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“Christ Is Risen!”
For Russian Orthodox Christians in the nineteenth century, no date in the religious calendar was more important than Easter day. The long fast of Lent would have been strictly observed—no meat, milk, butter, or eggs for more than seven weeks—until the solemn celebrations of Holy Week built steadily to their joyful climax at a midnight service finishing early on Easter morning. Throughout the day itself, friends and family greeted each other with the traditional three kisses, and responded to the jubilant “Christ is risen!” with a reply of equal certainty: “He is risen indeed!” And then, in a ritual whose symbolism stretches back to pagan spring festivals, they would exchange eggs.
So Czar Alexander III was simply following tradition when, in 1885, he gave his beloved czarina, the popular Marie Fedorovna, an apparently unexciting white enameled egg. About two and a half inches high, it had the size and appearance of a large duck egg, but with a gold band around its middle. Only when the empress opened the czar’s present did it reveal its true nature: like an elaborate matryoshka doll it contained a perfect yolk, made of gold; within that was a golden hen, sitting on a nest of golden straw; and inside the hen was a diamond miniature of the imperial crown, concealing a tiny ruby pendant. Every detail was exquisitely rendered—the craftsmanship unparalleled, the creativity inspired. It was the first egg made by Carl Fabergé for the Russian court.
Fabergé was not even forty when his firm made that first egg for the czar, but his family had, in a sense, spent more than a lifetime preparing for this moment. Not only was his father, Gustav, a jeweler, but it is safe to assume that his more distant ancestors were craftsmen, too. Their surnames alone give that away: Favry, Fabri, and Fabrier all appear to have been used at some point, and all, like Fabergé itself, are derived from the Latin word “faber,” meaning “smith” or “maker.” In the eighteenth century these ancestors were living in France, but their Protestant religion marked them out for persecution by another absolute monarch, the Roman Catholic Louis XIV (1638–1715). At least two hundred thousand Huguenots—many of them skilled artisans—fled France following Louis’s repeal in 1685 of the Edict of Nantes, which had until then guaranteed religious toleration. Carl’s ancestors were among them, and chose to go east.
By 1800, Peter Favry had settled in Pärnu, in current-day Estonia, where he had taken Russian citizenship, a move that gave his family freedom from further religious intolerance. Gustav was born here in 1814, and by 1820 his surname was already Faberge. He seems to have added the accent to the final e in 1842. The gradual name change smacks of an attempt at social betterment. The aristocracy of nineteenth-century Russia still spoke in French and looked to Paris as the fount of culture. It would have done the former Favrys no harm to stress their Gallic origins.
Gustav’s ambition is evidenced by his early move to Russia’s capital, Saint Petersburg. Here he trained with some of Russia’s most eminent jewelers, including I. V. Keibel, the firm that only a few years earlier had reset the crown jewels for Czar Nicholas I. Soon enough, Gustav was ready to set up on his own as a master goldsmith, and in 1841 he opened his own shop—only a basement, but located on the Bolshaya Morskaya, one of the smartest streets in Saint Petersburg.
Five years later, on May 5, 1846, Gustav’s son, Carl Gustavovitch Fabergé, was born. He would become the vehicle for his father’s dreams, not only attending one of the most fashionable schools in Saint Petersburg but also spending long hours in the workshop. Here he started to learn the basics of jewelry making from his father’s senior employee, the Finnish workmaster Hiskias Pendin.
Then, in 1860, when he was only forty-six, Gustav Fabergé retired. Leaving Pendin and a manager in charge of the business, he took his family to Dresden, the capital of Saxony, back in Germany. It seems a bizarre decision. Gustav was not, apparently, ill; he lived for another thirty years. It may be that he could no longer stand the marshy atmosphere of Saint Petersburg—the houses sealed tight against the cold of winter, the quagmires of spring, and the baking heat of summer. Or it may be that he had become aware of his son’s talent, and realized that for it to flower Carl would need to be educated in a manner that Russian schools simply could not provide. If Gustav was to remain in at least nominal contact with his business in Saint Petersburg, there was no better place for his son to expand his horizons and develop his skills than Dresden, “the Florence of the Elbe.”
