Sam Leith Sam Leith

Both sublime and ridiculous

Sam Leith reviews Toby Faber's history of Fabergé eggs

Sam Leith reviews Toby Faber’s history of Fabergé eggs

What a great idea for a book, this is — and how well-executed. Toby Faber has produced, at just the length to suit it, a hugely enjoyable and informative account of the making and afterlife of the best-known examples of the jeweller’s art. Here is a series of love stories; a historical panorama; a tale of grotesque imperial frivolity, of barbarous totalitarian wrecking and of all-American hucksterism; a parable about the nature of value; and, above all, a portrait of the endless and winning absurdity of economic man in pursuit of shiny gewgaws.

The first Fabergé egg was given as an Easter present in 1885 by Tsar Alexander III to his wife Marie Federovna. It was a white egg, that opened to reveal a golden yolk, within which was a tiny golden hen sitting on a nest of golden straw, an imperial crown and a ruby pendant. It delighted its recipient, and Fabergé was asked to provide another the following year. And the year after that. The eggs became ever more elaborate, each one laden with imperial symbolism, and each containing a surprise: enamelled miniature portraits; a wind-up clockwork bird; a working model of the Trans-Siberian Express; an exquisite jewelled carriage.

As a whimsy became an inviolable custom, the St Petersburg jewellery shop founded by a family of Huguenot refugees turned into a small business empire — its many lines of enamelled and carved objects all glowing in the brand recognition conferred by its relationship with the Russian royal family, a relationship that almost literally hatched from an egg. Every year the Tsarina (and, after Alexander’s death, the Dowager Empress Marie) got an egg, and by the time the Russian Revolution killed the golden goose, there were 50 imperial eggs in existence.

The fashion for Fabergé, during these years, spread throughout the European nobility.

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