Women's Jewellery

Tsars in their eyes

After decades in the dark, Fabergé returns to the world of high jewellery with a dazzling new collection that unites its legendary past with modern creative mastery. By Vivienne Becker.

September 05 2009
Vivienne Becker

Fabergé: it has to be one of the most emotive, powerfully resonant and valuable names in the story of luxury. It rolls around lusciously on the tongue, and floats instant images of impossibly opulent jewelled eggs across your closed eyelids. It’s loaded with extravagant legend, weighty with Romanov romance and tragedy, the swan song of a lost civilisation. And yet for almost a century this noble name was lost in a kind of marketing wilderness, used to peddle soap and scent: for every person who associates Fabergé with eggs, there’s another who thinks immediately of the 1970s identity-chained, green-bottled men’s fragrance Brut. This month, however, Fabergé sets out on a path towards the restoration of its former glory when it rises, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of aftershave and kitsch pastiche.

The story of its rebirth is a saga of Russian proportions. A potted version goes like this: of Huguenot descent, Peter Carl Fabergé became jeweller and goldsmith to the lavish Russian Imperial Court. He was the artist-creator of virtuoso fantasy objects, jewels and jewelled accessories of an unparalleled exquisite luxury, and of the iconic series of Imperial Easter Eggs, wondrous tours de force that charted the tragic course of Nicholas and Alexandra’s love, the inevitable countdown to the brutal end of the Romanov dynasty and the start of a new world order. Fabergé became the most famous jeweller in the world, patronised by royalty, nobility, Eastern potentates, tycoons, ballerinas and bankers. After the Russian Revolution, in 1918 the Fabergé workshops were seized by the Bolsheviks and Fabergé fled, eventually to Switzerland where he died in 1920.

While his sons tried to keep the name alive, in 1937 an American of Russian origins, Sam Rubin, at the suggestion of his friend Armand Hammer, an American oil billionaire who collected Fabergé pieces, and in a less litigious time without the permission of the family, named his embryonic perfume business Fabergé. In 1951, once the family discovered their name had been taken in vain, they were forced for financial reasons to settle out of court for $25,000, losing the rights to use their own name and any chance to perpetuate their heritage. The Fabergé perfume company was bandied about for the next few decades, bought and sold, subsuming Elizabeth Arden, until it was bought for $1.55bn in 1989 by Unilever, who licensed the name for use on a motley crew of indiscriminately branded products. Truly a case of the sublime to the ridiculous.

Then, in 2007, a South African mining and investment company, Pallinghurst Resources, acquired the Fabergé brand and portfolio of trademarks with the intention of re-establishing Fabergé at the very pinnacle of luxury, and also as a possible future vehicle for its coloured gemstones. Fabergé’s CEO, Mark Dunhill, previously president of Alfred Dunhill, explains: “The partners of Pallinghurst had an inspired vision. They identified the massive potential of the brand and had the tenacity to secure it. We have with Fabergé one of the great business opportunities in the luxury sector. The name has shown amazing resilience and retained its mystique, even through a period of abandonment. We can come back with a clean slate, using it as a springboard to replicate Fabergé’s spirit, philosophy and artistry in a fresh way.”

One of the first acts of reinvigoration was to “reunite” the brand with the family, namely Tatiana Fabergé, great-granddaughter of Peter Carl, and Sarah Fabergé, daughter of Theo Fabergé, Peter Carl’s grandson. Tatiana, an acknowledged Fabergé scholar and expert in her own right, who has researched, written and lectured widely on her illustrious ancestor, contributes valuable archival information and family anecdotes, as well as connections with Russia, with collectors and other experts. As records were largely destroyed or lost, she is the closest thing to a living archive. Both she and Sarah, who have followed closely the evolution of the brand, serve on a newly founded Heritage Council, which will in time, it is hoped, initiate philanthropic and cultural events. Tatiana, a tough critic with strong views and a good eye, is delighted that the brand has been brought back in from the cold; she has, she says, been dreaming of this moment for decades.

Born-again Fabergé will focus primarily on high jewellery, faithful to its legacy in its emphasis on artistry and superlative craftsmanship rather than purely on hugely valuable stones. Working against the grain of the belle époque, Peter Carl Fabergé was never about high-price rocks (although he was seduced by the occasional massive hypnotic Siberian amethyst), preferring the discreet softness of 18th-century-style rose-cut diamonds used as highlights to enamels, carved minerals or recherché coloured goldwork. There is a parallel here with today’s luxury climate in which discerning clients, satiated by carats and stocked up on stones, are looking for something beyond a quantifiable store of wealth; rather, they seek the ultimate in refinement of cultivated taste. It is interesting that of all Fabergé’s original creations, the jewels were generally more classical and restrained – giving contemporary Fabergé a relatively clean sheet.

But, many purists will ask, is it possible or desirable to recreate a legend whose very being was en­gendered by a particular moment, and with such a unique social, cultural and political climate, all now seen as if preserved in aspic? And how can modern Fabergé pay homage to its legacy, perpetuate the dream, yet create a brand with relevance for today? Well, as a jewellery historian, I’ve been watching from the wings and worked with the Fabergé creative team at the initial stages pulling together cultural research and looking at Fabergé in the wider context of Russia’s great Silver Age of intellect and art, tracing the threads that might link past and present, to give the launch collections relevance and reference as well as the kind of courageous modernity that PC Fabergé brought to his own eclectic treasure house of inspirations.