Certainly, Carl’s education from 1860 bears the hallmarks of a carefully plotted trajectory. It began at Dresden’s handelsschule, literally, “trade school.” This was where the sons of Saxon merchants went to learn the rudiments of business administration. A subsequent grand tour gave Carl the opportunity to visit jewelers in England, Italy, and, above all, Paris, where newcomers such as Cartier and Boucheron were turning out designs that married traditional craftsmanship with creative flair. In Paris, too, Carl spent more time in a commercial college. Finally, he took up an apprenticeship with a goldsmith in Frankfurt, but it was only a short attachment, one that gave him the opportunity to see a master at work, not to perfect every technique. In short, Carl seems to have spent his years outside Russia in pursuit of two main aims: exposure to Western culture and preparation for a life in business. The son of Gustav Fabergé was destined to be the head of a firm—an employer, not an employee.
In 1864, four years after his father had taken him to Dresden, Carl Fabergé returned to work for the family firm in Saint Petersburg. He was only eighteen; his education continued. Partly this involved learning at the side of Hiskias Pendin, but Carl also did his best to seek out the works of earlier, more European, master jewelers. He found them in the Hermitage, the great museum attached to Saint Petersburg’s Winter Palace. Here, treasures accumulated by previous generations of czars had been on display to the public since the 1850s. Carl developed friendships with members of the Hermitage directorate, and in 1867 began unpaid work there. The museum had started to receive items of ancient jewelry discovered during archaeological investigations; they needed someone to repair them and assess their materials. Carl volunteered.
By 1872, when he was twenty-six, Carl Fabergé was ready both to take over his father’s business and to marry. His wife was also his cousin, Augusta Jacobs, the daughter of a cabinetmaker. Three sons followed in quick succession, born between 1874 and 1877: Eugène, Agathon, and Alexander. A fourth son, Nicholas, died at age two in 1883; and a fifth and last son, again called Nicholas, was born the following year. Later employees of Carl Fabergé would tell of the jeweler welcoming his customers’ children, setting out animals carved from semiprecious stones for them to play with, unconcerned with the fragility of a chosen toy. These descriptions suggest a kindly and interested father, and his sons all eventually chose to join him in the company. Nevertheless, whatever the distractions of family life, Carl remained focused on the business entrusted to him by his own father. He moved it to larger premises, still on Bolshaya Morskaya, and began the changes that would transform what his eldest son, Eugène, later called “a dealer in petty jewelry and spectacles” into the premier jeweler in Europe.
Fabergé’s time in Europe and the Hermitage had inspired him; he wanted to make pieces of jewelry that were more than the sum of their parts—to elevate design and craftsmanship above mere materials. In his own words, much later, “Expensive things interest me little if the value is merely in so many diamonds or pearls.” In nineteenth-century Russia this was a groundbreaking philosophy. Everyone knew the story of how Count Orlov had secured his position at Catherine the Great’s court with the gift to her of a single massive diamond, smuggled from India. The purchase had bankrupted him, but favors from a grateful empress soon proved it had been a wise investment. Little had changed in the century since Catherine’s death. According to an English diplomat, Lord Frederic Hamilton, who spent much of the 1880s in Saint Petersburg, “A stone must be very perfect to satisfy the critical Russian eye, and, true to their Oriental blood, the ladies preferred unfaceted rubies, sapphires, and emeralds.” One of Carl Fabergé’s great achievements was that he not only made beautifully designed jewelry, but succeeded in selling it to the Russian aristocracy. He changed the taste of Saint Petersburg.
Very few pieces of Fabergé survive from these early years, so it is hard to trace the development of Carl’s ideas, or of his skills as a designer. By 1881, however, he had achieved enough recognition among his peers to be appointed a “master” of the second guild. In keeping with the commercial flavor of his education, the title marked him as a merchant or retailer rather than a craftsman. It allowed him to use his own hallmark confirming precious metal content without submitting his pieces for official testing. Presumably it is no coincidence that this was the year that Hiskias Pendin died. The firm might still be called “Gustav Fabergé,” but its owner remained in Dresden. Carl was now formally acknowledged, by all, as its head.
The business was already reasonably substantial, employing about twenty people, but it was the following year, 1882, that brought Fabergé his first major breakthrough—the attention of the imperial family. The occasion was an exhibition in Moscow of artifacts from all over Russia. Fabergé had been invited to participate because of his work at the Hermitage Museum. The articles he had helped to restore included Greek and Scythian jewelry dating back to the fourth century b.c., which had been found at Kerch, on the Black Sea coast. Fabergé had obtained permission both to copy them and to incorporate their designs in more modern objects; he made the results the focus of his display at the exhibition. It was an inspired decision; Fabergé could show off creativity then unexpected in a jeweler, while rooting it in a tradition so ancient that no Russian could fail to be impressed. A notice in the magazine Niva was suitably ecstatic: “Mr. Fabergé opens a new era in the art of jewelry. We wish him all the best in his efforts to bring back into the realm of art what once used to be a part of it.” The same article carried a final, telling paragraph: “Her Majesty honored Fabergé by buying a pair of cuff links with images of cicadas, which, according to Ancient Greek belief, bring luck.”
