However casually one delves into the realm of the ultimate gift, one inevitably encounters Peter Carl Fabergé. Through his family’s quite ordinary jewelry shop, this whimsical man transformed the Russian aristocracy’s very idea of what constituted a true objet de luxe. Jewelry was valued in Russia largely as a function of the weight of precious stones and metals; however, at the Pan-Russian Industrial Exhibition held in Moscow in 1882, Fabergé displayed designs that dazzled viewers with their wealth of imagination, humor, and precision craftsmanship. The snuffboxes, clocks, and picture frames offered by the young son of Gustav Fabergé earned him a Gold Medal and the admiration of the nationalistic Alexander III, who (despite his austere persona) regarded the works as examples of a uniquely Russian genius. This marked a turning point for both the Romanov and Fabergé families, whose relationship would trace the rise of the latter from obscurity and the progress of the former toward extinction.
Fabergé fabricated for the Romanovs hundreds of decorative pieces, most of them gifts for family members, heads of state, or esteemed subjects, such as Gen. Alexei Kouropatkin, to whom Alexander’s oldest son, Nicholas II, gave a chess set in appreciation for his service during the Russo-Japanese War (see “Chess Unmatched,”). Still, the identification of imperial dynasty with master craftsman was fully realized only with the 56 Easter eggs that the jeweler produced for Alexander and Nicholas throughout their respective reigns.
Because Alexander and Maria Fyodorovna’s 20th wedding anniversary fell on Easter in 1886, the tsar sought a particularly exceptional gift. After his technical genius, Fabergé’s most lucrative talent was his sales ability. As his longtime friend H.C. Bain bridge wrote, he had “a subtle genius for creating just the right situation which evoked in his patrons the desire to possess something which, for the moment, had only taken shape in his mind.” He applied this faculty to good effect with the tsar, who, on Easter morning, accepted a plain enameled egg. When opened, the object revealed a beautiful enameled yolk; this, in turn, contained a golden hen concealing a tiny diamond crown and an egg-shaped ruby. A standing annual order was thereafter given to produce a single egg that harbored a “surprise.” Only the Renaissance Egg, the last of the 11 fashioned for Alexander, failed to meet this criterion: If this orb of chalcedony, delivered the year of the tsar’s death, contained anything, that surprise remains as much a mystery as the fate of the autocrat’s immortal soul.
Nicholas upheld his father’s traditions of repressive rule and the commissioning of Imperial eggs to record the significant moments of his and the tsarina’s lives. The Coronation Egg (1897) represents Fabergé at the height of his powers: This primrose yellow oval hid a miniature sterling replica of Catherine the Great’s coach so exacting in every detail that it actually served as a point of reference for modern repairs on the original. The Trans-Siberian Railroad Egg (1900) was covered with a jeweled map of the newly completed line that connected western Russia with its Pacific coast, and the Tercentenary Egg (1913) marked the 300th anniversary of the dynasty’s rule.
But if the golden days of both ruler and jeweler spawned these opulent creations, Russia’s faltering economy, revolutionary unrest, and the outbreak of world war would lay more somber eggs. When one million Russians died in the first months of the war with Germany, Tsarina Alexandra and her four daughters nursed many of the injured, inspiring the Red Cross Egg (1915), which enclosed enameled portraits of the five women dressed as Sisters of Mercy. The most austere of all the eggs, however, was the Steel Military Egg (1916), which coincided with Nicholas’ ill-fated decision to take personal command of his disintegrating armies–a move that would swiftly catalyze rebellion and seal his family’s fate. By this time, Fabergé’s workshops had shut down; no precious metals were available. And in the gray, bullet like surface of this design, Fabergé almost seems to have divined, as in a crystal, the wintry exile and grim murders of his patrons–and, perhaps, his own deliverance from obscurity. For, though his own impecunious end came three years after this final commission, his exquisite eggs continue to protect his remarkable legacy.