Fabergé’s exquisite bejewelled objects have endured a tragic and blood-stained history that scattered them throughout the world. Jonathan Glancey tells their story.

What do you expect to find inside an Easter egg? A chocolate bar? A clutch of fluffy, yellow Easter chick toys?  For more than 30 years the Romanov empresses of imperial Russia learned to expect a little more from their Easter morning gifts. Inside the pure white, life-size egg – fashioned from enamel, not chocolate – presented by Tsar Alexander III to Tsarina Maria Feodorovna in 1885, was a golden yolk concealing a golden hen. Inside the golden hen were a diamond miniature of the imperial crown and a small ruby egg.

This was just the first of 50 decorative Easter eggs made for the Russian royal family by the St Petersburg studio of Peter Carl Fabergé between 1885 and 1917 when the October Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power and, within months, the brutal murder of Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra and their five children.

In happier days, what playful treasures Maria Feodorovna, a Danish princess, and Alexandra, a German-born granddaughter of Queen Victoria, had found in their Fabergé eggs. A musical box. A peacock that fanned its bejewelled tail. A model of the family’s 18th-Century Gatchina Palace. A mechanical swan. A portrait gallery. A walking elephant. A model of the Trans Siberian Express.

 The eggs were crafted from gold, covered in fine layers of lacquer and studded with precious stones

The train was a celebration of the newly complete railway stretching across Russia from Moscow to the far eastern port of Vladivostok. When wound up with a tiny key, its Lilliputian locomotive complete with a diamond headlamp pulled five gold carriages, their windows made of rock crystal and engraved with infinitesimally small signs reading ’Mail’, ‘Ladies Only’, ‘Smoking’, ‘No Smoking’, and, the Romanovs being a deeply religious family, ‘Chapel’.

The eggs factor

The eggs themselves were remarkable objects. Crafted from gold, covered in fine layers of lacquer and studded with precious stones from imperial quarries in the Urals and Altai mountains, some, like the Hen Egg of 1885 and the Scandinavian Egg of 1903, one of the fifteen Fabergé eggs made for a family other than the Romanovs, were almost pure in design. Others were highly elaborate, verging on kitsch.

Since Fabergé’s eggs first appeared on public show at the hugely popular 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, critics and collectors have been torn between praising the Russian-born jeweller for his perfectionism and damning him for excess. While some of the fabled eggs, each worth an emperor’s ransom, might readily be labelled ‘bling’ today, as a collection they display the supreme craftsmanship Fabergé had exhibited when, as a young man, he made replicas of historic jewellery at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Tsar Alexander III was among those who saw Fabergé’s early work on display in Moscow in the All-Russia Exhibition of 1882: neither he nor experts could tell Fabergé’s replicas from the originals.

On Lenin’s orders, stolen Fabergé eggs were packed off to the Kremlin Armoury

Born in St Petersburg in 1846 to the German jeweller Gustav Fabergé, of Huguenot descent, and his Danish wife, Charlotte Jungstedt, Peter Carl Fabergé took over the family business in 1882. In 1885, after he had hatched his first golden egg, he was named ‘Jeweller by appointment to the Imperial Court’. His career was truly gilded until the Bolshevik Revolution. When in 1918 Lenin nationalised the House of Fabergé, Peter Carl went into exile in Switzerland where he died two years later.

While the nationalisation of utilities like gas or electricity might have made sense, state ownership of the House of Fabergé was an absurdity. No order was given for the mass production of cheap red wooden Easter eggs for the heroic Soviet proletariat; instead, the company vanished, while, on Lenin’s orders, stolen and requisitioned Fabergé eggs were packed off along with other Romanov treasures to the secure confines of the Kremlin Armoury.

In later years, Stalin sold 14 Fabergé eggs overseas to raise foreign currency as part of the ‘Treasures into Tractors’ directive, just as Lenin had traded Russian furs and caviar for American wheat.

‘Imperial class’

While Fabergé’s son, Alexander, and his half-brother Eugène set up a new luxury goods company in Paris in 1924, the famous family name was appropriated, and registered, in the United States in 1937 by Samuel Rubin to sell perfume. In 1951, Rubin agreed to pay the Fabergé family to use the name, but not, as history shows, to protect it.

The company name had descended from the riches of St Petersburg to sanitary ware

In 1964, the Fabergé name was associated with the new Brut aftershave – “Splash it all Over!” – promoted in Britain by Henry Cooper, the Cockney boxing champion. It was not long before the Fabergé name was being used to sell, of all things, washing-up powder and lavatory cleaner. Although Fabergé eggs themselves continued to possess kudos, enjoyably exploited in the 1983 James Bond caper Octopussy, the company name had descended from the riches of St Petersburg to sanitary ware.

Following a complex history of company buyouts, in 2007 the name was rescued by Pallinghurst Resources, an international investment advisory firm, and Fabergé Ltd was founded, with Tatiana and Sarah Fabergé, great-granddaughters of Peter Carl Fabergé, to make luxury goods and jewellery again. The name and the family had finally been reunited.

Most recently, the reformed Fabergé company has laid a new ‘Imperial Class’ egg. Crafted for the Saudi Al-Farden family, the Pearl Egg first shown in 2015 is fashioned from 139 fine white pearls, 3,305 diamonds and carved rock crystals on a base of white and yellow gold. The egg rotates and opens to reveal its surprise. No, not a wind-up camel, but a necklace of white pearls, diamonds and mother of pearl, or enough jewels to make even a Tsarina blink.

As for the original 50 imperial eggs, 43  are held in museums and private collections today. Seven are still unaccounted for, including the Nécessaire Egg of 1889. This ruby, emerald, sapphire and diamond encrusted egg contained what might best be described as a luxurious make-up kit. It was sold in 1952 by Wartski, the London jewellers, to an anonymous buyer for £1,250 – worth about £35,000 today.

It has not been seen since, unlike the clutch of nine eggs bought in auction from the Malcolm Forbes collection by the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg in 2004 for $100m (£71m). These are now the pride and joy of the Fabergé Museum that opened in 2013 in St Petersburg’s Shuvalev Palace. After an extraordinary, tragic and blood-stained history, the sumptuous imperial Fabergé eggs have been finding their way home.

The hunt for the remaining Easter eggs continues, and the surprises keep coming. Last year, an 1887 imperial egg valued at an estimated $33m was found in a Midwest antique shop, while in October, the British Royal Collection Trust announced that it had found the missing surprise from the Diamond Trellis Egg of 1892. This is a clockwork ivory elephant King George V acquired in 1935.

“Words cannot describe our emotions”, Caroline de Guitart, senior curator with the Royal Collections Trust, told delegates at a conference at the Fabergé Museum, “when the winding key fitted ideally to the mechanism, and the elephant started walking, moved its legs and nodded, for the first time in 80 years.” What else should she have expected of a Fabergé? Sadly, you are unlikely to find anything quite like this diamond encrusted Romanov jewel in this year’s Easter egg.

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