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City news, 18.11.2005 14:17

Empire of Eggs

faberge_eggs Their story has all the ingredients that thrillers are made of. A family history spanning several centuries and stretching across Europe, from St. Petersburg to London. An ancestor who gained worldwide fame as court jeweler to Russia's imperial family. A dramatic escape from the Bolsheviks. A grandson born out of wedlock who only discovered his true identity in his thirties. And a legacy that lives on today.

This, in a nutshell, is the story of the Faberge family and particularly of Peter Carl Faberge, whose name has become associated with the preferred Easter present of the last two Russian tsars: the elaborately handcrafted Imperial Eggs.

Scattered around the world after the Bolshevik Revolution, the eggs were collected by other royal families, museums and moneyed collectors, so the Faberge name lived on even after Carl passed away. Now, for the renowned jeweler's descendants, his grandson Theo and his great-granddaughter Sarah, their predecessor's name is the proverbial hen laying golden eggs. Quite literally.

Two years ago, Theo and Sarah -- who are both in the jewelry business too -- set up a small shop in St. Petersburg. That was followed by last month's opening of a new boutique on Red Square, just a stone's throw from St. Basil's Cathedral.

Speaking at The St. Petersburg Collection, her store in London's Burlington Arcade, Sarah said she was still getting used to giving interviews. Indeed, just moments before I walked into the glass-fronted shop with its colorful display of Faberge eggs, Christmas ornaments and Russian-style lacquered boxes, a CNN camera crew was heading out the door.

Not that the name of Faberge has suddenly been brought into the limelight. It also made quite a splash last year, when oil and metals tycoon Viktor Vekselberg bought a collection of original eggs from the Forbes family for over $90 million and brought them back to Russia.

The main point of recognition for Theo and Sarah was the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg in 2003. Invited to the celebrations on an official visit, they presented the city with Theo's 30-centimeter-high crystal Tercentenary Egg, engraved with images of nine tsarist-era palaces. Inside the egg was a miniature of the Bronze Horseman, the famous statue of the city's founder, Peter the Great, astride a horse.

"My father, Theo, was always creative, always made beautiful things, and relatively late in his life he began to work exclusively for The St. Petersburg Collection," Sarah said, speaking of her 83-year-old father, who lives outside of London.

"Now that my father is older, he is letting me do more on his behalf, but he is very much still interested in doing company business. It has been his life, his designing and his creating."

Although most people associate Faberge with eggs, the company produces other items such as watches, pieces of jewelry and little Christmas decorations, all of which are available in their Moscow store at 5 Red Square.

Sarah, 47, said there is still a connection between the current family business and the work of her famed ancestor, but it is time to move forward. "Obviously we can't emulate the Imperial Eggs," she said. "We live in the 21st century. But we want to make pieces of beauty which are worthy of the name and of the same quality. That quality is the most important part of our operation."

None of the eggs the Faberges make today are copies of Carl's century-old creations. "It would be silly to copy something that is so exquisite," Sarah said. "It's been done, it's beautiful in itself. They are too perfect as they are."

The quantity of objects produced by her company is strictly limited, and there is no single workshop where eggs take shape, since its employees work from their homes. The St. Petersburg Collection employs about 30 craftsmen in Britain, each a specialist in their own field, be it gold, porcelain or wood. Until recently Theo was making the designs himself.

His only child, Sarah, who has taken a silversmithing course but otherwise has no artistic training, took up designing for the company after the birth of her son.

"When you have children, it does make you think about the future and future generations, so I took the opportunity," she said. "I indeed I was very lucky to design, and it's gone from there."

Out of her designs, one of her favorites is the Neva Ice Egg. "When I was in St. Petersburg, I was particularly struck by the fact that Neva freezes over, and in the spring when I've been there it was just breaking up. I wanted to symbolize the ice coming apart in the water and coming back again in spring," she said. The egg is made of crystal with silver engraving, a moonstone on top and a golden angel inside.

Sarah first saw St. Petersburg when she was 16, and years after that visit, the depictions of the Zodiac in one of the palaces that she visited have found their way into the eggs she has designed.

The original Faberge firm was founded in 1842 by Carl's father, the jeweler Gustav Faberge. Only after Carl joined the firm, however, did it achieve worldwide acclaim. In 1885, he was commissioned by Tsar Alexander III to produce the first jeweled, enameled Imperial Egg as a gift for Tsarina Maria Fyodorovna. The egg -- in what would become a trademark feature -- opened to reveal a yolk. It contained a golden hen with a diamond miniature of the crown and a tiny ruby egg. The gift proved to be such a hit that each year thereafter, a new egg was commissioned by the tsar and created by Faberge for the tsarina. The eggs became more and more elaborately jeweled, and all of them had a surprise hidden inside.

From 1895 to 1916, Tsar Nicholas II continued the tradition by giving two Easter eggs each year, one to his mother and one to his wife. Forty-four of the eggs are known to survive today.

"Carl Faberge was as much an entrepreneur as he was a designer; he was a very good businessman," Sarah said.

With his luxurious creations unwanted by the Bolshevik regime, however, Carl fled Russia in 1917 and died in France in 1920. Some of his descendants pursued the family tradition of jewelry, but most of the line died out over the next few decades. His only surviving grandson today is Theo Faberge. Born out of wedlock to Carl's son Nicolas and a model with whom Nicolas was having an affair, Theo was raised by an aunt and never learned about his Faberge identity until 1961. The discovery fueled his interest in craftsmanship, and he helped found The St. Petersburg Collection, the firm that now groups together Theo and Sarah's work, in 1985.

Despite her family's difficulties with the Soviet regime, Sarah has no hard feelings toward the Bolsheviks. "I am sure that my great-grandfather would have a different opinion, but I am lucky in that I have grown up here [in Britain], and I didn't have to suffer what most Russian people had to suffer," she said. "No, I just think what's past is past, but we need to look into the future."

Meanwhile, pieces by the new generation of Faberges are finding their way into the collections of museums as the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. There are also a number of private collectors around the world, with quite a few in the United States.

Philip Birkenstein, chairman of The St. Petersburg Collection, insists that anyone can buy a Faberge. "Just because it has a Faberge name on it doesn't mean it's very expensive. There is something for everybody," Birkenstein said. Prices in the company's new Moscow shop, The Grand Collection Gallery, start at $200 and range up to $35,000.

The location of the new shop, whose windows open onto the iconic St. Basil's Cathedral, is symbolic, Sarah said. "It is wonderful, really, to think [that the shop is now] on Red Square," she said. "It couldn't be in a better place. It feels like Faberge has come full circle, and now it's come home. It belongs there.

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