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Faberge And His Eggs
February 05, 2017 07:46 GMT
They are some of the most exquisite objects ever created and, a century after the last Faberge Egg was crafted, in 1917, the tiny treasures continue to fascinate for both their beauty and the tragic story that entangled them.
A tradition was hatched in 1885 when Tsar Alexander III commissioned Peter Carl Faberge to create an Easter gift for his wife, the tsarina. The jeweler delivered this white enamel egg, which twists open to reveal a golden "yolk" hiding a ruby-eyed hen. The tsarina was delighted with the gift, and Faberge was soon named official jeweler to the tsar.
Over the next three decades, Carl Faberge would create another 49 eggs for Russia's last two tsars. Pictured is the Winter Egg, one of his most famous, crafted from rock crystal and etched with platinum and diamonds to resemble frost. The 14-centimeter egg opens to reveal a bejeweled basket of spring flowers.
Peter Carl Faberge at work. The master jeweler did not craft the eggs himself but functioned as a kind of Steve Jobs of tsarist Russia, coming up with the ideas and driving his workers to achieve near-impossible feats of craftsmanship.
The Mosaic Egg. In Russia, it is tradition to gift loved ones decorated eggshells during Easter as a symbol of rebirth and fertility. The tsars and their chosen jeweler raised this Orthodox Christian tradition to a spectacular art form. But at the turn of the century, as diamonds twinkled in the royal drawing rooms, Russia was sliding into turmoil.
Tsar Nicholas II and his young family are most closely associated with the Faberge eggs. Nicholas, a reserved family man, was, as one historian put it, "as good a father as he was a poor tsar." The gifting of the eggs to his wife and mother each Easter provided a welcome distraction from the missteps that marked his doomed rule.
The Rosebud Egg, the first that Nicholas II gifted to his wife, Aleksandra. A cupid's arrow made from diamonds enlivens the red lacquer, while inside, an enamel rosebud symbolizes the love blooming between the newlyweds. A year after this egg was presented, a stampede at a celebration following Nicholas's coronation killed hundreds in the crowd. Following the advice of relatives, Nicholas proceeded with the coronation celebrations as ordinary Russians mourned their dead. It was his first fateful mistake as tsar.
The 7.7-centimeter-tall Rose Trellis Egg, created in 1907 from gold, enamel, and strings of tiny diamonds. As Faberge oversaw the creation of this egg, Russia was reeling from a disastrous war with Japan and the events known as "Bloody Sunday," in which scores of peaceful protesters were shot dead in front of the tsar's Winter Palace.
A Faberge workshop. At the peak of Faberge's success, he employed 500 jewelers, smiths, and apprentices. Each imperial egg took around a year to complete, sometimes more, before being delivered to the Russian royal family by Faberge himself.
The tsar's one request for the eggs was that they contain some kind of "surprise." In the case of the Gatchina Palace Egg, the egg opened to a gold replica of the royal residence in the countryside of St. Petersburg. The 8-centimeter building is precise down to the hedges, gravel courtyard, and fluttering flag of the real palace.
Faberge's 1911 Bay Tree Egg. One of the diamond "fruits" of the tree serves as a lever that activates a tiny jeweled bird that rises from the top of the tree, shakes its feathers, and sings. Three years after this egg was presented, an ill-prepared Russia marched to the battlefields of World War I.
The war was a disaster for Russia, which pitted itself against a highly-industrialized Germany. After the royal palaces were converted into hospitals to tend to the wounded, the tsar’s daughters served as nurses. The austere Red Cross Egg of 1915 features the portraits of the tsar’s four daughters and a cousin, dressed in their Red Cross uniforms.
Time was running out for both the royal family and Faberge. The Karelian Birch Egg was the last Faberge would complete. Finished shortly after the tsar was forced to abdicate during the February Revolution of 1917, the invoice sent by Faberge addressed Nicholas not as "Tsar of all the Russians" but as "Mr. Romanov, Nikolai Aleksandrovich." The royal family was held captive by Bolsheviks as civil war raged in Russia.
In 1918, the tsar, tsarina, and their five children, along with several servants, were ushered into this cellar then shot and stabbed to death with bayonets by Bolshevik troops.
Of the more than 50 eggs Faberge created for the Russian royal family, 43 survived the chaos of Russia's 1917 revolution. The Third Imperial Egg, pictured here, on display in London, was rediscovered in 2012 after a collector spotted it for sale at a "scrap dealership." The egg is valued at around $33 million.
The Lilies of the Valley Egg of 1898, featuring the tsar and his first two daughters. After the 1917 revolution, Faberge fled Russia disguised as a diplomat. He died in exile in Switzerland in 1920. Faberge's imperial eggs stand today as a symbol of the decadence, as well as the taste and the elegance of an age the likes of which might never be seen again.
Amos Chapple is a New Zealand photojournalist with a particular interest in the former U.S.S.R.
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