June 23, 2015

Faberge Documentary is a Jewel

Faberge Documentary is a Jewel
The Twelve Monogram Egg (also known as the Alexander III Portraits Egg), Fabergé,1896 [Photo credit: Arts Alliance]

Fabergé: A Life of Its Own

Arts Alliance 

It is nice to come across a documentary about Russia that is not all Sturm and Drang, Stalin and Purges, mafia and Putin. Yes, those negative aspects are an important part of Russian reality, but history is long and it has many stories to tell, far from all of them depressing.

The story of Peter Carl Fabergé and the jewelry empire he built is a truly remarkable story, and it is the focus of this new documentary from Arts Alliance. It is a lushly crafted, beautifully filmed documentary, full of glowing images of St. Petersburg and soaring Russian overtures. And it nicely weaves the arc of Fabergé’s tale into the broader context of the momentous Russian events of the 1880s-1920s.

The Fabergé story is one of commercial success and imperial excess, of an art restorer who went on to create a jewelry powerhouse in St. Petersburg, catering to the rich and famous, and especially to the Russian court.

Trained in Dresden and apprenticed in St. Petersburg, Carl Fabergé came to the attention of the imperial court in the 1880s and soon his workshop was making gifts and trinkets for those in the highest orbits of court life, satisfying the needs of a high society where, as one expert notes, “Fabergé gifts were extremely emotional. It was all about the extraordinary...”

The Imperial Family of Russia in Fabergé frame, photograph c1914

The first Fabergé Easter Egg was crafted in 1887, and some 50 would follow, including an unfinished one from 1917 (the Pearl Egg) that was only recently discovered for what it was in a Moscow mineral museum. 

Its workshop shuttered in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Fabergé family was forced to flee to Lausanne, Switzerland, where Carl died just a few years later. A worker looking at the closed St. Petersburg workshop that had once housed hundreds of the world’s finest craftsmen, remarked that “it was as though we had lost a dearly loved relative.”

Ironically, it was the forced emigration of Fabergé, the murder of the tsarist family, and the dire straits of Russian nobility in Paris (forced to sell off their precious snuff boxes and jewels) that brought the workshop’s art to the attention of a wider audience. That and the efforts of one Armand Hammer, who had parleyed his connections with the Kremlin into a tsar’s ransom of jewelry and eggs that he began selling off to the likes of Pratt, Post and Forbes. 

The Third Imperial Egg, Fabergé, 1887. Presented by Tsar Alexander III to Tsarina Maria Feodorvna, Easter 1887. 'Rediscovered' in USA, 2014.

“The love of Fabergé is an addiction,” one interviewee in the film notes, while another confirms the diagnosis by calling one egg “the closest thing that a group of men have come to perfection on Earth.”


Detail of Third Imperial Egg, showing sapphire and rose diamonds; and coloured gold garlands.

Perfection or no, the historical Fabergé brand carries within it a dissonant duality: one of amazing beauty and mindless excess. The film does not gloss over this fact and historians point out the gaping chasm that separated Russia’s tiny, spendthrift nobility and the huge society they fed off, how even in the dark days of the First World War, Fabergé had a difficult time keeping up with orders for its luxury goods (demand straitened by the fact that many of the firm’s workers were being called off to war).

In 2009, the historical Fabergé brand (separate from the mass market shampoo and home products line) was resurrected as a modern jewelry brand. In fact, some of the most fascinating B-roll scenes from the film are taken from the modern factory, where finely tuned lathes shave a hair’s breadth of silver off of a sphere, and goldsmiths work much as they did in Fabergé’s day, only perhaps with better lighting.

The film ends with an old Chevy truck trundling down an American highway. And we are told – in something between the dulcet tones of an NPR broadcast and the “What do you think it is worth?” style of Antique Roadshow – how an American scrap metal dealer “in a small town in America” acquired a tiny golden egg for $14,000, intending to melt it down for its component metals. 

The Bismarck Box, Fabergé, 1884. Incorporates a miniature portrait of Tsar Alexander III and red sunburst enamel. Presented by the Tsar to Prince von Bismarck, 1884.

Only problem was, the value of the egg’s metals turned out to be far less than what he had paid. Luckily for him, chance intervened (internet+obscure news article) and his hopeless treasure was discovered to be the third Fabergé egg ever made (1887) and worth something north of $20 million. 

As with many things, fine art has nothing to do with the cost of the materials that goes into its creation. And the best art often has a fascinating back story.

The documentary is in theaters starting June 29. View the trailer here.

{All photos courtesy of Arts Alliance.}

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