Fabergé’s creative director, Katharina Flohr, has a fashion and jewellery background, and she has kick-started the contemporary Fabergé collections with her choice of an exceptional, highly individual Parisian artist-jeweller, Frédéric Zaavy. Flohr feels that Zaavy’s work perfectly embodies the values and spirit of Fabergé: “His refined aesthetics, artistry and sensibility and, most of all, the emotional engagement that comes with his work made me feel instinctively that this is what Fabergé would be doing today. His jewels have raw beauty, urban romance and tender poetry.”

The French connection is vital, she adds, since Fabergé’s work had such a strong French sensibility, underlined as it was with a Russian soul. It is this duality, along with the physical and emotional responses to Fabergé, that Flohr is most determined to find again.

For its launch, Fabergé presents selected pieces from Zaavy’s existing collection (acquired to “secure his talent” exclusively), complemented by new pieces directly inspired by Fabergé’s story. Flohr was amazed at how Zaavy’s collection related to Fabergé’s own influences, particularly in its painterly approach to gem artistry, and in the complexity of fabrication that lies behind the jewels’ understated spontaneity: “I felt I had found the perfect synergy between Fabergé and Zaavy’s work.”

Les Fabuleuses de Fabergé, the first high jewellery collection, is divided into three themes – Les Fleurs, Les Fables and Les Fauves de Fabergé – exploring Fabergé’s world rather than revisiting the master’s own stylistic references. Pastiche is avoided at all costs. Les Fleurs refers to the Russian obsession with flowers and Fabergé’s heart-stoppingly beautiful flower studies. Les Fables mines the convoluted and often dark narratives of Russian fairytale and folklore that underpinned so much art, literature and music of the day, while Les Fauves taps into the pre-revolutionary Silver Age, with its bohemian and Symbolist-fuelled artistic and intellectual originality and its dynamic synthesis of the arts.

Zaavy is vehemently in favour of modernity, of looking forward and not back, focusing more on an intangible timelessness, he says – the meeting point of ancient and modern. Throughout the themes, the jewels are fluid, organic and sculptural, voluminous, with a strong rhythmic flow of line and colour. They blaze their own defined trail with an emotive and distinctively random style of pavé work, in a process known as camaieux, an art term describing the blend of shades within a specific colour spectrum. Painstakingly, Zaavy selects each stone for tone, texture and sheen, mixing cuts with their different play of light, the brilliant, rose- and flat-mirror cut all paved into a glistening pool of dappled colour and luminosity, both rugged and refined. Setting the stones in this way on his distinctive sculptural surfaces demands an extra degree of skill; each piece can take hundreds of hours to make.

The contemporary Fabergé signature Symbolistes rings – each called Emotion (from £42,000), in different colours and moods – exude a noble savagery, softly undulating and shimmering with a dreamy haze of light. The Vagabondes rings wrap rivers of intense colour around a centre stone; the luscious Peony and Black Tulip rings show a world-weary decadence (all rings from £42,000); while the Spectre de la Rose series of single, fallen-rose-petal brooches (from £230,000) interpret the fleeting beauty of nature with a poetic Russian mix of joy and sadness and a lightness of touch and colour, “as if floating into an imaginary space”, says Zaavy.

The new Stone Flower rings (from £42,000), inspired by a famous fable from the mineral-rich Ural Mountains and by Fabergé’s genius in stone carving, are circled with stylised carved stone or camaieux flowers, enclosed in wavering diamond frames. The figurative fantasies of Les Fables include a magnificent, iridescent Firebird Brooch (from £230,000) and Sadko Seahorse Brooch (from £230,000) that relates to Sadko, one of the most famous Russian epic poems. The charismatic seahorse, explains Zaavy, has a sense of humour which he believes is “linked to nobility. When you look at him, it’s uplifting, you feel lighter and you’re smiling.”

Beyond its artistry and its remit to restore past glories, Fabergé has established a new business model, repositioning the artist-jeweller within the framework of an international brand. The plan, explains Flohr, is to work with top artists in their own fields, across different categories emulating Fabergé’s repertoire of objects, silver, tableware and personal accessories. In an echo of Fabergé’s system of named “workmasters”, all collaborative artists will be identified, “revealing the creative process,” says Flohr. Mark Dunhill reiterates, “It is part of our philosophy to proclaim the involvement of those people who have contributed.”

One of the most interesting aspects of this business model is the online boutique that, along with a showroom in Geneva, will be the main interface with the client. Fabergé turned to IBM to develop tailor-made software for its website that will allow the client to examine each piece in minute detail on the jewel’s own mini site. Features will include a zoom stronger than a jeweller’s 10x magnifying loupe, high-definition video links and an innovative piece of software created specially by IBM whereby Fabergé can show specific pieces or text on a client’s screen without, it is claimed, using remote access, which poses issues of privacy.

This website will be manned 24 hours a day by expert sales advisers covering 12 languages, taking online retailing to a new, personal level. The sales advisers will liaise with clients by telephone, e-mail and, if wished, video, and aim to replicate the one-to-one high jewellery experience. Whether one-of-a-kind jewellery of this calibre and these high price points can be sold through the ether is another cliff-hanger in this rich and intriguing Russian saga.

See also

Fine jewellery