Faberge’s ancestors left France in the 17th century to settle in Parnu (Estonia). At the beginning of the 19th century Gustave Faberge moved to Petersburg, and in 1842 he opened a jewellery workshop there. His son Peter-Carl Faberge, born in 1846, was educated in Italy, England and France. On his return to Petersburg in 1870, at the age of 24, he took over his father’s workshop which in a short time became a large enterprise employing 500 workers, with branches in Moscow, Odessa, Kiev and London.
The firm likewise enlisted the services of skilled jewellers such as Mikhail Perkhin, Julius Rappoport, Eric Collin and others, who had small workshops of their own, but soon began to work exclusively for the Fabergd firm, usually putting their stamp alongside with the linn's trade-mark. Later all those workshops were united in one building whose top floor housed studios in which the artists created new designs for the Faberge masterpieces. The various techniques (he workshops used in working the precious metals, each specializing in the production of certain articles, testify to the high standard of excellence attained by them. As a rule, the firm’s artists worked on a level close to perfection. Mikhail Perkhin’s workshop, for instance, produced magnificent enamel articles of exquisite execution. Most of the celebrated “Easter eggs”— annual gifts ordered for the Imperial court, that won renown for their unprecedented originality, bear Mikhail Perkhin’s stamp.
Eric Collin supervised the workshop specializing in the manufacture of gold articles of elfin delicacy and engraving on gold.
Silver decorative articles and silverware were produced in the workshop of Julius Rappoport.
Peter-Carl Faberge directly participated in the creation of jewellery, often making sketches and supervising the work. Faberge masterpieces won a gold medal at the All-Russian Artistic and Industrial Exhibition held in Moscow in 1882. The firm was a roaring success at the World Fair in Paris in 1900.
In the early 20th century the Faberge firm was so popular that the Russian Artistic and Industrial Society held a C. Faberge competition, in 1913, for the best designs of articles to be made of precious metals. 152 designs were presented for the competition, mostly by jewellers and artists working at the Russian factories of gold- and silverware.
Whereas the Petersburg branch filled the orders of the tsarist court and its milieu, the Moscow firm produced a great number of more modest silverware, dishes, table services and jewellery, to cater for the different layers of society.
The collection of Faberge jewellery at the State History Museum offers a possibility to appreciate the outstanding enterprise at its true value. Alongside with the gold articles with precious stones, enamel, semiprecious stones and paste, the collection features numerous household silverware: saltcellars, wine cups, glass-holders, table services, table writing-pads, mirrors, cut-glass articles mounted in silver, etc., executed with superb exquisiteness, elegance and impeccable taste.
In the late 19th century enamel became the favourite decorating material for articles of precious metals. An ornament of thin silver wire, straight or twisted in a string, forming, as it were, cells in the shape of petals, leaves, circles, stripes and twists, was mounted on a metal surface, to be filled with multi-coloured enamel. This technique was successfully applied by the Faberge craftsmen. The History Museum collection boasts a big-sized glass-holder decorated with multi-coloured enamel on filigree.
However, enamel on guilloche (mechanical engraving on metal), usually transparent, of one colour, covering large surfaces, is more peculiar to Faberge. Several hundreds of different colours and shades of enamel, at the disposal of the Faberge craftsmen, enabled them to show the finest play of one and the same colour intensified by the difference in the direction and depth of the rays, concentrical circles, and straight or curved lines of the guilloched ornament. A splendid example is the clock made by M. Perkhin, in the austere shape of a regular triangle with opal enamel playing like mother-of-pearl in the different rays showing through the enamel, as well as the round and rectangular clock with white and blue enamel, also on a guilloched background, that bear the mark of Genrikh Vigstrem, a follower and successor of M. Perkhin.
In Faberge articles enamel is used to bring out the beauty of the precious metal or stone, playing at times a secondary role. The Museum collection contains an oval frame of exquisite workmanship with a miniature portrait of Zinaida Yusupova (made by V. Zuyev). The miniature is adorned with two sprays of lilies of the valley made of pearls with leaves of green enamel, tied with a narrow ribbon set with little diamonds. The white velvet stand that holds the frame, emphasizes its elegance.
