Imperial Legend of Fabergé Eggs
By, Dale King and Julia Hebert
Peter Carl Fabergé, a master jeweler and Russian native, created the first Fabergé egg for Tzar Alexander III as an Easter gift to his wife, Tzarina Marie Fedorovna, in 1885, possibly to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their betrothal.
On Easter morning – the most joyous holiday in the Russian Orthodox religion – the czar presented her with what appeared to be a simple enamel egg. To her amazement, inside was a golden yolk, and within that yolk was a four-color golden hen. Concealed within the hen was a gold and diamond miniature of the imperial crown and a tiny ruby pendant.
The tzarina was delighted, and Alexander named Fabergé “a goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown.” The master jeweler was commissioned to craft an Easter egg of his own design every year. The sole requirement was that it contain a surprise.
Following the death of Tzar Alexander III in 1894, his son and successor, Nicholas II, continued the practice by presenting a Fabergé egg each Easter to both his wife, Alexandra Fedorovna, and his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Federovna.
“It’s interesting,” said Barry Shifman, curator of the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Collection of Decorative Arts 1890 – present, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “Some of the eggs reflect the horrific political climate” of the time. “Some are very simply designed.” But all, he said, “show extraordinary workmanship and quality.” The museum owns five Imperial eggs – more than any other art institution in the U.S.
Tradition and Tragedy
“Not only were Fabergé eggs a staggering tour-de-force of the jeweler’s art, but [are] most intimately associated with the whole tragedy of Nicholas and Alexandra and that incredibly beautiful family,” said the late Malcolm Forbes, former publisher of Forbes magazine and a one-time owner of nine Imperial eggs.
Political upheaval ended the Fabergé egg series. Dismal economic conditions in the early 20th century collapsed the government by 1917 and Nicholas II, his wife and five children fled. They were captured and, in 1918, executed. It was a tragically violent end to the Romanov dynasty and to the House of Fabergé, the workshops and gems of which were seized by the Bolsheviks, causing Peter Carl Fabergé to flee from Russia with his family.
The Fabergé family was stripped of its right to make and market high jewelry under their own name in a legal battle ending in 1951. But it didn’t end their resolve to perpetuate the noble legacy.
Of the 50 known eggs Fabergé made for the Imperial family from 1885 through 1916, 42 have survived. Most are in museums in Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom, or in private collections.
Malcolm Forbes formerly owned the largest private gathering of Imperial Fabergé eggs – nine – along with 180 other Faberge objects. They were put up for auction by Sotheby’s in February 2004 by Forbes’ heirs. But before the bidding even started, Russian businessman Viktor Vekselberg purchased them for a sum estimated between $90 and $120 million.
A New Chapter for the Fabergé Family
Honor and reunification of the Fabergé brand and the Fabergé family was restored in October 2007 when new ownership was announced. High jewelry crafted with the original legendary aesthetics, values and philosophy was re-launched in 2009, paying homage to Peter Carl Fabergé’s refined artistic genius under the guidance of his great-grand-daughters Tatiana and Sarah.