A Brief History of the Fabergé Egg
In 1916, in St. Petersburg, Russia, goldsmith Peter Carl Fabergé was overseeing the production of two opulent, decorative eggs. The objects were destined to be the royal Easter gifts presented to Empress Maria Feodorovna and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna in April of 1917. But the imperial women would never see those eggs, nor would Fabergé see them finished.
As the Bolsheviks seized St. Petersburg, the three-century-long Romanov rule came to a violent and tumultuous end. The family was forced out of the city and left behind their 50 imperial Fabergé eggs, created between 1885 and 1916, small yet lavish reminders of the dynasty’s grand reign.
A century on, Fabergé eggs continue to enjoy an unmatched position in the history of the decorative arts. “It’s really unusual to have a piece of decorative art (not a painting) that has as much cultural resonance as a Fabergé egg,” says Jo Briggs, associate curator of 18th- and 19th-century art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. “It’s almost the Mona Lisa of the decorative art world.”
Briggs worked alongside Fabergé expert Margaret Trombly to organize the latest exhibition of the ornate eggs in the U.S., “Fabergé and the Russian Crafts Tradition” at the Walters, which has the museum’s two imperial Fabergé as its centerpieces. Today, 43 of the original 50 imperial eggs are known to exist, and can be found in museums and private collections worldwide. Famed vessels of wealth, decadence, and artistry, they continue to capture the public imagination.
“Fabergé was given the opportunity to develop—year after year, in a kind of crescendo between 1885 and 1916—his concept of the most luxurious and ingenious object that a tsar could give to his spouse for Easter,” says Fabergé expert Dr. Géza von Habsburg.
The first imperial Fabergé egg dates back to 1885, when the Russian Tsar Alexander III commissioned a gift for his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna, for Easter. (The holiday is among the most important celebrations of the Russian-Orthodox ecclesiastical calendar.) Alexander recruited the award-winning master goldsmith Peter Carl Fabergé, who had been running Hermitage Museum.
Well-versed in the history of art, Peter Carl Fabergé based this first egg, it is believed, on the 18th-century Saxon Royal Egg, which he had seen in the Green Vault museum in Dresden—a gold egg that encased a gold hen, a gold crown, and a ring. Apparently riffing on that earlier egg, Fabergé created his own version in white enamel, which opened to a gold yolk that concealed a small gold hen, which in turn opened to a pendant. That final “surprise”—the prize hidden within each Fabergé egg—came per the tsar’s request.
“We know that is one of the very rare cases where the tsar wanted to have a say in the matter of what the surprise would be,” von Habsburg explains. “After that, Fabergé was really given carte blanche to create whatever he wanted, but it all had to have some bearing on the family itself.”
Each year thereafter, for three decades, Fabergé would imagine his own designs and lead the production of the imperial Easter eggs. When Alexander III died in 1894, his son Tsar Nicholas II kept the tradition alive, and raised the stakes: He began commissioning two eggs per year, one for his mother, Maria, and one for his wife, Alexandra.
The eggs were each entirely unique and made from a range of materials, from three-colored gold to rock crystal, and always beset with precious stones and gems, like emeralds, pearls, and diamonds. They range in size, too, from under three inches to over five inches tall, and could often, but not always, be opened to reveal a surprise (“We think so much about the external aspects of the egg, but they’re really like the most expensive gift wrap you could ever make,” Briggs quips).
Known to take one to two years to realize, each egg required the work of various craftsmen of differing expertise—from metalsmithing to diamond-cutting, enamel work to painting. Two chief craftsmen oversaw the production of the eggs, but Fabergé was at the helm.
But Fabergé expert Margaret Trombly emphasizes that Fabergé was not the only ideas man behind the eggs. “It was not only coming up with the design but also the sequence of fabrication and the timeframe,” she explains. “I think of Peter Fabergé like the conductor of an orchestra,” Briggs adds. “He had to coordinate all of these people to come together and made sure that everything fit at the end.”
And while aesthetic and material considerations were of great importance, the eggs needed to convey a personal touch for the Romanovs. “Fabergé came up with ideas or subjects that were meaningful to the tsar’s wife and mother,” Barry Shifman, curator of decorative arts at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), explains. As such, several of the eggs were emblazoned with (or contained) tiny portraits depicting the imperial family members, painted painstakingly on ivory by the Fabergé workshop’s expert miniaturists.
