The series of lavish Easter eggs created by Fabergé for the Russian Imperial family, between 1885 and 1916, against an extraordinary historical backdrop, is regarded as the artist-goldsmith’s greatest and most enduring achievement. The Imperial Easter eggs are certainly the most celebrated and awe-inspiring of all Fabergé works of art, inextricably bound to the Fabergé name and legend. They are also considered as some of the last great commissions of objets d’art.
The story began when Tsar Alexander III decided to give a jewelled Easter egg to his wife the Empress Marie Fedorovna, in 1885, possibly to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their betrothal. It is believed that the Tsar, who had first become acquainted with Fabergé’s virtuoso work at the Moscow Pan-Russian Exhibition in 1882, was inspired by an 18th century egg owned by the Empress’s aunt, Princess Wilhelmine Marie of Denmark. The object was said to have captivated the imagination of the young Maria during her childhood in Denmark. Tsar Alexander was apparently involved in the design and execution of the egg, making suggestions to Fabergé as the project went along. Easter was the most important occasion of the year in the Russian Orthodox Church, equivalent to Christmas in the West. A centuries-old tradition of bringing hand-coloured eggs to Church to be blessed and then presented to friends and family, had evolved through the years and, amongst the highest echelons of St Petersburg society, the custom developed of presenting valuably bejewelled Easter gifts. So it was that Tsar Alexander III had the idea of commissioning Fabergé to create a precious Easter egg as a surprise for the Empress, and thus the first Imperial Easter egg was born.
Known as the Hen Egg, it is crafted from gold, its opaque white enamelled ‘shell’ opening to reveal its first surprise, a matt yellow gold yolk. This in turn opens to reveal a multi-coloured, superbly chased gold hen that also opens. Originally, this contained a minute diamond replica of the Imperial Crown from which a small ruby pendant egg was suspended. Unfortunately these last two surprises have been lost.
The Empress’s delight at this intriguing gift with its hidden jewelled surprises was the starting point for the yearly Imperial tradition that continued for 32 years until 1917 and produced the most opulent and captivating Easter gifts the world has ever seen. The eggs were private and personal gifts, and the whole spectacular series charted the romantic and tragic story leading up to the end of the mighty Romanovs.
Each egg, an artistic tour de force, took a year or more to make, involving a team of highly skilled craftsmen, who worked in the greatest secrecy. Fabergé was given complete freedom in the design and execution, with the only prerequisite being that there had to be surprise within each creation. Dreaming up each complex concept, Fabergé often drew on family ties, events in Imperial Court life, or the milestones and achievements of the Romanov dynasty, as in the Fifteenth Anniversary Egg of 1911, commemorating the fifteenth anniversary of Nicholas II’s accession to the throne, or the Romanov Tercentenary Egg of 1913 that celebrated 300 years of the House of Romanov, showing portrait miniatures of the Russian dynastic rulers. Although the theme of the Easter eggs changed annually, the element of surprise remained a constant link between them. The surprises ranged from a perfect miniature replica of the Coronation carriage - that took 15 months to make working 16-hour days - through a mechanical swan and an ivory elephant, to a heart-shaped frame on an easel with 11 miniature portraits of members of the Imperial family.
Alexander III presented an egg each year to his wife the Empress Marie Fedorovna and the tradition was continued, from 1895, by his son Nicholas II who presented an egg annually to both his wife the Empress Alexandra Fedorovna and to his mother the Dowager Empress Marie Fedorovna. However, there were no presentations during 1904 and 1905 because of political unrest and the Russo-Japanese War.
The most expensive was the 1913 Winter Egg, which was invoiced at 24,600 roubles (then £2,460). Prior to the Great War, a room at Claridges was 10 shillings (50 pence) a night compared to approximately £380 today. Using this yardstick, the egg would have cost £1.87 million in today’s money.
The Winter Egg, designed by Alma Pihl, famed for her series of diamond snowflakes, is made of carved rock crystal as thin as glass. This is embellished with engraving, and ornamented with platinum and diamonds, to resemble frost. The egg rests on a rock-crystal base designed as a block of melting ice. Its surprise is a magnificent and platinum basket of exuberant wood anemones. The flowers are made from white quartz, nephrite, gold and demantoid garnets and they emerge from moss made of green gold. Its overall height is 14.2cm. It is set with 3,246 diamonds. The egg sold at Christie’s in New York in 2002 for US$9.6 million.
Of the 50 eggs Fabergé made for the Imperial family from 1885 through to 1916, 42 have survived.