Peter Karl Fabergé: Jeweler to the Czar

While tiaras may not be to everyone’s taste, a certain diamond-encrusted laurel wreath tiara—attributed to the workshop of Fabergé master craftsman August Holmström—could go a long way toward changing a naysayer’s mind. One of the treasures recently on view at the Broughton International Inc. Fabergé exhibition at the Riverfront Arts Center in Wilmington, Del., the tiara was only one example of the genius employed by Fabergé’s workmasters.

Guest curated by Fabergé expert Archduke Dr. Géza von Habsburg and Mr. Alexander von Solodkoff, the exhibit featured more than 1,000 masterpieces, bringing together a selection of works created by some of the leading masters of the Fabergé atelier: Erik Kollin, August Hollming, August Holmström, Michael Perchin, and Henrik Wigström. The exhibition catalog (Fabergé: Imperial Craftsman and his World, Dr. Géza von Habsburg, ed., Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2000) is an equally expansive delight. Excellent reproductions and extensive captions fill the book, and a wealth of small, insightful details pepper the text, giving the reader a view of both Fabergé the man and Fabergé the name.

Choreography. In his introduction to the exhibition catalog, Dr. Robert Steven Bianchi, Broughton’s director of Academic and Cultural Affairs, describes Peter Karl Fabergé as a choreographer. “Fabergé acted as a mediator between what was desired and what was technically possible with the materials,” Bianchi writes. “His ideas for the design were conveyed to his craftsmen, and he then followed up this process by coordinating the efforts of specialists, each one expert in the handling of a specific material.” His finely tuned skill in coordinating and supervising individual teams of workmen is most evident, Bianchi believes, in the objects those teams ultimately produced—each one “unmistakably ‘Fabergé.’ “

Despite being a master jeweler and goldsmith, Fabergé’s main role was supervisory. He saw each commission or object through from inception to completion, coordinating designers and craftsmen and holding roundtable meetings on each piece. His staff was extensive and at one time included about 300 people, with another 200 working as independent contractors.

Peter Karl Fabergé was, according to the curators’ research, a direct, witty, and nonjudgmental man who took care of his workers. His employees worked under contract to him in workshops for which he charged no rent, using materials and tools he provided for free. And, according to Bianchi, when stray bullets hit the façade of the Fabergé St. Petersburg headquarters—a result of political confrontations between protestors and Cossacks in 1905—Fabergé ordered his workmen to stay home … and continued to pay them.

Fabergé also loved animals; the exhibition album notes that he had even trained a starling to chirp a melody from the opera Faust by Charles François Gounod. His appreciation for wildlife should come as no surprise, judging from the menagerie of species turned out in various forms by the House of Fabergé. The carved animal figures created by Fabergé craftsmen from nephrite and other Russian gemstones show the particular care taken by the workshop in matching the natural with the artistic. Each stone’s individual characteristics—shape, color, veining, etc.—determined which animal it would eventually depict.

The masters. In 1900, the House of Fabergé headquarters in St. Petersburg was a four-story pink granite building that housed not only the Fabergé family but also the sales room, a reference library, and most of the craft studios. Bianchi lists the different workmasters occupying space on each floor: Hollming was on the first, with Perchin and later Wigström on the second, Holmström on the third, and Thielemann on the top floor.

The work of these craftsmen is well represented in the show catalog, with objects ranging from enamel frames to the famous Imperial Easter Eggs. Entries by Dr. von Habsburg and others cast light on their individual places within the House of Fabergé.

Erik Kollin, from Finland, was a master jeweler and goldsmith who operated his own workshop while also maintaining the position of head workmaster at Fabergé from 1868 to 1886. Kollin worked primarily in yellow gold and is particularly known for his replicas of 4th-century Greek jewelry. He also revived the ancient technique of granulation. Kollin was replaced by Michael Perchin in 1886, but he continued as an outworker at Fabergé until his death in 1901.

Michael Perchin, a native Russian, served in the workshop of Erik Kollin before being appointed head workmaster. The creations that emerged from the workshop of Perchin are some of the most beautiful and recognizable of the entire Fabergé range. Perchin was responsible for the first Imperial Egg—a plain white matte-enamel egg that opens to reveal first a golden removable yoke, and then an intricately engraved golden hen with ruby eyes. The hen also opens and supposedly contained a ruby egg-shaped pendant hung inside a diamond and ruby crown, but this has since been lost.

Perchin and his team were most renowned for their mastery of enamel, a talent that can be seen in the Heart Surprise Frame. According to a recently found invoice, the frame was originally the treasure within the Mauve Imperial Easter Egg, which unfortunately is still missing.

Perchin died in 1903, and left his workshop to senior assistant Henrik Wigström. Working under Perchin, Wigström had helped create 26 Imperial Eggs, and as head workmaster he went on to produce 20 more, including the Moscow Kremlin Egg and the famous Orange Tree Egg. Wigström also continued the enamel work, using an extensive palette of guilloché enamel to create pieces of great quality. He created many boxes in particular as well as objects made from natural materials such as turquoise, rock crystal, and wood.

Helsinki-born August Holmström was hired as principal jeweler by Peter Karl’s father Gustav in 1858 and continued to work for the company until his death in 1903. Von Habsburg describes him as being responsible for the House of Fabergé’s most beautiful jewelry creations, an assertion that can be validated simply by viewing the aforementioned tiara. Holmström’s workshop was renowned for its exceptional gem-setting technique, and the tiara—its leaves encrusted with tiny diamonds—stands as a stunning example.

There were many other Fabergé workmasters about whom not much is known. Two, however, can be recognized for their creation of smaller jewelry pieces for Fabergé. August Hollming, a goldsmith from Finland, was hired by Fabergé sometime after 1880. He created a majority of the House’s silver, gold, and enamel cigarette cases, and many of the miniature Easter Eggs and enamel and gem jewelry pieces also are attributed to his workshop. German-born Alfred Thielemann, another goldsmith and jeweler, ran a jewelry workshop for Fabergé from 1880 until his death in 1910. Thielemann’s initials appear on many smaller jewelry items, as well as on a large number of commemorative-style badges.

The information presented here represents only the tip of the iceberg—von Habsburg and his fellow contributors delve much deeper into the history of Fabergé and his House. As a whole, the book succeeds in putting all that information into context, with other chapters focusing on subjects such as Russian enamel and jewelry in St. Petersburg. It also takes an extensive look at the company’s competitors, both Russian and international. Excellent reproductions accompany the text, allowing the reader to compare the works of jewelers such as Tiffany, Cartier, Boucheron, and Lalique with those of the House of Fabergé.

With this catalog, the contributors have accomplished a difficult feat. Despite the expanse of reproduced masterpieces begging for attention, this is not just a quick-flip coffee-table book—this is a book to read.