Peter Carl Fabergé. His name evokes the grandeur of a time long gone when the royal houses of Europe were connected by marriage in an unbroken chain across the continent. In Russia, it was the age of Czars and Czarinas and above all, untold wealth. It was under these unique circumstances that Fabergé was able to flourish just as the royal houses had flourished. But it was not always so for his ancestors.
As his name suggests, Peter Carl was originally from French descent. His people were Huguenots from a region known as Picardy in Northern France. Very little is known of this early lineage except that they escaped their native land when Louis XIV signed the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, thus depriving Protestants of both their religious and civic freedoms. For nearly 150 years the Fabergé family wove their way through the northern portions of Europe leaving little evidence that they had been there at all. Then, in the early years of the nineteenth century, the Fabergé name resurfaced in the city of Pernau. Here, Peter Carl’s grandfather – also named Peter- settled, became a Russian subject and began a family with his wife. They were blessed with a son named Gustav who grew into adulthood and traveled far beyond his home in Pernau, Estonia and settled in St. Petersburg with his wife Charlotte. Needing to find a trade by which he could support his family, Gustav apprenticed with a jeweler by the name of Spiegel. Then, in 1842 he opened his own goldsmith and jeweler shop in the basement of a building on Morskaya Bolshaya Street.
Peter Carl Fabergé was born on May 30, 1846. Little is recorded of his early years as a boy in St. Petersburg but then, in 1860, another series of events began that would change the small jewelers shop on Morskaya Street into the House of Fabergé. Gustav decided that the time had come to retire from his business and moved the family to Dresden. However, he left the business in the hands of a trusted employee by the name of Zaiontchkovsky rather than close its doors. Carl attended a commercial school in Dresden and later apprenticed in the goldsmith trade in Frankfort am Main to a jeweler by the name of Friedman. After this intense course of study, he was sent on a “grand tour” of Europe, as were most young people of a certain class at the time. This was not only meant to serve as a way to fully round out his education with more practical experiences but also this travel through London, Paris and Florence allowed him to study the various schools of European art. Fabergé returned to St. Petersburg in 1866 as a master jeweler and goldsmith but despite this title he continued to work for four years under the watchful eye of his father’s trusted manager Zaiontchkovsky. Finally, in 1872 he took control of the House moving it from the original basement shop to a larger, more spacious location across the street on the ground floor.
In the decade that followed, Fabergé continued to produce the type of jewelry that was created during his father’s time and also that represented the popular preference of the time – contemporary French jewelry. It was once described as “somewhat clumsy gold bracelets, which were fashionable at the time, brooches and medallions in the form of straps with clasps…They were decorated with stones and enamels and samples can still be seen in the old drawings of the firm.”
It was during this time that he began to volunteer at the Hermitage museum in the Kremlin, cataloging, appraising and restoring the treasures of the Czars. This gave him the opportunity to peruse some of the greatest art in the world and become more familiar with the Russian style.
All of these experiences prepared Fabergé for another momentous event in his life – the arrival of his brother Agathon at the doorstep of the House of Fabergé in 1882, ready and willing to help his brother reorganize and expand the business. Agathon, a skilled jeweler in his own right, could be said to have “thought outside the box.” He was creative, ingenious and driven. It was his influence that redirected the firm away from the heavy, fussy pieces being made until that point and toward the fine, intricate items that would ultimately be recognized as being of Fabergé style.
Hearing that there was to be an exhibition in Moscow – the Pan-Russian Exhibition, Agathon persuaded Peter Carl that they should participate. The Fabergé exhibit attracted the attention of scores of individuals as well as the press and Fabergé was awarded a gold medal for his work, but it was the attention of two very special people that would help guide the direction that the House of Fabergé would take. Those two people were Czar Alexander III and his wife, Czarina Maria Fyodorovna. The Czarina purchased a pair of cuff links from Fabergé on that day – a small purchase in comparison to the commissions that were to follow in the next 36 years as Supplier by Special Appointment to the Imperial Court and later named Royal Jeweler. The most exquisite of these commissions were the Imperial Eggs created by order of Czar Alexander II and Czar Nicholas II as Easter gifts for the Czarinas and Dowager Empress. These pieces were and remain the pinnacle of success for the House of Fabergé.
Political upheaval put an end to the Romanov Dynasty in 1918 and soon thereafter Peter Carl Fabergé fled the country to settle in Switzerland where he lived until his death in 1920.
The items touched on throughout this web site are but a small, although perhaps the most important, of the fantastic creations from the House of Fabergé. The list of other items that were produced included ashtrays, paper knives, lighters, cane handles, ladies’ handheld fans, snuff bottles, opera glasses, parasol handles, perfume bottles, pen holders, electric bells, candlesticks, coffee services, samovars, silver dinnerware, blotting pads and even knitting needles!
Russians who are descended from once wealthy families fondly recall their grandmothers using the term “lay out the Fabergé” to mean “set the table for dinner”. Fabergé had achieved what every purveyor wishes for – to become a household name.
The time of the Tsars is long gone and those involved with the House of Fabergé on Bolshaya Morskaya Street are mere shadows that exist only in photographs or as a line in a book. But they are not forgotten for what was wrought by that multitude of hands, created by their unparalleled imaginations, and molded by the genius of one man remains with us today as a lasting reminder that art can take many forms.