Fabergé, Goldsmith to the Crown – Iconic Works at The Met NY

During the ‘romantic age’ in Russia the allegory of love preoccupied goldsmiths and jewellers, none with a more restless imagination than Peter Carl Fabergé. (1846 – 1920).

A unique show at The Metropolitan Museum at New York, which originally started in November 2011, will for five years exhibit on a rotating schedule, five major American collections and the American social history of the collectors of the amazing objects on display.

They are all considered iconic works from the House of Fabergé in Imperial Russia.

The objects on display at The Met Museum include works from the collections of Matilda Geddings Gray (New Orleans Museum of Art), India Early Minshall (Cleveland Museum of Art), Lillian Thomas Pratt (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond), Marjorie Merriweather Post (Hillwood Museum, Washington, DC) and Malcolm S. Forbes (The Forbes Galleries, New York).

Nine eggs and approximately 180 other items from the House of Faberge, founded by Carl’s father Gustav, were once owned by Malcolm Forbes of the Forbes magazine dynasty in the largest set of Faberge items outside the Russian Kremlin. His heirs were set to auction the collection with Sotheby’s in 2004 but oligarch Victor Vekselberg bought the whole collection before the sale started. Vekselberg is estimated to have paid between $90 and $120 million (£57.7 and £77m).

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The most stunning works in the show come from a sophisticated collector, Louisiana heiress and philanthropist Matilda Geddings Gray, who amassed 57 rare pieces highlighted by three Russian Imperial Easter Eggs at a time when the name Fabergé was virtually unknown in the USA, have attracted much attention over the past two years.

Fond of travel, she first encountered the works of Fabergé at the Chicago World Fair of 1933 and was inspired to go on a quest to find more.

After Matilda Geddings Gray died in 1971, her outstanding collection passed to the foundation that she had established, with the stipulation that a broader public should always be able to enjoy it.

An interesting aspect of the show at The Met Museum will be towards the end when they will display forgeries of Fabergé made by those attempting to cash in on their value at a time when passions ran high and high status collectors were reaching for the stars.

Long after the death of the famous jeweler in 1920, the first boutique in the U.S. of Fabergé opened on Madison Avenue at New York in March 2012.

Hollywood actress Kate Hudson, looking absolutely fabulous, chose to wear jewelry from their Les Fabuleuses collection to the premier of the film “The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Opening ceremony of the the 69th Venice International Film Festival at Palazzo del Cinema 2012 at Venice in Italy

A good proportion of Peter Carl Fabergé’s original work was based on the revival of pre revolutionary French style of decoration, inspired by the jewellery of the ancien regime.

Eros,  or Cupid the God of Love figured largely in his works.

Cupid is revealed subduing a phoenix on a splendid gold and pink guilloche enameled lid of a circular nephrite box produced in the Louis XV or so-called Rococo style.

The symbolism is love revived, since the mythical phoenix has traditionally been associated with hope and renewal, which is it seems what the House of Fabergé today is all about.

Apprenticed as a young man to his father’s atelier at Saint Petersburg, Peter Carl Fabergé took it over in 1872. He transformed it into one of the most successful jewellery companies in the world, which at the peak of its success employed some five hundred artisans and designers.

Coronation Egg 1897 Easter gift to Alexandra, workmasters Michael Perchin & Henrik Wigström

Given access to the amazing collection of ancient gold jewellery pieces housed in the Russian Museum, The Hermitage during the 1870’s, Fabergé set his people to work cataloging, repairing and restoring many of its precious resources of ancient jewellery.

In the process they discovered the secrets of the ancient goldsmiths and began re-producing pieces, using their techniques as well as replicas of some of the most famous of the ancient pieces yet found.

Many of these had originally been unearthed in southern Italy at Herculaneum since 1738 and at Pompeii from 1748 having been buried by the resultant flow and ash from the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD

The Russian goldsmith was an eclectic genius and great visionary. His firm came to the attention of the Czar and the Imperial family during the Pan-Russian exhibition held at Moscow in 1882 where he had some of his replicas on display.

