Lapidary Legends: Fabergé, Pihl and Neuber

Lapidary Legends: Fabergé, Pihl and Neuber

The exquisite art of the lapidarist is celebrated in Fabergé, Gold Boxes & Objets de Luxe at Sotheby's during November 2022. Here, Gemma Champ explores the histories of four breathtaking antique pieces from the auction and remembers the lives of the undersung designers and visionaries behind them...
The exquisite art of the lapidarist is celebrated in Fabergé, Gold Boxes & Objets de Luxe at Sotheby's during November 2022. Here, Gemma Champ explores the histories of four breathtaking antique pieces from the auction and remembers the lives of the undersung designers and visionaries behind them...

T he art of the lapidary, or gem-cutter, is one that slides under the radar. We might gasp at the fire of a huge diamond or the vibrant colours of well-cut emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, but the craftsmen who spend days, weeks, months or even years cutting them often remain unknown – with the goldsmiths getting most of the glory.

But four spectacular exceptions to this rule are to be found in the upcoming Fabergé, Gold Boxes and Objets de Luxe auction at Sotheby’s, open for bidding between 2 - 15 November. In these pieces by Fabergé and Johann Christian Neuber, we see the elevation not only of the lapidarist’s art but also of humble semi-precious hardstones, often snubbed in favour of precious gemstones.

An important Fabergé jewelled platinum and rutilated rock crystal 'Winter' box, after the design by Alma Pihl, St Petersburg, (circa 1913) ESTIMATE: 200,000 - 300,000 CHF

Fabergé is, of course, synonymous with the exquisite luxury of its Imperial eggs, but these Winter pieces are part of a series that pushes to its limits the versatility of rock crystal, mined from the Ural Mountains – and that were intended to prioritise artistry over material value.

It was for a commission from Swedish oil baron Emanuel Nobel for brooch and pendant designs in 1911 – little gifts for female dinner guests – that, just two years into her career, the designer Alma Pihl broke from Fabergé’s neoclassical traditions to find inspiration in the fractal frost patterns that covered the window in her St Petersburg workshop.

Using frosted rock crystal, platinised silver and tiny diamonds, she turned those patterns into ‘ice flowers’ that enchanted both the workshop and Nobel – who bought the rights to all work using this concept. (He allowed an exception for the 1913 Imperial Easter Egg.)

The Red Cross pendant in the upcoming sale was a gift in 1915 to Karin Spångberg, the private nurse for Dr Gösta Nobel, who dramatically escaped Russia with the Nobel family in 1918, following the Russian Revolution.

An important Fabergé jewelled platinum and rock crystal ‘Ice’ Red Cross pendant, workmaster Albert Holmström, after the design by Alma Pihl, St Petersburg (circa 1915) ESTIMATE: 40,000 - 60,000 CHF

It’s an impeccable provenance, but it is the exceptional craftsmanship and beauty of this piece, and the 1913 Winter Box in the same sale, that really captures the attention. Rock crystal is extremely hard to work with – especially at this size, and with the natural inclusions that allow this rutilated quartz to mimic ice so beautifully.

Perhaps even more remarkable, in Alma Pihl’s creative flowering, is the decision to leave the back of the pendant in its natural state, undulating, almost Rodin-esque.

An important Fabergé jewelled platinum and rock crystal ‘Ice’ Red Cross pendant (Reverse view). Workmaster Albert Holmström, after the design by Alma Pihl, St Petersburg (circa 1915) ESTIMATE: 40,000 - 60,000 CHF

‘It's very innovative,’ says Helen Culver, Senior Director, Fabergé and Works of Art, at Sotheby’s. ‘When you see it from the other side, the light undulates such that it looks like melting ice. It’s magical.’

The Fabergé head work master Franz Birbaum wrote of rock crystal ‘Its friability demanded of the craftsman a particular skill… It could not tolerate the slightest heat, and the settings were never soldered, even with tin, but were assembled with clips and in other ways.’

That makes the setting of gems, bails and hinges – both strong enough to support the crystal and delicate enough to evoke ice crystals – remarkable.

And it is that almost unimaginably intricate craftsmanship that connects these Fabergé pieces to two works of greater antiquity – a pair of Steinkabinett (‘stone boxes’) made in Dresden by master goldsmith and lapidary Johann Christian Neuber (1736-1808).

Appointed a court jeweller at Dresden before he was 30, Neuber acquired a passion for and knowledge of local hardstones (in which Saxony was rich) from his mentor and father-in-law Heinrich Taddel. In fact, he succeeded Taddel as director of Dresden’s Museum of Treasures, the Grünes Gewölbe – to which Carl Peter Fabergé would be a regular visitor 100 years later, while studying in Dresden.

A gold and hardstone 'Steinkabinett'-Bonbonniere, Johann Christian Neuber, Dresden, circa 1785 ESTIMATE: 90,000 - 120,000 CHF

Neuber’s blend of artistry and scientific curiosity was a union of interests that couldn’t have come at a better time. The Enlightenment meant that a healthy clientele of wealthy amateur naturalists, geologists and scientists were keen to buy Neuber’s boxes and other objects of vertu, which focused on the natural variety of colour and texture to be found in hardstones such as porphyry and carnelian.

As with the Fabergé rock crystal, the stones used by Neuber could not be subjected to the heat of soldering or casting, so he perfected the technique of Zellenmosaik to set panels of honed stone into gold, rather like cloisonné, as well as creating more representational carvings, such as the altar on the top of the Bonbonniere.

But it was more than just a beautiful pattern – these bonbonnieres and snuff boxes were a visual guide to stone types, with numbers engraved into the gold that referenced an accompanying booklet some of which survived in concealed compartments or miniature sliding drawers in the bottom of the box.

A gold and hardstone ‘Steinkabinett’-Tabatiere, Johann Christian Neuber, Dresden (circa 1785/90) ESTIMATE: 120,000 - 180,000 CHF

‘Neuber was really a sort of hardstone scientist,’ says Alexandra Starp, Specialist, Objects of Vertu, at Sotheby’s. ‘He rented mines in Dresden, and he also uses stones from other parts of the world, so it’s a wonderful crossover between science and beauty to create these portable specimen cabinets.’

Like the Fabergé box, the tabatiere in the sale is distinguished by the translucency of the lapidary but also the exquisite hinges – a testament to another oft-forgotten craftsman: the hinge maker. And like Fabergé, who himself was inspired by the hardstones of Saxony, Neuber was one of those rare artists who had the vision to look beyond the material value of precious materials, employing his peerless craftsmanship instead on the natural gifts of the earth: stones.

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