A decade after taking over his father’s business Carl Fabergé had achieved royal recognition. Nevertheless, he was only one jeweler among many supplying the Russian court; at least five firms feature in the imperial accounts for the following year, 1883, and the amount paid to Fabergé—just under 6,400 rubles ($3,100/$64,000*)—was by far the smallest. The next year his friends at the Hermitage tried to get him an imperial warrant, the formal acknowledgment of his position as a royal supplier, and a hugely valuable affirmation of status in a capital city where life still revolved around the court. The request was refused; that sort of honor was not given lightly.
Only one year later, however, in 1885, the czar gave his wife, Marie Fedorovna, her first Easter present from Fabergé—the Hen Egg. He had given her jeweled eggs on previous Easters; he cannot have known that this gift would be the first of a series that would eventually span more than three decades. Nor was the cost of this first egg—4,151 rubles ($2,000/$43,000)—such that the decision to order it needed very much thought. It represented a tiny fraction of the czar’s annual income—an estimated nine million rubles ($4.4 million/$94 million). Fabergé may simply have been chosen for the commission because it was his “turn.” Nevertheless, there is evidence that this year, at least, the czar wanted an egg that was designed to be more than just a collection of precious stones. It comes from a pair of letters, now in the Russian State Historical Archives, exchanged between the czar and his brother, the grand duke Vladimir.
The first letter is from the grand duke. Sent on March 21, 1885, three days before Easter, it clearly accompanied the egg, which Vladimir must have picked up from Fabergé on his brother’s behalf. The note contains detailed instructions on how to open each successive layer within the egg, and gives his opinion of it as “a complete success . . . praiseworthy for its fine and intricate workmanship.”
In his reply, written the same day, the czar agrees: “I am grateful to you, dear Vladimir, for the trouble you have taken in placing the order and for the execution of the order itself, which could not have been more successful.” There is enough here to suggest that it was the cosmopolitan Vladimir who had first conceived the idea to order an egg from Fabergé. It is the closing sentence of the czar’s letter, however, that truly intrigues: “I do hope the egg will have the desired effect on its future owner.” What “effect” on his wife did the czar have in mind? What, in fact, was the nature of their marriage?
Alexander III had taken the throne following the gruesome assassination of his father, Alexander II, a few weeks before the Easter of 1881. On Sunday, March 1, the old czar was on his way back from the ceremonial changing of the guard at the Mikhailovsky riding school in Saint Petersburg when a bomb was thrown under his carriage. The explosion damaged the vehicle, killing and injuring part of the escort, but the czar himself was unharmed. Ignoring his driver’s pleas to speed on, he stepped down from the carriage and began speaking to the wounded men, questioning the captured bomb thrower, and praising his own good fortune at a lucky escape. Almost immediately, a further assassin ran forward. Shouting “It is too early to thank God,” he launched a bomb that exploded directly at the czar’s feet.
Alexander was still alive, but only just. His legs had been torn away and his stomach ripped open, yet he still had enough strength to whisper a last command: “To the palace, to die there.” He was obeyed. Dripping blood up the marble staircase, his body, not yet a corpse, was carried into the Winter Palace. There the imperial family gathered around the deathbed. Among them were the future Alexander III; his wife, Marie Fedorovna, still clutching the ice skates she had been about to put on when the news of the bomb had reached her; and their son Nicholas, aged thirteen and dressed in a blue sailor suit. All were there when the surgeon made the expected announcement: “The emperor is dead.”
Russia had a new czar: Alexander III. Hearing the surgeon’s words, he turned from the window through which he had been staring, nodded, and gave a few swift instructions to the chief of police. Then he and Marie walked out of the palace and stepped into a waiting carriage. In the words of his cousin Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch, another witness to the deathbed scene, “In less than five minutes he had acquired a new personality. Something much bigger than a mere realization of the imperial responsibilities had transformed his massive frame.”