Nominated ‘Goldsmith by special appointment of the Imperial Crown” in 1885, he was commissioned to produce the first of what would become the most unique objets de luxein history, the Imperial Easter Egg.

The eggs were a gift from the Czar Alexander III to his wife Maria Feodorovna, perhaps they may be the greatest ever ‘love’ objects made. When their son Czar Nicholas II ascended the throne in 1894 he carried on the tradition, having them made for both his mother and his wife. The idea was that there would always be a surprise inside.

The Coronation Egg, an Easter gift to Alexandra Fedorovna is among the most recognised of all Faberge’s eggs. its surprise inside was an exact replica of the Imperial coach used to take her to her coronation in Moscow in May 1896.

Perfectly articulated, the steps can be let down when the doors open. Inside pale blue curtains behind the upolstered seats and footstool and it has a daintily painted ceiling. the egg is varicolored gold, translucent lime-yellow and opaque black and blue enamel, diamonds with an off-white velvet lining Coach is made of gold, platinum, strawberry red enamel, diamonds, rubies and rock crystal.

The amount of work and skill that went into the manufacture of these luxury objects required the work of a great many people, who were employed for one whole year to produce them.

Just one small object required the talents and skill of engravers, enamellers, polishers gem cutters, designers and so the cost was an extravagance of major proportions. Enameling is a technique that takes extreme patience, great skill and long periods of time if it is to be a success as each layer has to dry in a damp atmosphere. Faberge’s enamelling was a tour de force. The eggs were set with gems; diamonds, emeralds, pearls, crystal, ivory and sapphires and they opened up to reveal all sorts of magical miniature views and scenes inside.

The work that is considered his floral masterpiece, the “Lilies of the Valley Basket’, was made in 1896. It consisted of nineteen individual stems emerging from nine separate plants in a “moss” of spun, fused, clipped, and polished green and yellow gold. Each pearl blossom was edged in silver set with rose-cut diamonds, with realistic leaves made of hard, dense nephrite and carved with the striations characteristic of the lily-of-the-valley plant.

The czarina adored her Lilies-of- the-Valley Basket, because the blossoms were among her favorite flowers, and pearls were her favorite jewels. She kept it on view in the private apartments and often took it with her when she went travelling.

One of fifty-two jewelled eggs made under the supervision of Peter Carl Fabergé - gold, guilloché enamel, rose-cut diamond, platinum, ivory, gouache, velvet, silk by the House of Fabergé. Workmaster: Henrik Emanuel Wigström (Finnish, 1862–1923). Miniaturist: Vassily Ivanovich Zuiev Russian (Saint Petersburg), 1912. courtesy of the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The three Imperial Easter Eggs on view include the Imperial Danish Palaces Egg, which Czar Alexander III presented in 1890 to his wife, and which is divided into twelve sections in opalescent pink enamel with diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires.

It opens to reveal a surprise folding ten-panel screen that bears miniatures of the Empress’s favorite Danish and Russian retreats.

The Imperial Caucasus Egg, an opulent piece adorned with diamonds, pearls, crystal, and ivory, has four oval doors, each of which opens to reveal a different miniature view of Abastuman, the imperial hunting lodge in the Caucasus Mountains.

The final is the Imperial Napoleonic Egg, which Czar Nicholas II presented to his mother, the dowager empress Maria Feodorovna, on Easter 1912.

It commemorates the centenary of the Russian victory over the armies of Napoleon, opening to reveal a folding six-panel screen with miniatures showing the six regiments of which the dowager empress was an honorary colonel.

Peter Carl Fabergé, a giant of the jewellery trade

An interesting aside to the Fabergé story is that businessman Alfred Cartier’s son Pierre Cartier went to Russia in 1904 and 1905 to study the political and economic situation under Nicolas II as well as the professional success of their famous colleague.

