You probably don’t associate “Fabergé” with ordinary items such as inkwells or hair clips. After taking in the “Unknown Fabergé: New Finds and Rediscoveries” exhibit at The Museum of Russian Art, you will.
The Fabergé family was French, but fled to Estonia during the reign of Louis XIV to escape religious persecution against Huguenots, a Protestant sect. Eventually, they settled in Russia, and Gustav Fabergé started a jewelry business in St. Petersburg in 1842. His son, Peter Carl, studied goldsmithing in Italy, Germany, London and Paris before returning to the family business. He also studied the new subject of business administration.
Carl was an innovator. To expand the family business, he brought in highly experienced workers and set them up in teams under various “workmasters”. Fabergé paid their rent and for their materials. Then he went out and persuaded the St. Petersburg wealthy to commission original pieces of jewelry. He brought back the orders and the artists went to work. By the time of the Russian revolution in 1917, his operations included five workshops, three stores and 500 employees.
Business really took off when he began receiving commissions from the Russian Emperor, Alexander III. Alexander’s son, who became Nicholas II, was so thrilled with a pair of Fabergé cufflinks he received as a birthday gift, that he painted a watercolor “portrait” of them. He continued to paint pictures of his Fabergé gifts until the end of his life.
Fabergé became a rockstar in the jewelry world when Alexander commissioned an egg to present to his wife, Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, for Easter 1885. The simple, white enameled egg opened to reveal a solid gold “yolk” that opened to reveal a golden hen. The hen opened to reveal a tiny, diamond-encrusted crown and an even tinier ruby egg. The gift was a hit, and the imperial family ordered a new egg every year for 50 years.
The exhibit at TMORA doesn’t include any of the exquisite eggs, but you can see other examples of fabulous Fabergé workmanship. The pieces in the exhibit have never been gathered in one place before. Some left Russia during the revolution and come from private collections; others were found hidden in the Kremlin Armory. All are truly wonderful.
The pieces range from a gold-and-diamond pendant with a ¼-inch-high portrait of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna to a silver automaton of a rhinoceros that moves forward, raises its head and switches its tail at the turn of a silver key.
There are “everyday” items from the imperial household such as enameled inkwells, cigarette cases and a menu holder with a menu in French (upper-class Russians spoke French. Their native tongue was considered “coarse”.) The desk clocks look very contemporary, despite their gold hands and detailed frames.
Detail is a hallmark of Fabergé. A silver bramble branch is so realistic you could feel the tiny thorns and the veins in the leaves (if you could get your hands through the display case).
The star of the show is a tiny sedan chair about the size of a salt shaker. It has a delicate, iridescent peach/orange enamel exterior painted with flowers and bows so tiny the painter must have used a microscope to complete the work. Its windows are lined with tiny diamonds.
The exhibit concludes February 26. The Museum of Russian Art is located at 5500 Stevens Ave., just off the Diamond Lake Rd. exit on 35W. Parking is free in the Mayflower Church lot across the street. Admission is $10 for adults; $8 for seniors 65-plus; $5 for college students with ID and kids up to 14; children under 13 are free. Check tmora.org for hours.
By Cynthia Sowden