The Jewels of Fabergé

In 1914, American Vogue took note of a little shop on Bond Street in London that produced exquisite pieces unparalleled in their ‘beauty and delicacy of workmanship’ as well as their ‘bold presentment of form and color.’ The London shop was one branch of the famed Russian jewellery house, Fabergé.

Fabergé Bond Street, London, 1914.

Founded in 1842 by Gustav Fabergé, the St. Petersburg jewellery firm gained worldwide recognition for the intricate detail of its pieces, as well as its comprehensive knowledge of enamelwork. When Gustav’s son, Peter Carl Fabergé, took over the company in 1882, he developed a close working relationship with the last two Tsars of Russia, Alexander III and Nicholas II. Until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, both Alexander the III and Nicholas II ordered numerous custom Fabergé eggs annually as presents for family members. Each egg usually contained a surprise, from family portraits to miniature coaches, to mechanical songbirds. Many were comprised of enamel, while others were made of rock crystal, gold, or other sumptuous materials. The first egg, known as the Hen Egg or Jewelled Hen Egg, was given by Alexander III to his wife, Maria Feodorovna, as an Easter gift in 1885. The family developed a fondness for the elaborate, inventive eggs and would order fifty-three more before the Revolution.

The Hen Egg designed for Maria Feodorovna in 1885. Stan Honda / Getty Images.

Some of the most awe-inspiring eggs include the Lilies of the Valley Easter Egg from 1898, the Bay Tree Egg from 1911, the Renaissance Egg from 1894, and the Winter Egg from 1913.

The Renaissance Egg, given by Tsar Alexander III to his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1894. David Lefranc / Getty Images.

The Lilies of the Valley Easter Egg, given by Tsar Nicholas II to his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, in 1898. Stan Honda / Getty Images.

The Bay Tree Egg, given by Tsar Nicholas II to his mother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1911. Stan Honda / Getty Images.

The Winter Egg, given by Tsar Nicholas II to his mother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1913. Sergei Ilnitsky / EPA / Shutterstock.

The Imperial Egg shape has been reimagined in pieces including pendants, bracelets, and earrings from the company’s Heritage collection. Additionally, the essences of specific eggs have been infused into subsequent collections. For example, the house produced a collection of fine jewellery with Rococo influences, stemming from the 18th century Rocaille Egg. Another collection comprised designs reminiscent of the jewellery Fabergé first released upon its founding in 1842.

Heritage Yellow Gold, Diamond & Turquoise Guilloché Enamel Egg Drop Earrings, https://www.faberge.com/jewellery

Fabergé Rococo Yellow Gold Multicoloured Gemstone Grande Pendant, https://www.faberge.com/jewellery

Fabergé 1842 Yellow Gold & Diamond Signature Ring, https://www.faberge.com/jewellery

Two extraordinary pieces worn by Kristin Davis at the Oliver Awards in London in 2014 highlight the house’s artistic flexibility. The Cascade de Fleurs Earrings nod to Art Nouveau and the Belle Époque, while the Mazurka Bangle mirrors the Rococo line.

Kristin Davis wearing the Fabergé Cascade de Fleurs Earrings and Mazurka Bangle at the Olivier Awards at the Royal Opera House in London in 2014, Rune Hellestad / Getty Images.

I have always admired the house of Fabergé’s ability to seamlessly knit gemstones together in a delicate manner that highlights the beauty of each stone. The below Fabergé ring was given by my father to my mother when they found out they were expecting me, and she passed it on to me on my twenty-first birthday. I rarely take it off! In addition to its sentimental importance to me, I am also awed by the artistry and grace of its design. The woven bands of metal holding each stone flow like liquid, forming a delicate web of gold.

Fabergé ring. Photograph by author.

Overall, the jewels of Fabergé endure in popularity nearly three hundred years after the house’s founding due to its ability to steadfastly honour its history while consistently inventing new styles of jewellery. Though the eggs remain the house’s more recognizable signature, every piece possesses its own elegant flair and demonstrated expertise.

By Genevieve Davis

Sources

“Features: A Craftsman to the Czar.” Vogue 43, no. 2 (Jan 15, 1914): 40. https://www.proquest.com/magazines/features-craftsman-czar/docview/911849950/se-2?accountid=10277.

https://www.faberge.com

Jewellery, Adornment and the Pursuit of Brilliance

Early 18th century diamond and gold necklace, Portuguese

Emerald and diamond girl dole brooch, c1830 and later

To Georg Simmel, adornment is a contradiction – on the one hand, it displays the wearer’s value, aesthetic taste, membership of a particular group, on the other, it is visible to the viewer, giving pleasure to her, as well as to the owner.  In his 1908 essay ‘On Adornment’, Simmel elaborates on this theme, outlining a spectrum, with tattoos at one end, since they are closest to the skin, and dress in between, moulded  by the wearer’s figure and marked by age, and finally, jewellery placed on the body, but separate from it.  Jewellery thus has special status, its uniqueness resides in its economic value, authenticity and style, but it always seems new, and supplementary to the wearer’s individuality.  While choice of fine jewels surely reflects personal taste, it is interesting to consider the ways gems interact with the wearer and add to her social value.

A case of sparking diamond and emerald jewels

I was reminded of Simmel’s essay when I visited Bonhams’ view day for an auction of fine jewellery last month.  Guided through the delicious rows of glittering rings, bracelets, necklaces, brooches … by Emily Barber, Director of the Jewellery Department, I was continually struck by Simmel’s comments about the pleasure given to both wearer and viewer by these gems – a fleeting relationship created by the bright light reflected by a diamond brooch as you glance across a room, or the deep red glow of a spinel cut to display its clarity as the wearer moves her hands.  In so many interactions, jewellery catches the eye and draws our focus.

A spinel and diamond ring, c1915

Simmel describes how ‘the radiations of adornment, the sensuous attention it provokes, supply the personality with such an enlargement or intensification of its sphere: the personality, is more when it is adorned.’  As such, wearing fine jewellery is ‘a synthesis of the individual’s having and being,’ it implies wealth, but also personal qualities – of taste, discernment, perhaps even beauty and style matching the gems.  At the heart of this is jewellery’s ‘brilliance’:

‘By virtue of this brilliance, its wearer appears at the centre of a circle of radiation in which every close-by person, every seeing eye, is caught.  As the flash of the precious stone seems to be directed at the other – it carries the social meaning of jewels, the being-for-the-other, which returns to the subject as the enlargement of … [her] own sphere of significance.’

Gold, diamond and fire opal ‘cinnamon stick’ brooch/pendent by Andrew Grima, 1970

So, as you look at these photographs of the jewels I saw at a Bonhams, consider Simmel’s words and the ways that, once purchased, they might infer what the wearer has, but also who she is.  As Simmel notes, ‘Adornment, thus, appears as the means by which … social power or dignity is transformed into visible, personal elegance,’ – a magical process brought about by the jeweller’s skill at cutting and setting each gem.

With thanks to Emily Barber, all images by permission of Bonhams.

Sapphire, ruby, emerald and diamond brooch, Van Cleef & Arpels, c1970

Sources:

Fine Jewellery, 27 April 2017 (London: Bonhams, 2017)

Georg Simmel, ‘On Adornment,’ (1908), in Daniel Purdy, Ed., The Rise of Fashion: A Reader (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), pp.79-84