The Faberge branch in Petersburg made Russian semiprecious stone jewellery — jade, malachite, rhodonite, jasper, lasurite, obsidian and others—world famous. Semiprecious stone jewellery, an altogether new phenomenon in jeweller’s art, won well-deserved fame for its brilliant choice of stones and magnificent workmanship. At the end of the 19th century, semiprecious stone jewellery held a comparatively modest place among the Faberge creations. Semiprecious stones were used in small amounts for the manufacture of little things, like snuff-boxes, walking-stick handles and signet-rings, and on rare occasions for bigger objects. Most semiprecious stone articles were at that time produced at F. F. Verfel’s workshop in Petersburg and at the lapidary in Peterhoff.
By the early 20th century Faberge had already established his own stone-sawing workshop employing 20 workers, mostly Russian craftsmen, whose first supervisor was the painter P. M. Kremlev. The Yekaterinburg master Derbyshev who distinguished himself among the stone-cutters, was sent by Faberge to Paris for “a refresher course”.
All semiprecious stone articles produced by Faberge, are to be divided into two categories: on the one hand — articles mounted in silver or gold, and on the other, those made exclusively of stone.
When manufacturing semiprecious stone articles the Faberge masters took great care to find the right combination of semiprecious stone and precious metal, carefully choosing the mounting that wouldn’t dominate.
An example of imaginative delicacy is a small rectangular casket of yellowish-grey agate. The master gave his whole attention to the beauty of the stone and the finest play of its polished smooth surface, reducing the amount of gold to three thin stripes, to cover the hinges, set with small rosettes and completed with tiny sapphires.
A small rectangular agate brooch with inlays, forming what looks like a wooded landscape, with its fine frame in the shape of a bow of tiny small rosettes in perfect harmony with the graceful pattern of the rare stone is an example of successful combination of stone and mounting.
A prominent place in the collection is occupied by the big desk clock created as a malachite column in the workshop of Julius Rappoport. The gilded sculptures of a mounted Horse Guards officer, standard in hand, and two foot guardsmen with bared swords go well with the shape of the pedestal, the gold harmonizing with the deep green colour of the malachite, but the numerous gilded cover plates somewhat attenuate the stone’s beautiful pattern.
In the early 20th century flowers made of stone were a prominent feature of the Faberge production. Numerous figures of men and animals, often adorned with precious stones or details of gold and silver, won great popularity. For instance, the small figures of elephants made of amethyst, agate, cornelian and other stones, hippopotamuses of beautifully polished dark-green jade; rhinoceros of obsidian, have tremendous eye-appeal.
The Faberge masters likewise made use of mother-of-pearl, particularly for the manufacture of small jewellery articles framed with narrow strips of precious metal, for instance, cigarette-holders decorated with small elegant coils, or cigarette-cases of Mikhail Perkhin’s workmanship, in which the fine lustre and play of mother-of-pearl beautifully combine with the wavy gold lines of the mounting.
The State History Museum collection possesses several cut-glass articles distinguishable by their beauty and ornamentation: a semi-spherical vase for grapes with an ornament of smooth embossed oblique stripes, only framed with a narrow silver band; a water jug with an inset for ice in a smooth silver mounting with elegant sprays of berries and leaves coming down on the cut-glass surface.
The Faberge jewellers achieved great mastery in the art of silver casting and engraving. A case in point is the big desk cigarette-case with an embossed composition whose subject matter was probably prompted by N. A. Nekrasov’s poem “Frost, Red Nose”. The higher embossed central pattern, a woman sleeping under a fir tree and Frost’s head, smoothly change into the lower ornament of the background, rime of tiny diamonds covering, in places, the fir branches.
The jeweller’s art of the early 20th century features prominently the rolled ornament (embossed patterns mechanically achieved). Many Faberge creations were ornamented with narrow stripes framing selected parts of smooth polished articles, for instance, writing-pads, glass-holders, saltcellars and others, always distinguishable by their exquisite workmanship.
The work of the skilled jewellers of the Faberge firm made a great and valuable contribution to the Russian jeweller’s art. The Faberge masterpieces that earned world recognition already at the end of last century, have retained their artistic value.
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