It should go without saying that the first thing you need to know about Fabergé is not to crack its eggs. The name of Fabergé is synonymous with its series of bejeweled and elaborate Easter Eggs created for the Russian Imperial family; however, by the time the first was fashioned in 1885, Fabergé was already a leading maker of jewellery and objects of vertu.
Founded in 1842 in St Petersburg by Gustave Fabergé, the firm’s reputation went global under the helm of his son Carl. In our Russian Works of Art, Fabergé and Icons sale in London on 5 June a broad spectrum of the company’s output is presented, from cufflinks styled as elephants to an Imperial gold and enamel cypher box. Here we delve into a wonderful world of Russian craftsmanship.
1. The accent is an affectation
The Fabergé family can be traced back to 17th-century Huguenots from Picardy by the name of Favri. The family fled persecution in France to, eventually, forge a successful émigré life in Russia in the 19th century. Over many generations the surname morphed into Fabergé, with the acute accent on the final “e” possibly added to appeal to a Russian nobility that paid a premium for French works of art.
2. It’s not just about eggs
The Imperial Easter Eggs might grab the headlines but Fabergé created a vast variety of decorative pieces, minute masterpieces that, unlike jewellery or boxes, had no practical purpose. These ephemeral delights included miniature pieces of furniture, models of flowers, mini-grand pianos, mechanical sedan chairs and even a replica of the Tsarevitch’s paddle-steamer. “Every object, be its value no more than one rouble, is made carefully and solidly,” announced Fabergé’s 1899 catalogue.
3. The Tsar gave the firm his Imperial blessing
In 1885, Fabergé was made “Goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown" by Tsar Alexander II. It’s most valued patronage – and its place in history – was secured.
4. The Russian Revolution changed everything
Fabergé’s reign ended with that of the Romanovs. Following the Revolution of 1917 its workshops closed and then, in 1918, were nationalised by the Bolsheviks, who sold many of its masterworks for the cause. Carl Fabergé fled - through Riga, Berlin and Frankfurt - to Switzerland where he died two years later.
5. James Bond bid on Fabergé at Sotheby’s
During the Cold War, James Bond set his sights on a Fabergé work of vertu offered in a fictional auction at Sotheby’s. In 1965, Peter Wilson, the then chairman of Sotheby’s, commissioned a special 007 story from Ian Fleming (an old friend from the pair’s wartime days in British Intelligence). In the story, Property of a Lady, Bond flushes out a Soviet agent during the sale of a “A Very Important Fabergé Terrestrial Globe”, taking a moment out from counter-espionage to admire a catalogue note delivered “in prose as stickily luscious as a butterscotch sundae”.
6. Don’t be fooled by modern pretenders
The trade-name was sold in 1937 and, in the years since, numerous incarnations of the company have traded various products under the Fabergé name, including Brut aftershave, Aqua Net Hair Spray and a perfume called “Babe”. It even branched out into film production.
7. It made an Antiques Roadshow record
In 2017 an ornamental Fabergé flower made television history when it was valued at £1 million on BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. Specialist Geoffrey Munn discovered the 1900 piece – a seven-inch gold, jade and diamond sculpture of a pear blossom – during an episode filmed at the Black Country Living Museum in the West Midlands of England. Munn admitted that his “pulse was racing” as he valued the item. “This was a sensation beyond our wildest dreams really - this is a towering masterpiece from Fabergé,” he said. “It's what we call an 'object of fantasy' because it has absolutely no function whatsoever except to be a source of pleasure - and it is.”