The Order of St. George Egg (1916), for example, which Nicholas gave to his mother, Maria (now in the collection of the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg), has two coins on its exterior that can be lifted to reveal the thumb-sized portraits of Nicholas and his son, Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich. Another, now-lost miniature of the Tsarevich was mounted on a medallion, which was the prize within Alexandra’s Rose Trellis Egg (1907), a pale green orb encrusted with a glittering grid of diamonds and dotted with enamel versions of her favorite flowers, pink roses (it’s now in the Walters Art Museum).
Another particularly striking and personal egg, which Nicholas gifted to Alexandra, is The Rock Crystal Revolving Imperial Egg (1894). It features a clear glass shell with 12 miniature paintings depicting Alexandra’s favorite places within it, all mounted on a gold stem topped with an emerald that could be rotated to see the various images (now in the collection of the VMFA). The small paintings picture familiar locations, like the Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where Alexandra’s grandmother, Queen Victoria, resided.
And Fabergé was able to accomplish such sentimental work while keeping the eggs a surprise each year. “It was the best-kept secret what the following Easter egg was going to be,” von Habsburg notes. “Nobody was allowed to know, not even the tsar himself was informed.”
Even as they were being produced, Fabergé’s eggs were widely regarded as artistically innovative. “They were the signature piece for Fabergé,” Shifman explains, noting that some of the eggs were exhibited at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900, and in a 1902 exhibition in St. Petersburg. “Even at the time, they had magic, everyone knew they were important and they influenced others,” he continues. “Other artists tried to make their own eggs.” (House of Fabergé was also known to make eggs for wealthy patrons outside of the imperial family at the time.)
Each year, Fabergé would reinvent the task, employing unexpected materials, like rock crystal, or new devices, like claw-footed plinths, clocks, or automatons shaped like small birds or elephants.
The most iconic Fabergé egg extant today, von Habsburg believes, is the Coronation Egg (1897), which commemorated Alexandra’s imperial coronation. Covered in luminous, yellow-green enamel over an engraved, guilloché, sunburst design, it’s bookended by portrait diamonds and cradles a toy-sized coach—a miniature replica of the 18th-century vehicle that transported the empress on the day of the imperial ceremony. One could open the small carriage doors and pull out a step stool, and within it, there was a tiny diamond egg (which has since been lost). (The Coronation Egg is now in the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg.)
Von Habsburg’s personal favorite, though, which he deems “the most original of all,” is the Winter Egg (1913). “It consists of three blocks of rock crystal which are fashioned so that they represent blocks of melting ice, to mark the advent of spring,” he explains. A gift from Nicholas to his mother, the egg is engraved with platinum and diamond snowflakes on the exterior, while within it one would find a small, platinum woven basket with flowers made from white quartz.
The final imperial Fabergé eggs, crafted in 1916, reflect the unstable moment in history, and the beginning of the end of House of Fabergé. “During the war years, the eggs became a little more simple and severe, less elaborate, due to the circumstances of the political times,” Shifman notes. In addition to the aforementioned Order of St. George Egg, in 1916 Faberge created the Steel Military Egg, made from shiny steel and sitting atop a plinth shaped like bullets; it bears little resemblance to the effusive eggs of decades prior.
Nicholas and his family went into exile in 1917, after he abdicated the throne; they were all executed in July of 1918. By that time, Fabergé’s workshop had disbanded, as many workers left to fight in World War I, and Fabergé himself fled to Switzerland, where he died two years later.
The 50 imperial eggs were looted and transported to Moscow during the Russian Revolution; many were sold, 10 eventually made their way to Moscow’s Kremlin Armoury Museum, and eight went missing. “The Bolsheviks had no mercy and no interest in the artistic value, the only thing that mattered for them was the financial return,” von Habsburg explains. In some cases, they sold the egg’s surprises separately, which is why many of those prized pieces are now lost.
Certain eggs found their way to private dealers, who brought them to the United States and sold them to wealthy Americans after the Depression. The dealer Armand Hammer, for example, sold five eggs to Lillian Thomas Pratt, patron of the VMFA. In 1933, she began making payments on the three-colored-gold Peter the Great Egg (1903), which celebrated the 200th anniversary of the founding of the city of St. Petersburg; she ultimately paid $16,500 for it, and would buy four more over the next decade. Several Fabergé eggs were sold at the New York antiques store A La Vieille Russie.
