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History of the House of Faberge

Carl Faberge, 1905

The first two monographs written about Faberge some forty years ago are chiefly based either on the reminiscences of Henry Bainbridge's firsthand experiences with Carl Faberge himself, or on A. Kenneth Snowman's talks with Eugene Faberge, the jeweller's eldest son, in the early 1950s. Some of this -information is corroborated in short notes made by Leon Grinberg after a long talk he had with Eugene Faberge in Paris. Bainbridge was Faberge's representative in London from 1908 to 1917, and he travelled yearly to St. Petersburg to meet the master himself. He published the first highly personal monograph on the subject in 1949. Snowman, today the doyen of Faberge scholars, published his pioneering findings in 1953.

In the years that followed, scholarship was restricted, and only a few new sources were made available. These included Faberge's London sales ledgers; two design books depicting the output of the workshops of August and Albert Holmstrom between 1909 and 1915; an auction of Faberge designs; and most recently, the design books of Henrik Wigstrom.

Our eyes are now focused on Russia. Archives in St. Petersburg and Moscow have finally begun to produce their long-expected harvest of original documents. A further primary source has been revealed in the memoirs of Franz Birbaum, dated 1919. Large quantities of original drawings are emerging, thus permitting firsthand insight into the early jewellery production of the Faberge workshops, as well as into the lesser known realm of the Moscow workshops. This new information allows us to fill in numerous gaps, as it helps to revise some erroneous assumptions and to confirm others.

The Formative Years (1866-1885)

Carl Faberge was born in 1846 in St. Petersburg. His father Gustav, of Huguenot extraction, was an unassuming jeweller who had been independently active since 1841. In 1860, fourteen-year-old Carl Faberge accompanied his parents on their move to Dresden. From there his father sent him on a tour of Europe, with stops in Frankfurt, Florence, and Paris. Back in St. Petersburg by 1866 as a full-fledged master, Carl joined Hiskias Pendin, August Holmstrom, and Wilhelm Reimer, all of whom had been employed by his father. In 1868 a Finnish goldsmith, Erik Kollin, was attached to the firm. Four years later Carl Faberge took over his father's workshop, with Kollin as his first head workmaster.

From 1866 to 1885 is somewhat of a blank in Faberge's oeuvre. Birbaum describes the earliest products of the house as somewhat clumsy gold bracelets, which were fashionable at the time, brooches and medallions in the form of straps with clasps.... They were decorated with stones and enamels and samples can still be seen in the old drawings of the firm

These must have been similar to what is known of the production of Gustav Faberge, Carl's father. A newly discovered scrap-book with jewellery designs spanning the last three decades of the nineteenth century has surfaced, partially filling the existing gap. In it Faberge appears to be totally linked to the mainstream of contemporary French jewellery. His designs for diamond-set sprays of flowers, some enamelled, ears of wheat, and trailing ivy branches are all reminiscent of Masset Freres, I. Coulon, O. Massin, and the early production of Boucheron and Vever. Elaborate diamond-set pendant brooches suspended from tied ribbons, ribbon-knot necklaces, and bracelets painted mostly in white gouache on black paper would seem to indicate that Faberge's genius was not yet at work. At times a lighter touch can be discerned, albeit it is still firmly anchored in the European mainstream. Here we find trelliswork bracelets made of diamonds and rubies, and Louis XV-style chatelaines and fringe necklaces. Some bolder designs, signed by Faberge's younger brother Agathon, show largely diamond-and-emerald-set tiaras and a number of showy necklaces. Favourite motifs were branches of blossoms, ears of wheat and artfully tied ribbons... . This was the best period for diamond work. The works of this period are characterised by a rich design, visible even at a distance. The fashion was for large diadems, small egret plumes, necklaces in shapes of collars, breast-plates for the corsage, clasps and large ribbons.

Virtually nothing of this style of jewellery confirming Faberge's focus on traditional designs has survived from this period. The account books of the Imperial Cabinet indicate that Faberge vied with other better-known jewellers, Julius Butz, Edward Bolin, Friedrich Koechli, and Leopold Zeftingen, for Imperial commissions. Initially his share was modest, but it grew over the years, with Faberge being mentioned only seven times in 1883 and seventeen times in 1888. In the nineteen years up to 1885, Faberge had sold 47,249 roubles worth of items to the Imperial Cabinet. In the mid-1880s Faberge's annual orders still averaged 10,000 roubles while his competitor Bolin sold three times as much. Faberge, however, rapidly insinuated himself into the good graces of the court officials by acting as an appraiser at the Hermitage and helping with repairs, free of charge.13

Amongst the earliest documented works by the Faberge brothers and Erik Kollin are the copies made in 1885 after the Kerch gold jewels, a magnificent hoard of gold jewellery dating from the fourth century B.C. that was exhibited at the Hermitage. The execution of this work required not only considerable exactitude, but also the reintroduction of some long-forgotten methods of working. The brothers Faberge overcame all the obstacles brilliantly and subsequently received orders for a whole series of copies of Kerch Antiquities.

