Tsars in Their Eyes: How Faberge Earned its Prestige

Monday, 22 March, 2021

The name Faberge is synonymous with luxury. You could mention this name to the homeliest of people, the richest of entrepreneurs and all would know exactly what you were talking about. Faberge is a brand that is still active within the industry of luxury goods today. It makes watches, bracelets, brooches, cufflinks, and earrings to name but a few. The breadth of the companies output in the present day is quite extraordinary. Yet if you mentioned that name to anyone they would instinctively mention one thing: the egg. The Faberge egg is an object of allure and fascination. It has been used as a plot device in films, television, and books and yet many have no idea of the rich history it is intertwined in. A story so entangled and blood soaked that to this day the official Faberge website has no information as to how each egg was made. Is this to keep it a solemn secret? Perhaps, but to consider the fact that an original Faberge egg has not been constructed since 1916, it could be that the descendants of this illustrious company have long ago lost the means with which to make such beautiful jewellery. Like a family recipe never written down, it has been lost to the confines of history and only the shadows of dead men’s fingers leave the faintest of trace as to their means of creation.

Lily Of The Valley Faberge Egg

        What we do know about the making of these exquisite properties is derived from those that have survived. That they were handcrafted is utterly clear. To create the iconic shape took expertly moulded enamel, glass, and laced metal work. All of which are materials are not known for their malleability, and so to forge this structure took expert precision. Encrusted upon this artistic architectural base were the finest jewels of diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires. Such dexterity and sheer craftmanship are clear evidence of how the very name Faberge, to this very day, conjures images of grandeur and splendour.

        But it was not always so. Peter Carl Faberge, the man who shook the world with his beautiful eggs was not even the originator of the business. That credit goes to his father Gustav Faberge. After studying to be a goldsmith in St. Petersburg Gustav returned to Paris and in 1842, at the tender age of thirty-two, launched the company that would carry his name for generations.

        It was, however, not an immediate success. Though relatively fashionable to the Parisian middle-classes it was a far cry from the opulent luxury that the name would become synonymous with. It was not until four years after his venture that the future of his business was quite literally born. On May 30th 1846 Gustav and his wife Charlotte welcomed into the world a son. On that warm Parisian spring day Peter Carl Faberge took his first breath.

        He was a precocious child who showed an aptitude for the family business. In 1864 he embarked upon a Grand Tour of Europe during which he received tuition from respected goldsmiths in Germany, France and England and attended a course at Schloss’s Commercial College in Paris. His father had retired four years earlier and had left the running of the business to his professional partner Hiskias Pendin. Upon returning from his cosmopolitan education, the young Peter Carl was then tutored by Pendin. Under this instruction, Peter Carl could meld the traditional methods of his teacher with the varied approaches of jewellery making he had encountered on his travels.

        In 1882 Pendin died and the thirty-six-year-old Peter Carl was given sole responsibility of the company his father had built. It is a testament to the young man’s talents that in that very same year he caused a sensation at the Pan-Russian exhibition in Moscow. One of the Faberge pieces displayed was a replica of a 4th-century BC gold bangle from the Scythian Treasure in the Hermitage. The Tsar of Russia, Alexander III, publicly stated that he could not differentiate between the work of Faberge and the original. He then ordered that objects by the House of Faberge should be displayed in the Hermitage as examples of superb craftsmanship.

        Such words of commendation are hard to come by in an industry that strives for perfection, but to come from someone who holds such autocratic power as the Tsar of Russia is truly extraordinary. This was of course in the first year that Peter Carl Faberge had taken over the family business. In one year he had taken a middle of the road jewellers into the pantheon of greatness.

        This little slice of the Faberge history is important to note because it was this interaction with the Tsar that put Faberge on the road to their most famous creation: the egg. Three years later Alexander III commissioned Peter Carl to make his wife, the Tsarina Dagmar, a luxurious easter egg for the festive namesake. Known as the “Hen Egg,” this small golden trinket delighted the Tsarina so much that Alexander commissioned an egg for her annually.