Today, the 43 known eggs are scattered around the world, with the largest collections at the Kremlin Armoury and the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg. The third largest cluster is Pratt’s collection at the VMFA, followed by the trio of eggs that belonged to Matilda Geddings Gray, which is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The British Royal Family also has three eggs.
The Fabergé Museum, which opened 2013, is home to nine imperial eggs, among a trove of other Fabergé objects, all from the collection of Russian businessman Viktor Vekselberg. He had bought the collection in 2004, from American entrepreneur and magazine publisher Malcolm S. Forbes, who amassed a cache of Fabergé to rival that of the Kremlin Armoury. Von Habsburg attributes some of the modern-day frenzy over the eggs to Mr. Forbes, whose collecting practices not only drove up the prices of the eggs, but also drummed up public attention for them.
Von Habsburg recalls traveling with one of Forbes’s eggs back in 1986, for an exhibition of Fabergé that he had organized in Munich. “I was carrying one of the Forbes eggs across the ocean and the egg had to have a seat next to me and a guard,” he recalls. “This of course was leaked to the press and fascinated them enormously.”
The keen interest for Fabergé has not faltered, and there’s no one reason why. Most experts agree that it’s a combination of things: the sumptuous quality of Fabergé’s work, the sentimental value the eggs held for the Romanovs, the family’s dramatic downfall, the mystery of the still-missing eggs, and the astronomical monetary sums they’re estimated to be worth today.
“They represent the romanticism of Nicholas and Alexandra, coupled with this idea of Fabergé, who made these such refined, delicate, beautiful objects,” Trombly offers. Briggs agrees, and emphasizes the tension the eggs embody. “They’re incredibly beautiful, but they’re also sort of tinged with this kind of tragedy and nostalgia that I think actually has added to their appeal and their mythical status.”
The finite number of eggs is certainly a compelling factor for many. Fabergé lovers have been known to travel the world to seek out as many eggs as possible. (Briggs notes that the Walters Museum always gets phone calls whenever one or both of its eggs is not on view.)
Other serious Fabergé devotees and collectors have focused on the seven eggs that fell into obscurity, lured by the possibility that they could be out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered. In 2012, for example, the Third Imperial egg surfaced at the home of an American man in the Midwest, who Googled the egg one day, years after buying it at an antique market. At the time, it was estimated to be worth $33 million.
Among those who have been devoted to tracking down Fabergé are Dorothy and Artie McFerrin of Houston, Texas, who assembled a major private collection of Fabergé, including numerous eggs made for private clients outside of the imperial family. In 2015, the McFerrins discovered that the small enamel automaton elephant that was the original prize inside a trellis egg they own, has long been located in the collection of the British Royal Family.
Despite this egg hunt, though, the true value of Fabergé’s work traces back to the art itself. “They represent the quintessence of courtly art in the whole world,” says von Habsburg. “Faberge’s interest was not in precious materials—yes, he had to use, gold, silver, platinum—but he very rarely used large precious stones because it was not his interest. He was interested in the artistic value of a piece.”
He points to a 1914 interview, in which Fabergé was asked how he stacks up against his competition. “Tiffany, Cartier, and Boucheron are people of commerce,” Fabergé famously replied. “I am the artist jeweler. You can spend millions of rubles and buy string of pearls—but if you want to buy something artistic, you have to come to me.”
That artistic excellence has indeed captivated many. In addition to being the centerpieces of frequent Fabergé exhibitions that happen at major museums around the world, the eggs are ever-present across popular culture. And as one might expect, they’ve also caught the attention of contemporary artists.
“For me, the Fabergé egg has been something that’s been in our cultural lexicon—in movies, TV shows, and so on—always as this object of desire, this very high status item,” says American artist
The results are sleek, finely detailed photographic prints of virtual eggs, bedecked with the luxuries of the present day, much of which we take for granted. Briggs has paired Monaghan’s “After Fabergé” works with “Fabergé and the Russian Crafts Tradition,” at the Walters.
“Over 100 years later, we’re still in awe of Fabergé’s production, and they still have this kind of caché,” Briggs explains. And that exquisite craftsmanship is held up as a standard by contemporary artists and designers today—a juxtaposition that Briggs draws out at the Walters. “You can stand and look at the Rose Trellis Egg and right through the doorway you see one of Jonathan’s eggs, which is black with a trellis of Apple icons. I don’t have to explain that to somebody, visually it works so brilliantly.”
Casey Lesser is Artsy’s Creativity Editor.