January 10, 2000

All that Glitters . . . Or Something More?


All that Glitters . . . Or Something More?

Imagine, for a moment, rooms filled with sparkling diamonds, glistening jewels and shinning gold . . . the bobbles and trinkets of royalty and the extremely wealthy. Does this make your pulse quicken? Do you dream of owning a tiny piece or cleverly done replica? Countless Americans find themselves drawn to the trappings of royalty, powerless to resist the allure of such finery, but, why? Is it merely the joy that gazing upon such wealth brings, or does it go deeper than just the superficial? When it comes to the designs of Peter Carl Faberge, you might be surprised at the answer!

The original American colonists were, primarily, European and their reasons for making the voyage across the Atlantic varied. One thing the founding fathers were happy to leave behind was the monarchies, their lavish lifestyle and the taxes and servitude required to support them. American culture quickly developed into a society of individual rights, which held no allegiance or loyalty to any one person. After going to great pains to develop a democratic republic, why do Americans have such an insatiable fascination with all things royal?

Possibly the most exquisite examples of decorative art, suited only for royalty and the very rich, are the creations of Faberge. Appointed as the jeweler to the Tsars in 1882, Peter Carl Faberge designed over 50 Imperial Easter Eggs for Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II of Russia. In 1897, Faberge became the official Court Goldsmith for Sweden and Norway. In total, there have been an astounding 150,000 unique objects produced by Faberge.

Tsar Alexander III presented a unique Faberge egg to his wife Maria each Easter. His son, Nicholas II, continued the tradition by presenting two eggs each year; one to his wife, Tsarina Alexandra, and the other to his mother the Dowager Empress Maria. Many of these ornate eggs opened to reveal an equally ornate surprise inside. Faberge's art went beyond the Imperial eggs. He, at one time, employed over 500 artisans who took many common items, such as picture frames, snuff boxes, etc., and turned them into much sought after objects of art.

Do Americans flock to Faberge exhibits out of a love for Russian culture and history? Could the reason be a curiosity about a nation and people who, until recently, were inaccessible to us? Is it because these pieces were personal gifts and are relics of a bygone era? Or, does their presence have more to do with a simple fascination for the intricacy of the craftsmanship and the opportunity to see an almost incomprehensible amount; over 1,000 pieces to be exact; of gold and precious gems in one place? The answer is, all of the above.

America's love affair with Faberge began in 1900 when Faberge showed fifteen Imperial Easter Eggs at the Paris World's Fair. His work was seen, for the first time, by wealthy European and American collectors. Soon, owning a Faberge article became a status symbol. The American rich wanted to keep up with the royalty of Europe and were responsible for a large percentage of Faberge commissioned works.

The Bolsheviks shut down Faberge's company, in 1918. Carl moved to Lausanne where he died on September 24, 1920. Many years passed without a Faberge shop or creation. The children and grandchildren of Carl tried in vain to keep the family business alive, failing due to lack of experience in the art, world war and economic depression. In 1953, Sam Reubin, a wealthy American businessman, bought the Faberge name to use in marketing a line of toiletries. His Faberge Brute was and still is very popular. Finally, in 1989, a qualified Faberge workmaster was found. Unilever, who by now owned the Faberge name, licensed Victor Mayer of Germany as the exclusive Fabergé workmaster. This event created a renewed interest and fascination in the Faberge style. The Mayer collection of Faberge art was unveiled in 1990 at Palais Montgelas, in Munich.

But, this little history lesson does not tell us why the "average" American is so fascinated with Faberge.

I posed this question to the curator of the Broughton Faberge Exhibition, Archduke Dr. Geza von Habsburg. He pointed out that the "public has become utterly engrossed with the whole Romanov story," citing the intrigue surrounding the Anastasia/Anna Anderson legend as one example. The days of the last Romanov family play out like a "Greek tragedy," something Americans find irresistible. They are drawn to this era because of the tragic deaths of Tsar Nicholas II and his family and the events that followed in Russia. Yes, there is a sincere interest in this era of Russian history and culture.

A majority of the Faberge items were gifts and, as such, are unique and very personal. Imagine the Dowager Empress' joy when she received, from Nicholas, the Cross of St. George Imperial Easter Egg in 1916. A simple egg, by Faberge standards, the Order of St. George crest on the front of the egg flips open to reveal a tiny portrait of her son. Nicholas II had been awarded this Order in 1915. It is not difficult to visualize Alexandra's pride and delight when she was given the 15th Anniversary Easter Egg (1911) which bears tiny, detailed paintings of Nicholas, their five children and memorable events from their life together. We seven, as the Tsarina referred to her family, come alive on this egg. I asked Dr.von Habsburg what the surprise inside this egg was. "Nothing," he said, "the surprise is the paintings themselves."

Yes, we are enchanted by the cherished possessions of the tsars and their families. The deeper appeal is the personal nature of the items. They allow us to reach back to people and an era that have since passed. The fact that the passing was tragic and shrouded in mystery makes the appeal that much greater.

Up until a decade ago, most Americans had a narrow image of who the Russian people were and what Russia was all about. High school history books painted a picture of a tyrannical tsar, insensitive to the plight of the peasants and workers. The latter fell under the spell of the anarchists and, eventually the control of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Our history texts continued with the horrors of Stalin, the Soviet regime, Cold War and so on.

All of this began to change when the Berlin Wall came down, eleven years ago. Russia was opened up and the American curiosity with the previously unknown came into full bloom. For many Americans, the opportunity for American and Russian people to have contact with each other, after roughly 70 years of isolation, makes anything Russian interesting.

There is no question as to the incredible craftsmanship of the Faberge collection. This, alone, attracts many people. Human beings gain joy from looking at and studying beautiful things. They show us what was beautiful, intimate and even whimsical about Imperial Russia. The intricacy and detail of Faberge's designs stun and amaze anyone who views them.

The Faberge intrigue has reached mainstream America. Countless department stores across the nation carry Faberge style egg pendants, etched glass eggs, picture frames, etc. These are reproductions and not the real thing. However, Americans happily purchase these much more affordable items as gifts and/or to own a representation of the bygone era of the Russian Tsars.

Originally, I thought that the American fascination with Faberge, with a few exceptions, was due simply to the glistening display of gold and precious jewels. It was a pleasant surprise to find that a majority of American Faberge enthusiasts and visitors to exhibits, such as Broughton's, are drawn, as well, by an interest in Russia, its history and culture. A piece of Russian history lives on through the designs of Peter Carl Faberge and the tireless efforts of his skilled craftsmen in St. Petersburg before the Revolution. We are given a romantic snap shot of days of splendor followed by an era of oppression. Many see hope, when viewing Faberge's works; both for Russia and the world.

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