        With each passing year Faberge crafted more and more elaborate pieces of aesthetic wonder for the Russian royal household. By the time Alexander was succeeded by his son Nicholas II, the commissioning of an egg each Easter had become tradition. Such was the expert dexterity and splendour that Faberge gave to each egg that the company was given complete freedom for future Imperial Easter Eggs. Not even the Emperor knew what form they would take: the only stipulation was that each one should contain a surprise.

        One such serendipitous experience was contained within the base of the Moscow Kremlin egg. Commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II it contains a gold music box that plays two traditional Easter hymns. These can be played when a clockwork mechanism is wound up by a gold key. One of the hymns is the “Izhe Khveruvimy” (Cherubic Hymn #7 by D. Bortnyansky), a personal favourite hymn of Nicholas II.  The fact that Faberge could craft some of the most beautiful jewellery possible and also include mechanisms that would make contemporaries such as Hublot and Patek Phillipe jealous, demonstrates the craftmanship and dexterity that has made this brand the ubiquitous name that it is today.

        However the good times were to prove finite. For while Faberge was secure in their place within the patronage of the Russian royal family, that sanctuary was fated to collapse. In 1917 one of the most significant events in recent human history occurred: The Russian revolution. Faberge could have perhaps survived the first one in March, but the October revolution orchestrated by the Bolsheviks signalled the end of the business in Russia.

        Under the ideology of Marxism the new regime nationalised all industries and the assets of Faberge were seized. With the very world he new crumbling around him, the  now 71 year old Peter Carl desperately sought to leave the city of Petrograd, as St. Petersburg had become in 1914. The new order sought to destroy the opulence and decadence of the wealthy few that Faberge had played a part in accommodating. With just the bare essentials, he and his family managed to escape the fires of revolution to Riga in Latvia. But his reprieve was short lived. By November the spread of the new communist government had spread, and he was forced to flee to Germany and then finally settled in Switzerland.

        The strain of such cataclysmic upheaval was to much for the aging Faberge. He died near Lausanne on September 24th 1920. Just three years after he witnessed the business he had nurtured to the peak of artistic excellency crumble into the ashes of an inferno of social upheaval.

        Peter Carl Faberge may have died emotionally broken by the endurances he was forced to face by the revolution, but his name and all it stood for remained strong. Today the brand Faberge is ubiquitous.  But is the name ubiquitous because of what it is now, or because of what it once was? We are drawn to other prestigious manufacturers in the luxury goods market, such as Hublot and Patek Phillipe, because of their heritage; but also due to their continuous strive for perfection. They keep releasing new models of their products and so remain within the consciousness of the consumer. Faberge are still within the minds of the poorest to the richest, but for a different reason. They are within our popular conscious because of their name, not because they are doing anything differently. If you were to casually observe the official website of Faberge you will find a range of products. Watches that cost £40, 000, bracelets that bereave you of £ 5, 000 and earrings that evaporate £3,000 from your bank account.

        But what of the eggs that made the name?  Well you cannot buy them from the official online store because, as stated earlier, a Faberge egg has not been forged since 1916. All remaining eggs are within the hands of museums, members of royalty, or they are simply lost. Perhaps a sense of perverse equality is then what fascinates us to the Faberge egg. From princes to paupers, essentially very few can own them. Queen Elizabeth II of Britain owns three, Prince Rainier III of Monaco has one, eight are lost and thirty-eight are in the collections of museums. As such it does not matter how much money is in your bank account, the likelihood is that you will never own one.

        From humble beginnings Faberge reached the highest of heights, saw their efforts crushed under the weight of nationalisation and yet have still endured to this day. The company is financially successful in the 21st century but their name is not synonymous with the fine products they produce today. Their name is synonymous with one they have not made in one hundred and four years. Peter Carl Faberge’s legacy is then surely one of the most enduring in modern artistic history.

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