Synonymous with the romance, decadence and wealth of imperial Russia, the House of Fabergé supplied jewels to the Russian emperors for over 40 years. The firm’s fortunes rose and fell with those of the Romanovs, but unlike their patrons, Fabergé’s creations have withstood the test of time, remaining some of the world’s most sought-after pieces of jewellery and craftsmanship.
In 1903, Peter Carl Fabergé chose to open his only foreign branch in London – a testament to the close relationship between the British and Russian royal families at the time.
Just over 10 years later, in 1914, war broke out across Europe, bringing an end to the glamour and excess of the early 20th century. Revolution in Russia proved to mark the end of the House of Fabergé. Its stock was confiscated and the business was nationalised by the Bolsheviks. Fabergé himself fled on the last diplomatic train to Riga, ultimately dying in exile.
Here is the story of the rise and fall of one of the most iconic jewellers in history, the House of Fabergé.
The first Fabergé
The Fabergé family were originally French Huguenots: they travelled across Europe as refugees initially, eventually ending up in the Baltic. Gustav Fabergé (1814-1894) was the first member of the family to train as a goldsmith, studying under a leading St Petersburg craftsman, and earning the title Master Goldsmith in 1841.
The following year, Gustav opened his own jewellery shop, Fabergé. Before that point, the family had spelled their name as ‘Faberge’, without the accented second ‘e’. It’s likely that Gustav adopted the accent to add an extra touch of sophistication to the new firm.
It was Gustav’s son, Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920), who really saw the firm boom. He travelled around Europe on a ‘Grand Tour’, studying with respected goldsmiths in Germany, France, England and Russia. He returned to St Petersburg in 1872 to work at his father’s shop, mentored by existing jewellers and craftsmen there. In 1882, Carl took over the running of the House of Fabergé, aided by his brother Agathon.
‘Goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown’
The talent and craftsmanship displayed by the House of Fabergé did not take long to be noticed. Fabergé’s work was displayed at an exhibition in 1882, where it won a gold medal. The piece was a copy of a 4th-century Scythian gold bangle, and the Tsar, Alexander III, declared it indistinguishable from the original. Alexander III subsequently ordered Fabergé artefacts to be displayed in the Hermitage Museum as examples of the pinnacle of contemporary Russian craftsmanship.
In 1885, the Tsar then commissioned the first of what would become a series of 52 Imperial Easter eggs. Originally, it was simply a gift for his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna. The Tsar was so impressed by Fabergé’s creativity and workmanship, and his wife was so delighted, that he began commissioning them every year, awarding Fabergé the title ‘Goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown’.
Unsurprisingly, royal patronage further bolstered the firm’s success and cemented its reputation at home in Russia, as well as across Europe. Fabergé opened branches in Moscow, Odessa and Kiev by 1906.
Russian and British ties
In the early 20th century, the royal houses of Europe were all closely linked by blood and marriage. Queen Victoria’s children had married heirs to many of Europe’s royal houses: Tsar Nicholas II was the nephew of King Edward VII, and his wife, Empress Alexandra, was also a blood niece of Edward VII.
As Fabergé’s reputation grew abroad, London increasingly became the obvious choice for the firm’s international outpost. King Edward VII and his wife Queen Alexandra were already keen collectors of Fabergé pieces and London’s position as the world’s financial capital meant there was a wealthy clientele and plenty of money around to be splashed on luxury retail.
As well as the fabled Imperial Easter eggs, Fabergé also created luxury jewellery, ornamental and decorative objects and more useful items including photograph frames, boxes, tea sets, clocks and walking sticks. Cigarette cases were also a specialty of the firm: usually enamelled, they often featured bespoke gemstone designs imbued with meaning, making them excellent gifts.
The end of an era
The glittering start of the 20th century did not last. When war broke out in 1914, extravagances and indulgences largely fell by the wayside: patronage dried up and raw materials, including gemstones and precious metals, became hard to come by or in demand elsewhere. Many of Fabergé’s workshops were conscripted to make munitions.
In 1917, tensions which had been simmering for years in Russia finally spilled over into revolution: the Romanovs were ousted and imprisoned, and a new Bolshevik government took control of Russia. The excesses of the imperial family, one of the things which had hardened popular opinion against them, were seized and taken into state ownership.
Fabergé’s London branch closed in 1917, having struggled to stay afloat in wartime, and in 1918, the Russian House of Fabergé was taken into state ownership by the Bolsheviks. Any remaining works were either sold to finance the revolution or melted down and used for munitions, coins or other practical things.
Carl Fabergé himself died in exile in Switzerland in 1920, with many citing his cause of death as shock and horror at the revolution in Russia. Two of his sons carried on the family business, setting up as Fabergé & Cie in Paris and trading and restoring original Fabergé pieces. An imprint of Fabergé continues to exist to this day, still specialising in luxury jewellery.