Faberge's designs during the tenure of Kollin hardly differ from what was being produced in other European centres during the 1870s. His antiquarian tastes are evident in the rare objects dating from this period, including gold cups and objects in the Renaissance style. At that time settings of large engraved carnelians and other kinds of agate in the form of brooches, necklaces etc. was very popular. These settings were made of fine beads, or laces, interlaced with carved or filigree ornamentation.

The Period of Agathon Faberge (1882-1895) 

In 1882, twenty-year-old Agathon Faberge joined his brother Carl in St. Petersburg and worked with him for over ten years. This period was to be the richest and most creative in Faberge's oeuvre, with the quality of objects produced remaining unsurpassed. It is generally assumed that the synergy between the two Faberge brothers - Carl, with his interest in classical styles, and Agathon, the more lively and creative artist - combined with the advent of their brilliant second head workmaster, Mikhail Perkhin (1886-1903),15 was the catalyst for the birth of the Faberge objet d'art. Most of the Faberge themes - the Imperial Easter eggs, animals, flowers, and objects of vertu in hardstones or precious metals - were first introduced during this decade. Birbaum's memoirs indicate that it was Agathon Faberge who brought about the change in the House of Faberge. By nature more lively and impressionable, [he] sought his inspiration everywhere - in ancient works of art, in Eastern styles which had been little studied at that time, and in nature. His extant drawings are evidence of constant and ceaseless questing. Ten or more variations of a theme can often be found.

The Faberge House at 24 Boishaya Morskaya Street, St Petersburg, 1910Both of the Faberge brothers had travelled. Carl, for example, had acquired firsthand knowledge of Western styles in Dresden, Frankfurt, Florence, and Paris. But at home both had access to the richest source of inspiration available: the Hermitage.16 The Hermitage and its jewellery gallery became the school for the Faberge jewellers. After the Kerch collection they studied all the ages that are represented there, especially the age of Elizabeth and Catherine II. Many of the gold and jewellery exhibits were copied precisely and then used as models for new compositions. Foreign antique dealers frequently suggested making series of objects without hallmarks or the name of the firm. This is one of the best proofs of the perfection of these works, but the proposals were, of course, rejected. The compositions preserved the style of the past centuries, but the objects were contemporary. There were cigarette cases and necessaires instead of snuff-boxes and desk clocks, inkpots, ashtrays and electric bell-pushes instead of objects of fantasy with no particular purpose. . . . The 18th century works of art in the Hermitage inspired the use of transparent enamel on engraved and guilloched gold and silver.

By the 1890s Faberge had outstripped his competitors in the field of objects and silver, while Bolin retained the edge in jewellery. (The latter's turnover in 1896 in Moscow was 500,000 roubles.) Nevertheless, it was a pearl-and-diamond necklace from Faberge, worth 166,500 roubles, that was chosen by Tsarevich Nikolai as his betrothal present to Princess Alix of Hessen-Darmstadt in 1894.17 In turn, Nikolai's parents paid the highest price ever attained by Faberge, 250,000 roubles, for another necklace acquired for their daughter-in-law. By 1896 the turnover of Faberge's Moscow branch, founded in 1887 to cope with expanding production, had reached 400,000 roubles.18 The firm's bread and butter were large and expensive silver services and centre-pieces costing 50,000 roubles. Designs for a Louis XVI-style service, commissioned in 1894 by Alexander III for the Tsarevich, and projects for a monumental service for the wedding of Grand Duchess Olga Aleksandrovna in 1901, are preserved in the Hermitage and are well documented.

Important commissions were undertaken for the Coronation festivities of 1896. Trips made by the Imperial Family to Denmark and to London were a source of excellent business for Faberge, since many of their presents came from his workshops. Further visible successes of the firm included distinctions at the Pan-Russian Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod (1896) and at the Nordic Exhibition in Stockholm (1897), culminating in 1898-1900 with the building of new premises at 24 Bolshaya Morskaya Street and Faberge's participation in the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900.


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