Fabergé Eggs have captured the imaginations of people since their inception. Their lush and opulent designs are art. Jewellery art. But how did they come about? Who were they for?
There are few things more Russian than a Fabergé egg. Maybe vodka, or Tolstoy, even bears. But in terms of Russian opulence there are few symbols more synonymous with the royal family than Fabergé eggs. Well, maybe the Winter Palace… and the Kremlin. Russians have a lot of iconic things relating to their culture, alright? Fabergé eggs are just one of many but like many things in Russia, the presentation is beautiful and their history interesting.
Let’s start with the man behind the egg. Well, the man behind the egg’s father, Gustav Fabergé who founded the House of Fabergé in 1842 in St. Petersburg. In the beginning, it was a jewellery business like any other. Nothing too flash. But once Gustav died and his son, Peter Carl Fabergé, took over the jewellery house in 1882, he transformed it into an international phenomenon.
The Tsar Alexander III used to give his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna, a jewelled Easter egg every year since his coronation in 1883. Just before Easter 1885, Alexander’s brother, the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich suggested a jeweller he thought very highly of, Fabergé.
The Tsar commissioned a jewelled egg from Fabergé. What was produced became known as the Hen Egg. Peter Carl Fabergé knew that he had to give it his all. It was an egg for the royal family after all and not just any egg would do. The Hen Egg’s exterior has a 2.5-inch enamel shell with a golden band around the middle. When it opens up it reveals a golden yolk within and a golden hen sitting on golden straw. It goes even further. Inside the golden hen laid a miniature diamond replica of the Imperial crown with a ruby pendant. Unfortunately, the crown and ruby have been lost.
The Tsar gave it to his wife, and she absolutely loved it. Six weeks later, Alexander made Fabergé the ‘goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown.’ Almost immediately, another egg was commissioned for the following Easter.
This time, Fabergé was given complete freedom to design the egg and they became even more elaborate than before. It has been rumoured that not even the Tsar knew what the next egg was going to be, he had to have complete faith in Fabergé.
The only requirement the Tsar made of Fabergé was that each egg had to contain a surprise and they had to be unique. It was an impressive undertaking that Fabergé couldn’t complete on his own. He still had a business to run after all. Instead, he would come up with a design or approve another jeweller’s design and a team of craftsmen would carry out the work.
The second Egg made for the Imperial family has unfortunately been lost. It was another Hen Egg but with a sapphire pendant inside.
When Alexander III died in 1894, his son Nicholas II kept up the egg giving tradition. Now instead of one egg per year, there would be two, one for Nicholas’ wife, Alexandrovna, and one for his mother, Maria Fedorovna.
This tradition continued every year with the exception of the years 1904 and 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War.
Even during their day, Fabergé Eggs were famous. Fabergé was soon being commissioned by clients outside of the Russian royal family. These included the Duchess of Marlborough, the Rothschild family, and the Yusupovs.
The Kelch family had gone above the rest by ordering 12 eggs from Fabergé. The Kelch family were rich industrialists who had made their money from Siberian gold mines. Only 7 of the eggs were completed and those eggs weren’t as elaborate as the imperial eggs and were often copies of other eggs.
Tragedy struck the Fabergé house in 1918 when the jeweller was nationalised by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The Fabergé family themselves fled to Switzerland due to their close ties with the royal family, the enemies of the Bolsheviks.
All the eggs that could be found were taken to the Kremlin armoury by Vladimir Lenin but many of the eggs were taken by the Fabergé family or other owners elsewhere in Europe. The Eggs were not harmed. The Bolsheviks appreciated their beauty and understood that they were a part of Russian culture.
Stalin really needed money a decade or so after the revolution. The Eggs were in his sights. But instead of melting the eggs down he sold them for far less than they were worth to get some quick cash. He sold 14 eggs during 1930 and 1933 to people like the American businessman Armand Hammer, and the British jeweller Emmanuel Snowman.
At some point in time, nine Fabergé eggs were in the possession of the Forbes family. In 2004, the Forbes family had decided to auction their eggs and 180 other Fabergé pieces at Sotheby’s.
Before the auction could even go ahead, Russian oligarch, Viktor Vekselberg, bought the entire collection before the public sale. This private sale was for an alleged US $100 million. Now Veskelberg has 15 eggs in total: 9 imperial eggs, 4 Kelch eggs, and four additional eggs.
With his large collection Veskelberg founded the Fabergé museum in St. Petersburg in 2013. He has stated that he has never displayed them in his home or any other private residences because that wasn’t why he bought them. He bought them because of their importance to Russian history and culture and believes the Fabergé collection to be the best jewellery art in the world.
The Fabergé museum is still open today to visitors.
So that was a short history of the Fabergé Eggs. You might be surprised to find out that some are still being made today. Check out our article on the newest Fabergé egg.