It is a good thing I have a positive attitude. I generally view the cup as half full, but travel so often suggests my cup might be half ‘fool’. The wealth of knowledge I gain from journeys keeps me exploring, but at the same time serves a humble reminder of how much I do not know. As such my travel mantra has evolved into “ignorance is bliss”, because each new discovery adds to what is in my cup. A wonderful example of this was touring the Fabergé Museum during our visit to St. Petersburg, so please permit me to try and tip a little into your cup.
Are you familiar with Fabergé Eggs? There was some hazy recognition of this term in my brain, but prior to Russia the only fact I would have been able to honestly offer is knowing of a cosmetics company named Fabergé. Once again travel took me to school and enlightened me with a fascinating history. I noticed the Fabergé Museum while scouting sights in St. Petersburg and learned a compelling tale.
The story began with Gustav Fabergé, a French jeweler, who relocated to St. Petersburg in 1842 and earned a solid reputation for his wares. Gustav’s sons followed their father’s footsteps and Peter Carl Fabergé, the eldest, joined the business in 1870. Born in St. Petersburg, Peter Carl brought fresh creativity to the art, blending a broad range of influences from his studies throughout Europe. His forte became crafting forgeries, though I will be quick to note these were lawfully commissioned remakes of articles in the Hermitage. When one of these reproductions earned a gold medal in a European art competition it caught the tsar’s notice (not only had Peter Carl brought fame to the Motherland, Tsar Alexander III had been unable to distinguish between Fabergé’s fake and the original).
Soon afterward the tsar approached Peter Carl with a different kind of commission. Easter was the most relevant Orthodox Christian holiday at this time (bigger than Christmas), with a tradition of gifting colored eggs. Apparently Alexander’s wife had been fascinated since childhood by a colorful egg her aunt possessed that was over a hundred years old. Alexander thought presenting the tsarina with a ‘jeweled’ egg would make for a splendid nuance, and thus Peter Carl became engaged to wow the empress. And did he ever.
The “Hen Egg” was the very first Fabergé Egg, presented in 1885. Fashioned from gold, the eggshell
may be opened to reveal a golden yolk within. The yolk may subsequently be opened to offer a golden hen of several magnificent colors, which also comes apart to yield a diamond replica of the imperial crown. This wildly imaginative extravagance spawned a new tradition. Peter Carl would continue to make eggs each year (excepting the two years of the Russo-Japanese War) until the Bolshevik Revolution.
Over the years the eggs became internationally acclaimed and of course, more elaborate. Some of these are beyond astounding. The Imperial Coronation Egg is a prime example. The gold exterior is slathered with lime-yellow enamel and starbursts to mimic the robe worn by the tsarina at the coronation. There is a large portrait diamond (a specially cut diamond to reveal a picture) portraying the tsarina, nestled within ten diamonds mirroring her initials. Another cluster of red diamonds reveals “1897”, the year the piece was gifted. Then you open the egg to gape at an exact four inch replica of the carriage carrying the tsarina to her coronation, complete with moving wheels, opening doors and an identical suspension system!
When the Bolshevik Revolution eliminated tsars, production of Fabergé Eggs ended as well. But the story continued.
The Eggs fell into government possession and Stalin eventually sold many to private collectors for gathering some cash. Several of the creations
wound up with American oil magnate Armand Hammer, who had worked in Russia during the 1920’s. A friend of his was forced to disband a company importing soaps and olive oil from Spain in the late 1930’s when civil war engulfed the country. Operations began anew in the USA, and it was Armand who suggested naming the venture ‘Fabergé’. Thus a new perfume brand was born without consent. Years later there would be a settlement with Fabergé descendants, though it was a miserable pittance (if you read my “Serendipity” article here on Suja, the parallels with my stumbling upon the F&M College Store in Rome are striking).
Fabergé’s output was roughly sixty-five eggs (his fame led to commissions from wealthy individuals beyond the tsars). A little over fifty are currently confirmed to be in existence, though several are missing key components, such as the “internal surprises”. Malcolm Forbes became a notable collector, accumulating nine eggs in addition to over 200 other Fabergé creations (Carl did much beyond eggs) and displayed them in New York City.
When Forbes passed away in 2004, Victor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch, spent around $100 million US to purchase the Forbes collection. Victor’s motivation was preservation of Russian heritage and over the next several years a private foundation was set up to showcase the Fabergé jewels. The Shuvalov Palace, a stunning building along Fontanka Canal in St. Petersburg, was purchased and restored to render a suitable home for the glistening stockpile.
Only opened in 2013, everyone is now welcome to witness Fabergé splendor. I believe it is impossible to overshadow the brilliance of Fabergé jewelry, but the palace is quite lavish and enhances the attraction (I considered it a bonus to cost of admission). Abutting the Fontanka Canal, this is a magnificent example of plush digs enjoyed by the “non-tsar” aristocracy in Russia.
Advance tickets need to be purchased as they only escort groups through the majesty. Of these, only two per day are presented in English. We were fortunate to stop by in the morning and grab the last pair of tickets available for the last English tour the afternoon. Recorded audio-guides are available in English, so I suspect you could rent one and ignore the guide if you were stuck touring in Russian.
What a marvelous collection! Beyond the nine genuine eggs, there are many engaging examples of Fabergé artistry: Peter Carl apparently began by rendering religious icons and as his operation expanded it generated a broad variety of gold and jewel art, nicely represented here. You stroll through all of this magnificence, agog at the many gems devised by Fabergé, but also the splendor of the palace (which is honestly just a convenient location with no connection to Fabergé).
Had I not ventured to Russia I would remain clueless about the artistry of Fabergé. Thank heavens travel is around to ensure all my eggs are not in one basket.