Secrets of the Fabergé Eggs
In the waning decades of their rule, Russia's Romanov imperial family maintained a standing order with Peter Carl Fabergé to create jeweled Easter eggs. Here is the story of nine of the most important works of art that resulted from this remarkable commission.
One-hundred thirty-six years ago, Tsar Alexander III of Russia commissioned Peter Carl Fabergé to create a jeweled egg as an Easter gift for his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna. It was meant to be a one-time order, but the result was so pleasing that the tsar immediately placed an order for the following year. Thus began an annual tradition that his son would adopt when he took the throne and that would continue until the end of the House of Romanovs’ three-century reign, at the outbreak of the Russian revolution in 1917.
Fabergé, whose father Gustav founded the eponymous firm, completed a total of 50 eggs for the royal family, 43 of which are accounted for today. After the first egg he was given creative control, and from then on details about each new piece were kept secret—even from the tsar—until the work’s unveiling.
Fabergé oversaw production, but the eggs were crafted by teams of metalsmiths, jewelers, designers, and other specialists who in turn were given wide artistic latitude. Although the eggs were made from precious materials, their value lay not in the cost of the particular jewels or metals used (some eggs were comparatively modest in that regard) but in the inventiveness and skill the artists brought to each one.
When the Bolsheviks took St. Petersburg, they seized the eggs, selling some of them and holding on to others. From that moment, each piece has gone on its own journey: In the early years the eggs weren’t particularly sought after—the market was flooded with Romanov art and objets—but gradually collectors became more keen, most famously the media magnate Malcolm Forbes, whose art collection at one point included nine eggs. Today they sell for tens of millions of dollars.
Carl Fabergé photographed circa 1900.
The eggs are the rare works of decorative art that offer multiple and evolving layers of interest. They provide an intimate view into the lives of the family for whom they were made, as well as a visual and tactile history of a 32-year-long virtuosic performance by one of the world’s preeminent jewelry and art firms. They have also taken on a new life since entering the international art market, appearing and disappearing in private and public collections, some seemingly lost forever, others rescued from obscurity by chance or dogged scholarship.
Below, read about nine of the most important Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs.
Mosaic Egg, 1914
The genius behind a pair of the most celebrated eggs was Alma Theresia Pihl, one of two women who worked as designers at the House of Fabergé at the beginning of the 20th century. She came from a long line of celebrated artisans employed by Fabergé; her grandfather was head jeweler and her uncle a renowned goldsmith. Pihl designed the Winter Egg, which debuted in 1913, and the Mosaic Egg, which came a year later. The Mosaic, which features marquetry that Alma based on an embroidery pattern, was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II as a gift for Empress Alexandra. Today the Mosaic Egg is part of a collection owned by Queen Elizabeth II and the British royal family.
Hen Egg, 1885
The first egg Fabergé made for the Russian royal family was supposed to be a one-off, a gift from Tsar Alexander III to his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna, to celebrate Easter and (it is said) to take her mind off a wave of terrorist attacks that had been launched against the imperial court. The gold-banded, enamel-sheathed egg featured a surprise inside, a golden “yolk” that opened to reveal a golden hen sitting on golden straw. The hen also held a surprise: a miniature diamond replica of the imperial crown and a ruby pendant. The tsarina was delighted with the gift, the design of which echoed a similar piece she had seen as a child at the Danish royal court, and the tsar quickly commissioned another egg for the following year. Once owned by Malcolm Forbes, the Hen Egg is now in the collection of Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg and housed in the Fabergé Museum.
Winter Egg, 1913
Over the years the eggs have inspired a unique scholarship all their own, and one of the most knowledgeable experts is 80-year-old Géza Von Habsburg. He is Fabergé’s curatorial director, and he can list off endless facts and make passionate arguments about each egg’s relative merits. Which one is his favorite? “Definitely the Winter Egg,” he said recently of the egg designed by Alma Theresia Pihl and given by Tsar Nicholas II to his mother, the dowager empress Maria Feodorovna in 1913. “I had the pleasure of holding it in my hands and studying it at very close quarters. It was smaller than I expected, but the quality of its craftsmanship was overwhelming.” The egg is made of rock crystal carved as thin as glass. Embellished with engraving and ornamented with platinum and diamonds to resemble frost, the egg rests on a rock crystal base designed to look like a block of melting ice. The surprise is a platinum basket full of anemones and flowers made of gold and demantoid garnets, and studded with 1,378 diamonds. In 2002 the egg was sold at auction for $9.6 million to a private collector.
Coronation Egg, 1897
Presented to Empress Alexandra by Tsar Nicholas II as a memento of their 1896 coronation, this egg is sheathed in multicolored gold embellished with enamel. The piece contains a removable miniature replica of a coach built for Catherine the Great that was used to transport subsequent generations of Romanov rulers to and from ceremonies. The carriage features the kind of hyperrealistic details that are hallmarks of Fabergé’s creations, says Von Habsburg. “It comes complete with wheels that turn, doors that open, functioning C-spring shock absorbers, and a tiny folding step-stair.” Other surprises include a large portrait-cut diamond set in the top of the egg within a cluster of 10 brilliant diamonds; through the table of this stone, the monogram of the empress can be seen. At the other, narrower end, a smaller portrait diamond is set within a cluster of rose diamonds surrounded by a flower motif made of 20 narrow gold petals. At this end, the portrait diamond covers the date. The Coronation Egg was purchased by Malcolm Forbes in 1979; today it’s part of the Viktor Vekselberg Collection housed in the Fabergé Museum.
