Inside Faberge’s dynasty

A history of the jewellery house which is so associated with the beautifully colourful Imperial Easter Eggs

At the end of 2021, the Victoria & Albert Museum will hold the exhibition Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution, which will document the history of the jewellery house which is so associated with the beautifully colourful Imperial Easter Eggs. There will be 200 pieces on display including gifts given between the family of Tsar Nicholas II, as well as the Princess of Alexandra of Hanover and Cumberland’s aquamarine and diamond tiara, among others; and the Moscow Kremlin Egg, and the Alexander Palace Egg. 

Aside from the relationship with the Romanov dynasty, the house is one that has quite the history. Especially in recent times. In 2008, it was finally able to announce that it had acquired back all Fabergé trademarks, licenses and associated rights relating to the Fabergé name from Unilever, which bought it in 1989 and as a result had meant that the name came to be associated with cleaning products and things less sparkly than intended. 

In the workshop today

The Fabergé Heritage Council was therefore also established to guide the company in its pursuit of Fabergé’s original heritage, which is one based on excellence in creativity, design and craftsmanship. In 2009, Fabergé was relaunched with the introduction of the ‘Les Fabuleuses’ High Jewellery collection. 

Fabergé is of course celebrated for its series of 50 Imperial Easter eggs, created for the Russian Imperial family from 1885 to 1916 when the company was run by Peter Carl Fabergé. The eggs are heavily linked to the fate of the last Romanov family. They were the ultimate achievement of the renowned Russian jewellery house and have also been considered the last great commissions of objets d’art. 

Ten eggs were produced from 1885 to 1893, which was during the reign of Emperor Alexander III. Another 40 were created during the rule of his son, Nicholas II, which transpired as two each year, one for his mother, the dowager, the second for his wife.

It all began in 1885 when Emperor Alexander III, through his uncle, Grand Duke Vladimir, commissioned an Easter egg from Fabergé as an Easter present for his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna. It was initially planned by Fabergé to contain a diamond ring but the actual finished version, following instructions from the Emperor, included a ruby pendant of great value. This would be a recurring theme. 

It was in 1882 that Peter Carl Fabergé took over his father’s jewellery business and together with his brother, Agathon, quickly transformed it into an international success and sensation. The idea was that it was design-led and all about the artist-jeweller; there was also a distinct penchant for colour, which was explored through stones and, notably, by reviving the lost art of enamelling. Objets had now been added to the house’s stable, and these are now in some of the world’s leading museums and private collections. 

In the workshop

Peter’s father was Gustav Faberge, without the accent, who was born in 1814 and went to St Petersburg to train as a goldsmith. At first he worked under Andreas Spiegel, who was a gold box specialist, but later joined the celebrated firm of Keibel, goldsmiths and jewellers to the Emperors of Russia.

Circa 1842 he completed his apprenticeship and changed his name to Fabergé, with the accent. He opened a jewellery shop in a basement of the city’s fashionable street, Bolshaya Morskaya and married Charlotte Jungste. 

In 1846 Peter was born and it was he who, after his father’s retirement, undertook a course at the Dresden Arts and Crafts School and was a regular visitor to the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault), the museum founded by Augustus the Strong in 1723. Agathon, the Fabergés’ second son, was born in Dresden during 1862.

Later, in 1864, Peter embarked upon a Grand Tour of Europe and received tuition from respected goldsmiths in Germany, France and England and attended a course at Schloss’s Commercial College in Paris. He then returned to St Petersburg in 1866 and married Augusta Jacobs, while his father’s workmaster Hiskias Pendin acted as a mentor and tutor. 

Peter became involved with cataloguing, repairing and restoring masterpieces in the museum founded by Catherine the Great as a court museum, the Hermitage, and this allowed him to study the forgotten techniques mastered by goldsmiths in antiquity. 

Pendin died in 1882 and Peter then took sole responsibility for running the company. Tzar Alexander III had seen the work of the house at the Pan-Russian Exhibition in Moscow and ordered it to be displayed in the Hermitage as examples of superb contemporary Russian craftsmanship. Next, in 1885-1886, the Emperor commissioned the company to make an Easter Egg for his Empress. Fabergé has the coveted title, “goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown”. The Emperor then commissioned Fabergé to make a second Easter Egg the following year.