After testing the market they concluded it would be far safer for Cartier to set up a new business in the United States, rather than Russsia as the first signs of revolution were already in the air.

Pierre became the head of Cartier New York in 1909, where right from the beginning and the sumptuous jewellery of the Belle Epoque until today, its name has also been associated with numerous illustrious patrons.

This would prove a wise decision, although falling under Faberge’s spell, the firm of Cartier began manufacturing their own enamel objects, using ancient techniques.

Queen Elizabeth & the then Catherine Middleton examining works by Fabergé in The Royal Collection. As a relation of the Russian royal family Queen Elizabeth II has a fine selection of Fabergé, including three of his now renowned 'eggs'.

They pioneered all-new colour combinations with a great refinement of style.

The Russian Revolution happened as they suspected it would in 1917. Following the revolution, the House of Faberge in Russia was nationalised in 1918. Peter Carl Fabergé was on the last diplomatic train to leave for the Latvian capital Riga, from where he finally fled to Germany when the Communist revolution spread west to encompass Latvia.

These events brought an end to Carl Peter Fabergé’s life’s work.

The artisan died at Lausanne in Switzerland, in 1920.

But his story did not end there. Peter Carl Fabergé’s two sons Alexander and Agathon had been imprisoned in Russia, while Madame Fabergé avoided capture and crossed the border into Finland with their younger brother Eugene.

Alexander escaped prison in 1925 by bribing the guards. Agathon would not escape until 1927 with his family and they spent the rest of their lives in Finland.

The diamond set head ornament that he produced was mounted in gold and set in silver in the form of a wreath of myrtle; the leaves and berries of which were sacred to the ancient Goddess of Love Aphrodite. It is a superb piece of 'love jewellery'.

In 1924, Peter Carl’s son Alexander and his half-brother Eugène opened Fabergé et Cie at Paris, to distinguish themselves from the shop owned by the state back in Russia. They were a modest success.

They used the trademark “FABERGÉ, PARIS” and the store continued in 2001.

In 1937, the brand name “Fabergé” was sold and then re-sold in 1964 to cosmetics company Rayette Inc., which changed its name to Rayette-Fabergé Inc. As the name was resold more times, Fabergé companies (such as Fabergé Inc.) launched clothing lines.

The cologne Brut (which became the best-selling cologne at the time), the perfume Babe, hair products, and they also undertook film production.

In 1984 Fabergé et Cie lost their rights to use the trademark Fabergé for jewelry against Fabergé Inc. It been started by Samuel Rubin at the suggestion of his friend American oil billionaire Armand Hammer, who was a renowned Fabergé collector. He had purchased the brand name Fabergé from Fabergé & Cie in 1937.

The reputation of Fabergé as a producer of the highest standard was maintained by Fabergé Inc, although there were other companies fighting to secure the rights to the name.

Major exhibitions such as those at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1994 and the Royal Collection in 2003–4 aided their cause.

Following the end of the Soviet Union and the rise of the oligarchs, Russian collectors sought to repatriate many of Fabergé’s works and auction prices reached record highs.

On 27 November 2007, the Rothschild Fabergé Egg was auctioned at Christie’s in London for £8.98 million.

It was record price for a piece of Fabergé as well as the highest price ever paid for a Russian object and the most expensive price for a timepiece.

The company history since the 80’s is extremely complex to say the least, suffice to say that in January 2007 the global portfolio of Fabergé trademarks, licences and all associated rights were sold to a new firm who announced it proposed to establish the Fabergé company once more as the world’s most exclusive luxury brand. It has boutiques at London, one in Geneva, one in Hong Kong and Fabergé in Madison Avenue at New York.

Fabergé from the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation Collection

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

November 22, 2011–Part of A Long-term Installation (5 Years)

Currently on show in Gallery 555

Carolyn McDowall, Writer, Publisher, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012 – 2014

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