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Fabulous Fabergé
by Bob Brooke


A story of Imperial Russia as romantic as Doctor Zhivago and as tragic as War and Peace surrounds a golden egg. No, not the one the goose laid, but one designed and crafted in solid gold by Peter Carl Fabergé, goldsmith to royalty.

For 112 years, this egg was thought to be lost. It appeared on official inventories just after the Russian Revolution but then mysteriously disappeared until someone purchased it for a mere $13,302 at a Midwestern antiques mart. Ironically, the buyer didn’t purchase it for the egg but for the luxurious Vacheron & Constantin ladies watch inside. The buyer thought the egg was just the watch’s storage container and had planned on melting it down.

To find out more about the watch, the buyer did a search on Google and discovered to his amazement that what he had purchased was in fact an 1887 birthday gift for Czar Alexander III from Fabergé, himself. He subsequently put it up for auction with Sotheby’s where it sold for an estimated $33 million, making it the most expensive watch—and consequently Faberge egg—in the world.

The egg, made in 1887, was the third of 54 Fabergé eggs owned by the Romanovs, the Russian royal family, and had been lost since 1922.

The Provisional Russian Government recorded the egg among the confiscated Imperial treasures transferred from the Anichkov Palace to the Moscow Kremlin Armory in September 1917. Although historians believe some of the eggs had been stolen.

Then in 1922, the Provisional Russian Government transferred this egg, along with ____ others, from the Kremlin Armory, which had confiscated the eggs in 1917 when the Czar was overthrown, to the special plenipotentiary of the Council of People's Commissars, Ivan Gavrilovich Chinariov. Besides the written inventories, a photograph of the egg taken in 1902 when it was on exhibit in St. Petersburg also survived.

The jeweled and ridged yellow gold egg stands on its original tripod pedestal, which has chased lion paw feet. Colored gold garlands suspended from cabochon blue sapphires topped with rose diamond set bows encircle it.

Each Faberge egg contains a “surprise,” a miniature sculpture or object that illustrates the theme of the egg. The third egg’s surprise is a lady’s pendant watch by Vacheron Constantin, with a white enamel dial and openwork diamond set gold hands. Faberge took the watch out of its case and mounted it in the egg, hinging it so that it could stand upright.

Czar Alexander III, who had decided to give his wife, the Empress Maria Feodorovna, an Easter egg in 1885, possibly to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their betrothal. Although there is no official record of the Czar's inspiration for it, many believe that an egg owned by the Empress's aunt, Princess Vilhelmine Marie of Denmark, which had captivated Maria's imagination in her childhood and of which the Czar was well aware, was the inspiration for this tradition. Known as the Hen Egg, the very first Fabergé egg is crafted from a foundation of gold. Its opaque white enameled "shell" opens to reveal a matte yellow-gold yolk. This, in turn, opens to reveal a multicolored gold hen that also opens. The hen contained a minute diamond replica of the imperial crown from which a small ruby pendant was suspended, but these last two elements have been lost.

The egg delighted the Empress so much that the Czar commissioned another Easter egg for her the following year. He also appointed Fabergé a “Goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown.” The second egg also featured a hen, and is known as the Hen with Sapphire Pendant. From then on, the Czar commissioned an egg for his wife each Easter. He gave Fabergé complete creative freedom over the design of each one. The tradition became so established within the Russian Royal Family that when Czar Alexander III died in 1894, his son, Nicholas II, continued to commission eggs each year—one for his own wife, and one for his mother, the Dowager Empress.

These bejeweled eggs, possibly numbering as many as 69, of which 57 survive today, created by the House of Fabergé, in St. Petersburg were manufactured under the supervision of Peter Carl Fabergé between 1885 and 1917, the most famous being the 54 "Imperial" eggs, 43 of which survive, made for the Russian Czars Alexander III and Nicholas II as Easter gifts for their wives and mothers.

After Alexander III's death on November 1, 1894, his son, Nicholas II, presented a Fabergé egg to both his wife, Alexandra Fedorovna, and his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna. Records have shown that of the 50 imperial Easter eggs, 20 were given to the former and 30 to the latter. Eggs were made each year except 1904 and 1905, during the Russo-Japanese War.

As Fabergé promised, each egg was entirely unique and reflected the fashions of the day. For example, Art Nouveau featured heavily in the 1898 egg, “Lilies of the Valley”. This egg’s surprise, revealed by twisting a gold-mounted pearl button, was three portraits set under the Imperial crown: Czar Nicholas II and his two oldest daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana.

The supervising goldsmith for the “Lilies of the Valley” egg was Michael Perchin. It was presented on April 5, 1898 to Czar Nicholas II, who gave it to Czaritsa, Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna.

Designed by Alma Pihl, the only female and one of the best known Fabergé workmasters, the egg;s exterior resembles frost and ice crystals formed on clear glass. Made from quartz, platinum, and orthoclase, it is studded with 1,660 diamonds. The surprise is a miniature flower basket, made from gold and platinum and studded with 1,378 diamonds, with flowers made of white quartz and leaves made of demantoid. The flowers lie in a bed of gold moss.

Other notable designs include the Imperial Coronation egg, made in 1897, and an egg commemorating Alexander III made for the Dowager Empress in 1909. The former contains a precise miniature version of the 18th-century Imperial coach that carried the Czarina to her coronation. This coach is complete with moving wheels, opening doors and a tiny step-stair. The commemorative egg, perhaps unsurprisingly, contained a miniature gold bust of the late Czar. It’s one of four eggs that commemorate his reign.

The Grisaille Egg, also known as the "Catherine the Great Egg," made in 1914 by Henrik Wigström, Fabergé's last head workmaster, was a gift from Czar Nicholas II to his mother Maria Feodorovna. Its surprise (now lost) was a mechanical sedan chair, carried by two blackamoors, with Catherine the Great seated inside.

The Order of St. George Egg, made during World War I, commemorated the Order of St. George, awarded to Emperor Nicholas II and his son, the Grand Duke Alexei Nikolaievich. The Order of St. George Egg and its counterpart the Steel Military Egg were given a modest design in keeping with the austerity of World War I. The Order of St. George egg left Bolshevik Russia with its original recipient, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.

The Karelian Birch Egg, created in 1917, was due to be completed and delivered to Czar Nicholas II that Easter, as a present for his mother, the Empress Maria Feodorovna. Before the egg could be delivered, the February Revolution took place and he
was forced to abdicate his throne on March 15. On April 25, Fabergé sent the Czar an invoice for the egg, addressing Nicholas II not as "Czar of all the Russians" but as "Mr. Romanov, Nikolai Aleksandrovich". Faberge sent the egg to Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich at his palace, for presentation to the Empress, but the Duke fled before it arrived. The egg remained in the palace until someone stole it in the wake of the October Revolution later that year.

The Imperial Fabergé eggs created quite a stir high society circles at the turn of the century. A few Russian and European aristocrats commissioned Fabergé to make similar eggs for them. Notable clients included the Duchess of Marlborough and the Rothschild family. Fabergé was also commissioned by nobleman and industrialist Alexander Kelch, who asked the jeweler to make a number of eggs for his wife. None of these eggs are as elaborately designed as the Imperial eggs. However, they do follow the same pattern of hiding a surprise inside.

Fabergé made all his eggs from precious metals and gemstones, so for this reason alone it's no surprise that they're the most expensive eggs in the world.

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