsar Alexander II in 1866, the firm did not reach its status as the preeminent Russian goldsmith until after Gustav’s son Carl (born Peter Carl Fabergé, 1846-1920) undertook management of the firm. Carl joined the firm in 1864, but due to a lengthy apprenticeship it was not until 1872 that he assumed management of the business. In 1885 Fabergé was named Supplier to the Court of His Imperial Majesty Tsar Alexander III.
The firm’s rise to prominence within the Russian court also acted to expand its international clientele, in particular with relation to the royal courts of Europe. More specifically, the Russian and British royal families were closely linked, being that the queen of England at the time, Queen Alexandra, consort of King Edward V, and the Tsarina of Russia, Maria Feodorovna, consort of Tsar Alexander III, were sisters, both daughters of the King and Queen of Denmark. The two families commissioned seemingly countless gifts from Fabergé to be exchanged amongst one another, as well as distributed to prominent friends and diplomats. Queen Alexandra and, subsequently, Queen Mary were avid admirers of the firm, and the establishment of a London branch of Fabergé in 1903 was in large part to cater to the British royal family’s commissions.
Meanwhile, the Russian collection was further enhanced (and the link with the British royal family further solidified) with the continuation of collecting by Alexander III’s successor, Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, née Alix of Hess, granddaughter of Queen Victoria. The most famous of the Fabergé commissions are tied to these two Tsarinas—the Imperial Easter eggs. Fifty were ordered in all and were given by the Tsars to the Tsarinas between the years 1885 to 1917, a tradition brought to an abrupt end by the Russian Revolution. Of these fifty, forty-two are of known whereabouts, three of which are in the British Royal Collection; the other eight, lost during the Revolution, have yet to be recovered. Though re-established in Paris in 1925 by two of Carl’s sons, the firm never regained its former production. The British Royal family, however, have continued to collect pre-Revolutionary Fabergé objects until the present day, which has resulted in the amassing of the largest collection of such objects in the world—over six hundred pieces.
What, one may ask, has attracted the most elite of connoisseurs to the work of Fabergé? It is the combination of impeccable quality, ingenuity of design and—simply put—beauty. First and foremost, every piece that came out of the Fabergé workshops was flawlessly finished, due to Carl’s exacting eye for detail and insistence on perfection; the enamelling in particular is unparalleled, an art which has since been lost despite general advances in technology over the last century. Second, the creativity with which the materials were approached—prizing subtle contrasts in colour and texture above intrinsic value, which was quite a revolutionary concept in the age of diamonds—, not to mention the inventiveness and intricacies of the more complex works, such as the Imperial Easter eggs, some containing complicated mechanical conceits. Finally, the sheer prettiness of the objects, which was perhaps best expressed by art historian and critic Terence Mullaly:
‘The real key as to why Fabergé answers a widely felt need lies in the fact that [his jewels] are intensely pretty, a word of which, thanks to puritanical aesthetic theories and even what imagine to be a social conscience, we have become frightened.’
The present brooch is an ideal example of the prettiness consistently achieved by Fabergé. This piece is typical of the firm’s jewellery, the majority of which took the form of small brooches decorated in guilloche enamelling, set with rose or old cut diamonds, and often with one central coloured stone. In this example the translucent opalescent enamel is ingeniously laid over waved engine-turning, creating an effective illusion of moiré silk ribbon. The diminutive size adds to its delicacy, one of the trademarks, as mentioned, of Fabergé jewels. The asymmetrical yet balanced design imbibes the piece with a casual elegance, and the addition of rose cut diamonds highlighting the folds of the ribbon lend the perfect touch of decadence to an otherwise demure design. Upon closely observing such sublimely beautiful objects, one can certainly understand why Fabergé pieces are such rare and enduring treasures.
The ‘Royal Fabergé’ Special Exhibition will be running at the Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace from 23 July through 3 October 2011.
A. Kenneth Snowman, ed., The Master Jewelers, London: Thames & Hudson, 2002.
Caroline de Guitaut, Fabergé in the Royal Collection, London: Royal Collection Enterprises Ltd., 2003.