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The Era of Franz Birbaum (1895-1917)

Brooch in Art Deco Style. From a Faberge AlbumThe Swiss jeweller Franz Petrovich Birbaum joined Faberge in 1893, and after the death of Agathon Faberge in 1895, became chief designer of the firm. He was an eminent lapidary, a specialist in enamelling techniques, and a remarkable draughtsman. His advent coincides with the introduction of Faberge's Art Nouveau idiom and the fading out of the Louis XV, or 'cockerel' style, to be replaced by the more classical Louis , XVI and Empire styles. Birbaum's role must have been ! considerable, as he claims to have designed most of the Imperial Easter eggs produced after 1900. About 50 or 60 of these eggs were made and I composed more than half of them myself. It was not easy work as there could be no repetition of theme and the ovoid shape was compulsory.

By the beginning of the new century, Faberge's business had become the most important of its kind in Russia. Production increased daily and it became necessary to assign goldwork to one workshop and subsequently silverwork to another. The. brothers Faberge had too much work and were unable to run the workshops properly, so they decided to establish autonomous workshops, whose owners would undertake to work only to their sketches and models of the firm and exclusively for it . . . Each was allocated a specific form of production and their apprentices specialised in different forms of work. . . . The St. Petersburg workshops employed some 200 or 300 people before 1914. They were scattered all over the city until the firm built special premises in the Morskaya street. Afterwards the chief workshops were accommodated in the outbuildings in the courtyard but for reasons of lack of space some of them remained outside the main building. After the Paris 1900 exhibition, and the international acclaim that came with it, all doors opened to Faberge. His shop in London became the meeting place of Edwardian society. His St. Petersburg showrooms attracted Russian nobility by the score. The Grand Dukes and Duchesses came with pleasure and spent a long time choosing their purchases. Every day from 4 to 5 all the St. Petersburg aristocracy could be seen there: the titled, the Civil Service and the commercial In Holy Week these rendez-vous were particularly crowded as everyone hurried to buy the traditional Easter eggs and, at the same time, to glance at the egg made for the Emperor.

In 1902, Faberge was given the final accolade with a special charity exhibition held to benefit the Imperial Women's Patriotic Society Schools. Sponsored by Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, it was dedicated almost exclusively to Faberge's works, most pieces were lent by members of the Imperial Family. Photographs of this exhibition and descriptions in the press allow identification of a number of Faberge's most important compositions.

During the 1900s Faberge was inundated with orders. In the decade between 1907 and 1917, over 10,000 objects were sold in London alone. As of 1904, Faberge also worked for the Siamese court. American clients arrived, anchoring their yachts on the Neva. The House of Faberge became a family concern, with Carl's three sons, Eugene, Agathon, and Alexander, acting as designers alongside Birbaum. At its peak, some three hundred craftsmen worked in St. Petersburg and two hundred in Moscow, yet it still became necessary to pass orders to craftsmen outside the firm. Approximately 150,000 items were sold worldwide.

The period of Henrik Wigstrom, Faberge's last head workmaster (1903-1917), lacked the exciting inventiveness of his predecessor. After the disappearance of Art Nouveau's exuberance from Faberge's designs, his style became drier and more classical. Although quality is still outstanding, the introduction of prefabricated parts documents the imprint of the industrial era on Faberge. Typically for Faberge, novelties continued to appear regularly each year. Some of Faberge's strongly geometrical designs even seem to herald a nascent Art Deco style.

For Faberge, the apotheosis of Romanov rule in 1913, with the lavish festivities for the Tercentenary celebrations, spelled out a last flurry of new orders. He designed and produced vast quantities of objects and jewels bearing the Romanov emblem and the date 1613-1913, such as the Kremlin's Romanov Tercentenary egg. For example, the Imperial Cabinet files list 47 pins with the Romanov griffin attributed to Andreev's Grand Russian Orchestra, 135 tie-pins decorated with the Monomakh crown, and 43 similar brooches for the Moscow theatre's actors.

With the declaration of war, Faberge's era, that of Imperial munificence, soon came to a close. After the first euphoric victories, major losses occurred and hardship set in for all. Typically, the two eggs produced for Easter 1915 reflect the activities of the Empress and her daughters with the Red Cross. As of September 1915, Faberge's workshops began to suffer from a lack of skilled craftsmen due to conscription. Several letters addressed to the Office of the Imperial Court Ministry request exemption for twenty-three members of Faberge's staff, including Kremlyev ('in case of his calling up the workshop has to be closed down') and Petuchov ('the only experienced master in enamel technique left who trained for such work for 8 years').

Faberge's list of unfinished commissions between 1 July 1914 and 1 October 1916 totalled 286,305 roubles: 80,000 roubles for the Imperial Cabinet, 53,000 for Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich, and 33,000 for the Emperor. In October 1915 he mentioned 'the commissions of His Imperial Majesty for the big egg of white quartz and nephrite demanding exquisite artistic work', and 2,200 badges for the Horse Artillery Life Guard 'given personally to me by H.I.H. the Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich'. The Moscow silver factory was converted into making hand grenades and produced two million casings for artillery shells. Odessa was reduced from thirty-five masters to three specialists. One of the two eggs presented by the Tsar for Easter 1916 is the stark Military egg, formed of artillery shells containing a miniature of Nicholas and the Tsarevich at the front in Stavka.

On 6 November 1916, Faberge, as a precaution, formed a shareholder company (joint-stock association) with Averkiev, Bauer, Byiazov, and Marchetti as associates each holding twenty-one shares for a value of 90,000 roubles fully paid. Faberge held 548 shares for himself, allotting forty shares to each of his sons and one share each to Antoni, Birbaum, Meier, and Jouves, corresponding to equity put in by Faberge's house and estimated at 700,000 roubles.
The year 1917 witnessed the collapse of the old world order, with the March Revolution, the abdication of the Tsar on 15 March, the imprisonment of the Imperial Family, and the November Revolution. The firm was put in the hands of a 'Committee of the Employees of the K. Faberge Company', which continued to operate until November 1918. At the end of 1917, Faberge closed down his house, entrusting its contents to the Director of the Hermitage, left Russia via Riga and Germany, and settled in Lausanne, Switzerland. There he died on 24 September 1920.

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