Best known for the "Faberge Easter Eggs" he designed for the Russian royal family, Carl Faberge (1846-1920) was the jeweler and designer of choice for royalty, dignitaries, and the wealthy around the world, from the late 1800s until the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Peter Carl Faberge (Karl Gustavovich in Russian) was born on May 30, 1846, in St. Petersburg, Russia. He was the older of two sons of Gustav and Charlotte (Jungstedt) Faberge. His mother was the daughter of a Danish painter, and his father was a jeweler and goldsmith. As noted on the Imperial Court, Inc. website, tradition at that time dictated that young Carl, as the older son, would follow in his father's footsteps and become a jeweler and goldsmith.
Young Faberge began his education at St. Anne's Gymnasium, the German school in St. Petersburg. When he was 18, his father, wanting him to have excellent training for his career, sent him out to explore the world. As noted on the Imperial Court, Inc. website, young Faberge was exposed to wonderful opportunities throughout Europe. He was apprenticed to several respected goldsmiths and jewelers in Frankfurt, Paris and London, as well as Italy.
Took Over Family Business
In 1870, Faberge returned to St. Petersburg and took over his father's business. Two years later, he married Augusta Julia Jacobs, the daughter of the manager of the Imperial furniture workshops. They would have four sons: Eugene, Agathon, Alexander, and Nicholas. All of them would eventually join the family business. In a short amount of time, Faberge was a busy family man with his own business.
In 1872, Faberge became involved with the Imperial Cabinet. According to the Imperial Court, Inc. website, "The Imperial Cabinet, also known as the Hermitage, was a Winter Palace for the Russian tsars and housed all of the treasures. Faberge volunteered to help restore and appraise these priceless antiques."
According to The Faberge Experience website, for ten years, as the head of his own business, Faberge produced items similar to what other jewelry makers and goldsmiths were creating. He also continued to volunteer at the Imperial Cabinet, where he helped to catalog, appraise, and repair the treasures of the Russian royal family. In 1882, Agathon, Faberge's younger brother, joined him in the family business. As noted on the Imperial Court, Inc. website, the brothers "were well known for elaborate gold and silver items, but wanted to introduce something new. The two set out to create their own designs. Soon the name Faberge became a fashion statement."
Later that year, Faberge was invited to participate in the Moscow Pan-Russian Exhibition. He was awarded a gold medal. More importantly however, his works caught the eye of Alexander III, the Tsar of Russia, who was a great patron of the arts. Faberge's career was about to accelerate.
Caught Attention of the Tsar
As noted on the Imperial Court, Inc. website, Faberge's creations were singled out from hundreds of other jewelers by the Tsar. Alexander "declared him the re-inventor of Russian jewelry art," and became his biggest supporter and best customer. Faberge was happy and honored, as Alexander was not an easy man to please. In his book The Lost Fortune of the Tsars, William Clarke, wrote "Both Nicholas (the heir to the Russian throne) and his father, Alexander III, encouraged Faberge to turn his genius to the production of further exquisite items for their family and friends-brooches, cigarette cases, necklaces, miniatures of all kinds and, of course, to the creation of the famous Faberge Easter eggs." Faberge also worked with gold, silver, gems, and other materials, and created flower arrangements, figure groups, and animals.
Faberge achieved two significant accomplishments in 1885. As noted by Alexander von Solodkoff, author of The Art of Carl Faberge, the first "Faberge Easter Egg" was presented to the Tsarina Marie. Later that year, von Solodkoff added, Faberge "was rewarded with the appointment of jeweler to the Imperial Court, and given the right to have the Imperial Eagle incorporated in the firm's trademark."
The Faberge Eggs
As noted in Carl Faberge-Goldsmith to the Imperial Court of Russia, by A. Kenneth Snowman, "In Russia, Easter, the most important holy festival of the entire calendar, was marked by the traditional exchange of eggs, the symbols of Resurrection, and three kisses." The Faberge eggs became a very important and much-anticipated part of that holiday.
"The Imperial Easter Eggs-exquisite artifacts of jewels and precious metals-are Faberge's finest and most famous achievement," wrote von Solodkoff. He continued, "Between 1885 and 1916, some 54 of these amazing objects were commissioned by the Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II as Easter presents for the Tsarinas Marie and Alexandra respectively. Each, together with the cunningly wrapped 'surprise' which was frequently concealed inside, is a masterpiece of elegance, inventiveness, ingenuity, and craftsmanship." (Almost 100 years later, these eggs are valued at millions of dollars.)
As noted on The Faberge Experience website, "there is a poignant representation of what is now Russian history in the design of a number of these eggs." Eggs were designed to celebrate the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, the completion of the Trans Siberian Railway, the birth of the Tsarevitch (male heir to the throne), the 15th Anniversary of the Imperial Couple's coronation, and the "Romanov Tercentenary Egg" which commemorated 300 years of Romanov rule. During times of war, eggs were created to honor the Red Cross and the military. In all, 56 eggs were ordered. However, the present whereabouts of all the eggs is unknown. Maryann Gelula and Kelly Williams reflected in an article for School Arts, that the Faberge eggs "are a beautiful symbol of Russian history and culture."
The House of Faberge
Faberge's fame continued to grow. In 1897, he was appointed the court goldsmith of Sweden and Norway. A few years later, in 1900, three of the imperial Easter eggs were exhibited abroad for the first time, at the World's Fair in Paris. His skill also continued to grow. Von Solodkoff wrote "Faberge described himself as an 'artist-jeweler. He re-introduced color to jewelry-rubies, sapphires, emeralds, semiprecious stones, enamel-and revived the use of rose-cut diamonds. New motifs, such as ice and frost crystals, were devised." Von Solodkoff continued, "The Faberge magic was not restricted to expensive and purely decorative items. Increasingly, from the late 1880s onward, the Faberge workshops produced beautiful things that also had a practical use. A wide variety of otherwise ordinary objects such as penholders, photograph frames, table lighters, ashtrays, cigarette cases, and clocks. Not all were lavish, ornate, or elaborate: but all exhibit that elegance of design, that mastery of materials and techniques, and that perfection of workmanship that make up the Faberge style."
