Fabergé History: A Jewellery Lover’s Guide To St Petersburg

Discover the most extravagant Easter tradition that became the most flamboyant memento mori of a fallen empire

All it took was a single Easter egg for Fabergé to win the hearts (and wallets) of the Russian royal family. But this was no ordinary, rainbow-coloured number. Commissioned in 1885 by Tsar Alexander III as a gift for his wife, the egg opened to reveal a brilliant, gilded yolk, within which was hidden a tiny, perfect hen and a ruby pendant.

From the birth of this little chick came a new annual tradition: every Easter, Fabergé created for the royal family an opulent, jewel-encrusted masterwork with its own hidden surprise. This most extravagant of Easter traditions continued right up until 1917, when the Russian Revolution unseated the royal family, closed the Fabergé workshops, and made ornamental eggs a no-go.

But despite difficulties with violent coups, Fabergé history is deeply entwined with the imperial city of St. Petersburg. It was here that Gustav Fabergé (of French Huguenot origins) arrived in the 1830s, and where the jewellery making magic began. A master goldsmith himself, Gustav founded the House of Fabergé in 1842 in a basement on Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa, just a short stumble from the Winter Palace.

While Gustav was the man who made Fabergé history, it was his son, Carl, who first dreamed up the egg. Abroad for training, Carl returned to St. Petersburg in 1872, and within a few short years the headquarters had moved to a new, swanky location down the road, which is still standing today. The House of Fabergé’s reputation was on the rise, and with their penchant for all things sparkly, it quickly gained the attention and admiration of the Russian court.

All told, the House of Fabergé produced 50 imperial eggs, as well as many more glittering pieces, which were the frosting of choice for the wealthy St. Petersburg elite. After the chaos of the Russian Revolution, seven of the eggs were lost to history, while the rest were sold or otherwise scattered around the world. But today, visitors to St. Petersburg can now see nine of these incredibly rare eggs in person (as well as a selection of non-imperial Fabergé eggs), at the newly opened Fabergé Museum.

Credit for collecting the objects is due in part to American magnate Malcolm Forbes, who gathered an impressive number over the course of his lifelong egg hunt. After his death, they were sold in turn to Russian billionaire Viktor Vekeselberg, who unveiled the collection at the Fabergé Museum in late 2013.

Hidden within the recently refurbished Shuvalov Palace, the museum displays the original Hen Egg that launched the extravagant Easter tradition and a number of others, alongside a further 4,000 pieces, including paintings, jewellery, objets de fantaisie, and works by other court jewellers. It’s not, shall we say, discreet.

Fabergé made 50 eggs over four decades of the most turbulent times for the Russian Empire. But these luxurious and magnificent jewels remained untouched by these historical events. Today, the remaining 42 Fabergé Easter Eggs are beautiful memento mori of a fallen empire, nine of which are reason alone to visit the new Fabergé museum in St Peterburg, their homeland.

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