Reviews: Making a Case for Art

The Fabergé Case: From the Private Collection of John Traina

By John Traina

Photographs by: Fred Lyon

Foreword by: Mikhail Piotrovsky

Introduction by: Archduke Geza von Habsburg

Essay by: Danielle Steel

1998, Harry N. Abrams Inc.; 192 pages, $39.95

In 1884, the royal court of Russia appointed Peter Carl Fabergé jeweler to the czars. He reigned as such until the 1917 revolution, after which he fled to Western Europe. In those years, the Fabergé workshops in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa, Kiev, and London produced some 150,000 objects. This output ranged from highly coveted items, such as jewels, figures in stone, and jeweled eggs, to practical knickknacks such as bell pushers (for signaling servants), cufflinks, picture frames, clocks, pens, and cigarette cases. So great was demand that Fabergé’s 22 workmasters and 500 craftsmen could scarcely satisfy it.

In the 1930s and ’40s, this rage for things Fabergé waned. Collectors viewed his pieces as expensive trinkets, tokens of a pointless and ironic nostalgia. In the last 20 years, however, the vicissitudes of taste reversed this verdict. The 1996 “Fabergé in America” show at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art drew huge crowds. Fabergé was back, big time.

To collect Fabergé is to specialize. San Francisco investor and vineyard operator John Traina developed a fascination with the master’s cigarette cases after his then-wife, novelist Danielle Steel, gave him one she bought in the antique department at Cartier. The samorodok gold case—samorodok gold settles as thickly swirled metal, almost like finger-painting—inspired Traina to look for more. Twenty years later, he owns the largest group of Russian cigarette cases, and Fabergé cases, in the world. The Fabergé Case, with exquisite full-page photographs, showcases more than 300 of them.

The late 19th-century vogue whereby royals gave cigarette cases as tokens of appreciation or esteem had its antecedents in the humble snuffbox. Frederick the Great, who pinched regularly and often, owned 300. As the fashion of taking snuff grew, so did the custom of awarding gorgeous snuffboxes as favors. When cigarettes superseded snuff, cases eclipsed boxes. Fabergé for a time made both.

With their flat rather than tubular or round surfaces, cigarette cases offered designers of the Fabergé house an unparalleled opportunity to create. The challenge was to bring that flatness to life. Workmasters such as Mikhail Perkhin and Henrik Wigstrom, under the watchful eye of the master, developed an amazing array of designs characterized by such practical trademarks as near-invisible hinges and tight-fitting covers. Fabergé’s most popular cases were those finished in ribboned gold. But the firm that haughtily disdained the “commercialism” of competitors such as Cartier and Tiffany also produced many masterpieces, not only flawless but also unique. It was all in the design.

The size and shape of the object combined with a willingness to reach for different types of materials expanded design possibilities. Fabergé craftsmen used wood (holly, oak, birch, and walnut), glass, tortoiseshell, and leather. Hardstones—cut into “wafer-thin walls”—included lapis lazuli, rhodonite, quartz, citrine, nephrite jade, pink jade, jasper, gray jasper, malachite, labradorite, bowenite, fluorite, kalgan, olivine, amazonite, Siberian amethyst, turquoise, rock crystal, moss agate, chalcedony, agate, aventurine quartz, obsidian, and carnelian. Fabergé designers worked in diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, moonstones, chrysoberyls, topaz, and garnets as thumbpieces or for decoration.

The czar collected cigarette cases for his daily use and favored those carved from green nephrite. At one point he forbade the government to sell the rare, translucent, spinach-colored hardstone to anyone other than Fabergé. (A large hunk of nephrite sat in the jeweler’s yard. Rocks were periodically sheared away to be worked into art pieces.)

But the signature material was enamel. Fabergé resuscitated the old French art of enameling, creating in the process a palette of approximately 145 hues, which included at least 25 different shades of blue in addition to such exotics as emerald green, lime green, deep rich plum, and steel gray.

That Fabergé’s cigarette cases turn out to be great art rather than second-hand baubles owes to the master’s cutting-edge aesthetic, which, if only to satisfy imperial caprice, sought ceaselessly for the new. The variety of shapes and materials that resulted lend themselves to the collector’s mania. The Fabergé Case, which documents the artistry underlying the passion for acquisition, is a fine addition to the growing number of volumes highlighting the significance of 20th-century objets d’art.