Fabergé – A Life of its Own

August 22, 2015
The Caucasus Egg, Fabergé, 1893. The pearl, diamond and red enamel egg.
The Caucasus Egg, Fabergé, 1893. The pearl, diamond and red enamel egg.

And now, a word from our sponsor. That could be the opening line of Fabergé: A Life of its Own, an overview of a fascinating subject that manages to sound like an extended advertisement for the brand.

The film is credited to no fewer than seven countries – the home nations of leading Fabergé collectors. They must be suitably pleased to see a full-length documentary that will help drive the value of their expensive purchases to even greater heights.

The blandness of Peter Mark’s film is frustrating because the House of Fabergé makes for a great story. Its founder, Carl Peter Fabergé, was born in St. Petersburg in 1846, under the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. By 1885 he was established as jeweller “by appointment” to the Crown. Until his company was nationalised by the Bolsheviks in 1918, Fabergé would run the largest, most prestigious jewellery business in Russia, if not the world.

Mark suggests the key to Fabergé’s success was that he was as much an artist as a businessman. His customers recognised an exacting eye for craftsmanship and would pay huge sums to acquire his pieces.

Fabergé’s best clients were always the Russian monarchs and nobles who enjoyed a fantasy life of wealth and privilege in a land of crushing poverty. The Court had long traditions of gift-giving, but this became a mania during the twilight years of the Romanovs, with expensive gifts changing hands on every possible occasion. The Tsar had to be the most generous of all.

Fabergé produced exquisite small pieces that circulated among the nobilty, and rare, spectacular objects for the royal family. The most famous were the easter eggs the Tsars gave as presents to their wives and mothers. These eggs were made of precious materials, and always contained a ‘surprise’. The first ever egg, of 1885, was made from gold covered in white enamel. Inside was a golden yolk, which in turn opened to reveal a multicoloured golden hen. Inside the hen, a small replica of the imperial crown was concealed.

Other famous eggs included the Memory of Azov (1891), which commemorated a long voyage undertaken by the young Nicholas II, before he became Tsar. Inside a lustrous, dark green shell there lay a tiny golden replica of the boat on which Nicholas had travelled. The Peacock egg of 1908 contained a small mechanical peacock that could walk and spread its tail.

At the height of his fame, Fabergé employed 300 craftsmen at his St. Petersburg headquarters, with masters running their own small firms under the company umbrella.

There was also a branch in Moscow that made pieces in a distinctly Russian style, and a shop in Bond St., London, that sold jewellery and carved animals to the kings and queens of Europe. Edward VII, and his wife, Alexandra, were keen clients; as was Edward’s favourite mistress, Mrs. Keppel.

By the beginning of World War I, Fabergé represented a dream of luxury that was largely nostalgic. in an era of Modernist upheaval the firm’s elaborate Neo-classicism looked like a memento of another age.

The years following the Revolution found the Bolsheviks selling off most of their Fabergé treasures to foreign collectors. Among the most avid purchasers was Armand Hammer, who peddled his collection around the United States, leaning heavily on the tragic, romantic story of the last Tsar and his family.

Not only did Hammer help create a craze for Fabergé among wealthy Americans, he encouraged his friend, Sam Rubin, to use the name for a new brand of perfume. This opened the door to a bewildering range of “Fabergé” products, including shampoo, toilet paper, and “the great smell of Brut 33”.

In 2009 a group of investors bought up all the Fabergé trademarks and licences, with the idea of restoring the brand’s status as a maker of high-end jewellery. This is presented as a happy ending, but it was really an exercise in clearing away the trash to capitalise on the firm’s history and reputation. The new Fabergé is once more making rare and expensive easter eggs to be sold to billionaire clients, while older examples keep turning up in unusual places. The most recent story concerns the third imperial egg of 1887, which was bought at an auction in a mid-western American town by a local scrap dealer, and sold for a US$30 million profit.

The only problem with this triumphant conclusion is that the glories of Fabergé belong to a particular moment in time, and every new creation – regardless of its rarity and value – feels like a pastiche. Carl Peter Fabergé may have seen himself as an artist but for today’s super-rich he survives only as a label.

Fabergé – A Life of its Own
Written & directed by Patrick Mark
UK/USA/Switzerland/Russia/Monaco/Germany/
France, rated G, 87 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 22nd August, 2015.