Faberge was also a keen businessman. As noted on the Imperial Court, Inc. website, "By the turn of the century his shop became known as the House of Faberge and was an imposing five story granite building. Inside he employed over 500 craftsmen and designers." The Faberges' luxurious apartment was located on the top floor of the building. Branches were later opened in Moscow, Odessa and Kiev.
The official Faberge website recounted, "The absolutely new conception of labor organization enabled him to use the existing creative potential in an optimal way. Faberge entrusted independent, highly capable work masters with the execution of manual labor. Most of them were foreigners whom he invited to St. Petersburg where he usually provided them with rent-free workspace." Snowman added, "According to Faberge's eldest son Eugene, men worked overtime almost all the year round, from 7:00 am to 11:00 pm. The overtime pay was good. On Sundays, work went on from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm, which was counted as a full working day."
This supports what the Imperial Court, Inc. website, and other sources assert: Faberge actually made nothing with his own hands. The website continued, "He, in fact, was not a master of his craft, but he was a visionary, a man who conceived ideas for over one hundred thousand objects. Drawings, raw sketches—and his masters and craftsmen would complete his design."
However, the world around Faberge was beginning to change. There was turmoil in Russia, and World War I began. The Imperial Court, Inc. website recalled, "Faberge remained loyal to the Imperial Family and was completely devoted to his country." The website added, "He could have made a lot of money during the war, but instead of that he turned his Moscow shop into a factory to produce ammunition. However, a revolution was near, and the glorious days of the Russian royal family were about to end.
In the fall of 1917, the Russian Revolution broke out. The tsar, Faberge's best customer, was forced to abdicate his throne. The Russian royal family was later executed in the summer of 1918. As noted on the Imperial Court, Inc. website, "Faberge himself closed his shop during these dramatic days, as soon as rumors of the murder of the Imperial Family came to his ears." The website added that the world Faberge knew was gone. He was forced to leave Russia, and most of his artists and workmasters also fled.
Faberge first went to Germany, before going to Switzerland in June 1920. The Imperial Court, Inc. website recounted that the stress of worrying about his family, plus "the shock of the tragedy that had befallen Russia, the Imperial Family and the House of Faberge" caused him to become seriously ill. On September 24, 1920, at the age of 74, Faberge died in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was the end of a golden era.
After Faberge's Death
After World War I, the newly-formed Soviet Union desperately needed cash to rebuild a poor and devastated country. The Imperial Court, Inc. website recalled that most of the treasures of the Russian royal family were melted down and recycled at the mint, yet Faberge's creations were spared. Eventually in the early 1930s, 14 of the Imperial Easter Eggs were sold to wealthy Americans and Europeans.
After Faberge's death, two of his sons, Alexander and Eugene, tried to revive the family business in Paris in 1924. However, what they produced was a far cry from their father's creations, and they were not successful. In the United States in the 1930s, a businessman named Sam Rubin had been using the name "Faberge" commercially, without the consent of the family. Von Solodkoff concluded, "In 1951, it was finally agreed that the name could be used, but only for toiletries and perfumes."
Interest in Faberge's creations was renewed after a 1977 exhibit in London. Additional successful exhibitions have since been held in Helsinki, New York, London, and Munich. Faberge's family continued in vain to try and revive the company. In 1989, they selected workmaster, Victor Mayer to continue Faberge's lifework after a 70 year lapse. A new collection was presented in Munich in 1990. In honor of Faberge's 150th birthday, new creations were presented to the public in New York in 1996.
Reflections on Faberge's Work
"Faberge's work has always aroused delight and fascination. But he has also been regarded as the jeweler of a decadent, autocratic regime, the creator of luxuries that are vain symbols of princely magnificence," wrote von Solodkoff. He added, "Today he is seen in a different light, a light cast by further studies in the fields of history and artistic influence. His place in art history is that of an exceptionally creative artist-jeweler with outstanding entrepreneurial skill."
The Imperial Court, Inc. website reflected that Faberge "was the supreme craftsman of his era, perhaps any era. As master designer to the Imperial Russian Court, he fashioned exquisite works of art. Masterpieces so rare and ingenious in their design that his fame spread throughout the world." The website concluded, "Peter Carl Faberge became a legend in his own time."
Clarke, William, The Lost Fortune of the Tsars, St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia of The Arts, Oxford University Press, 1990.
Perry, John Curtis and Constantine Pleshakov, The Flight of the Romanovs, Basic Books, 1999.
Snowman, A. Kenneth, Carl Faberge-Goldsmith to the Imperial Court of Russia, The Viking Press, 1979.
von Solodkoff, Alexander, The Art of Carl Faberge, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1988.
Biography, February 2000, pp. 94-97.
The Magazine Antiques, March 1996, p. 446(10).
School Arts, November 1999, p. 44.
Time, May 2, 1983, p. 68.
"Faberge—Workmaster Victor Mayer," The Official Faberge Website,www.faberge.de/(December 16, 2000).
Faberge Eggs,http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Rue.4819.feintro.html(December 16, 2000).
"The Faberge Experience: Art and History," The Faberge Experience,http://users.vnet.net/schulman/Faberge/bio.html(December 16, 2000.)
"History of Faberge," Imperial Court, Inc. website,http://www.imperialcourt.com(December 16, 2000.). □