Third Imperial Easter Egg, 1887
The Third Imperial Egg, presented to Empress Maria Feodorovna by Tsar Alexander III, was one of the many artifacts seized from the Romanovs during the Russian Revolution and then sold to Western collectors by the Bolsheviks to fund their new government (the process was dubbed “treasures to tractors”). The egg disappeared from public record and was feared lost until—unbeknownst to seller or buyer—it traded hands at an antiques stall in the U.S. in 2010. A Midwestern scrap dealer had purchased the egg in hopes of turning a quick profit, but he soon found that the money he could get for its parts would not cover his investment. He began looking for other options and in 2011 discovered an article in Britain’s Daily Telegraph that described a “frantic search” for a 3.2-inch-tall egg, which rested on an elaborate gold stand with lion paw feet and was adorned with sapphires and a diamond button that, when pressed, opened the egg to reveal a Vacheron Constantin clock. The scrap dealer brought the piece to experts in London and discovered that the object he had purchased for $13,302 and had planned to melt down for its gold was valued at $33 million. Today the egg is part of a private collection.
Rosebud Egg, 1895
This enameled and jeweled piece, designed by Peter Carl Fabergé and created by Mikhail Perkhin, was the first gift Nicholas II presented to Alexandra. The princess grew up in Darmstadt, Germany, and the egg’s first surprise—an opaque yellow enamel rose—was meant to remind her of her hometown’s famed flower gardens. Inside the rose were two more surprises (since lost): a golden crown with diamonds and rubies, and a cabochon ruby pendant. The crown commemorated Alexandra’s future role as empress of Russia. The Rosebud Egg was held in private and public collections after WWI; in 1985, Malcolm Forbes purchased it from the Fine Arts Society in London. It is now part of the Viktor Vekselberg Collection displayed at St. Petersburg’s Fabergé Museum.
Renaissance Egg, 1894
The last egg given to Empress Maria by Alexander III was inspired by an oval agate casket in the Dresden Grünes Gewölbe created by the Dutch master Le Roy. Its surprise was lost, and while some speculate it was a bed of pearls, others, among them Malcolm Forbes’s son Christopher, believe it was something called the Resurrection Egg, a jeweled rock crystal egg created by Fabergé that had dimensions that would have allowed it to fit perfectly inside the Renaissance Egg. The custody history of this piece offers a snapshot of the varying levels of interest the eggs have held for prominent private and public collectors over the past century. U.S. petroleum magnate and art collector Armand Hammer (great-grandfather of the actor Armie Hammer) picked up the Renaissance Egg and nine others for a mere 1,500 rubles, the equivalent of about $12,000 in today’s dollars, sometime after WWI. He sold the Renaissance Egg in 1937 to Henry Talbot DeVere Clifton, a British aristocrat and film producer. Belle and Jack Linsky, founders of Swingline staplers, bought them in 1949 and tried unsuccessfully to donate them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Linskys then sold the Renaissance Egg to a Manhattan antiques dealer, who sold it to Malcolm Forbes. It was one of 10 Imperial eggs that Viktor Vekselberg purchased from Forbes in 2004 for an estimated $100 million.
Bay Tree Egg, 1911
One of many Fabergé Imperial eggs presented by Tsar Nicholas II to his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, the Bay Tree Egg is constructed from enamel and jeweled nephrite. Among its leaves is a tiny lever disguised as a fruit; this activates a hinged circular top that reveals a feathered songbird that rises and flaps its wings, turns its head, opens its beak, and sings. The egg is said to have been based on the design of a famed 18th-century orange tree “mechanical,” which is why the piece was for years mislabeled the Orange Tree Egg. An original invoice from Fabergé (12,800 rubles, which would be about $98,000 today) was discovered, revealing the egg’s true name. Malcolm Forbes added it to his collection in 1965 for $35,000. It is now part of the Victor Vekselberg Collection.
Lilies of the Valley Egg, 1898
A gift to Empress Alexandra, the surprise inside this Art Nouveau egg. is revealed when a gold-mounted pearl knob is twisted. Inside are portraits of her husband, Tsar Nicholas II, and their daughters, the grand duchesses Olga and Tatiana. The images, which are positioned under the imperial crown set with a ruby, were painted on ivory by noted miniaturist Johannes Zehngraf and framed in rose diamonds and backed with gold panels engraved with the presentation date. The exterior shell is made from pastel rose-colored pink enamel from which emerge cabriole legs of green-gold leaves with rose-cut diamond dewdrops. The gold-stemmed lilies have green enameled leaves and flowers made of gold set with rubies, pearls, and diamonds. It is now part of the Victor Vekselberg Collection.