Supposedly the house was given complete freedom for future Imperial Easter Eggs with the only stipulation being that each one should contain a surprise. 

In 1887 the Moscow branch of the House of Fabergé opened and in 1888 the company moved into premises at 24 Bolshaya Morskaya which contained workshops, a design studio, offices, Peter’s apartment and a showroom. It was at this time when the business was at the height of its success and employed around 500 craftsmen and designers, consequently making it the largest jewellery firm in Russia

From 1903 to 1906 the House of Fabergé expanded, opening a branch in London and Kiev respectively. Nicholas, the youngest of Peter’s four sons (all of whom worked for the House), became one of the London branch managers. But in 1918 Fabergé was nationalised and in early October its stock was the following years, between 1918 to 1920, Peter would leave St Petersburg on the last diplomatic train for Riga from where he fled to Germany; Eugène together with his mother, travelled in darkness by sleigh and on foot to Finland; the Bolsheviks imprisoned Agathon and Alexander, the Fabergés’ two middle sons. In June 1920, Eugène travelled to Germany to take his father to Switzerland where other members of the family had taken refuge. Peter died in Pully (near Lausanne) in September.

It’s here that it all begins to get a little bit complicated. In 1924 Eugène along with his brother Alexander settled in Paris and established Fabergé & Cie, which traded in and re-stored objects made by the House of Fabergé, as well as general jewellery and objets d’art. The pieces they made were clearly marked Fabergé, Paris so as to avoid any confusion with items made by the House in Russia.

But there would be confusion. In 1937 Sam Rubin, an American of Russian descent, started a perfume business and branded his perfumes Fabergé and formed Fabergé Inc., all of which was done without the family’s permission and would set in motion various issues to come in the future. Discovering Rubin’s activities, the Fabergé family decided to settle out of court so as to avoid high legal fees. Rubin paid just US$25,000 to use their name solely for perfume.

In the Faberge workshop

But Rubin sold Fabergé Inc to George Barrie’s cosmetic company Rayette for US$26 million. The combined company was called Rayette-Fabergé Inc. and in 1971 the company’s name reverted to Fabergé Inc. Then,  in 1984 Fabergé Inc was sold for US$180 million and three years later Fabergé Inc acquired Elizabeth Arden for US$700 million. In 1989 Unilever bought Fabergé Inc (including Elizabeth Arden) for US$1.55 billion. Aware that Sam Rubin had registered the name for jewellery in 1946, it registered the Fabergé name as a trademark across a wide range of merchandise internationally and granted licenses to third parties to produce a wide range of products under the Fabergé name. Then, additionally, it changed the name of a subsidiary from Lever Brothers Limited to Lever Fabergé Limited, meaning that the name associated with Imperial Eggs appeared on a domestic cleaning range for use in lavatories, blocked drains, cleaning kitchen and bathrooms as well as washing machines. Which was not ideal. 

In 1990 Victor Mayer GmbH began their relationship with Fabergé, becoming official workmasters.  And it’s under the guidance of the Mohr Family today, that one Dr. Marcus Mohr continues to use the old traditional techniques in jewellery making, engraving, gauche, enamelling and creating objects of art. Dr. Marcus Mohr has a longstanding association with the Fabergé brand, previously making jewellery under license to both Unilver and Fabergé. This license was terminated in 2008. Though the company still creates pieces for Fabergé today but as workmasters rather than as licensees. It’s a relationship the house is happy with. 

Fast forward to 2015 and Fabergé’s first fine watch collection is unveiled– the Fabergé Flirt, Compliquée Peacock, Fabergé Visionnaire and Summer in Provence, inspired by the Imperial Easter Egg made in 1908 for the Empress Marie. And the Secret Garden High Jewellery collection launches with floral jewels that are reminiscent of Russian artist Marc Chagall’s bouquets. Because Peter Carl Fabergé’s flower studies in rock crystal vases are actually amongst his most celebrated creations. 

The Fabergé craftsmen also, typically, work directly from nature, capturing blooming flowers in carved hardstone, enamel and gold with emeralds and more. In 2016, Fabergé opened its timepieces workshop in Geneva and wins the 2016 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève in the Travel Time category with its Visionnaire DTZ Rose Gold timepiece. 

Mirculuous stuff

john smith