The 1902 Duchess of Marlborough Egg is one of the finest eggs created by Peter Carl Faberge intended for someone outside the Russian Imperial Family. The very select few non-Imperial commissioners of Faberge’s famous creations were the industrialist Alexander Kelch, the oil baron Emanuel Nobel (the founder of the eminent prize which bears his name), the Rothschild family and the Duchess of Marlborough, the American born wife of the 9th Duke of Marlborough.
The Duchess was born Consuelo Vanderbilt in the United States on the 2nd March 1877. She was the only daughter of William Kissam Vanderbilt, who from his grandfather inherited the spectacular fortune of $55 million, accumulated from the vast and rapid expansion of the United States railway system. Consuelo’s mother, Alva, was an Alabama beauty who used her husband’s millions to secure the Vanderbilts as the leading society family in America. Alva was determined that her daughter should marry well. She controlled her daughter’s education to the tiniest detail, which was thorough but harsh. By the age of eighteen, Consuelo was a highly accomplished young woman, well read, musical and fluent in several languages- and very rich: a suitable spouse for any of the grandest peers of Europe. She grew up surrounded by beauty; her mother built palatial homes (most notably 660 Fifth Avenue and Marble House in Newport) in the neo-French style so beloved of the moneyed classes of the Gilded Age which she filled with beautiful things. As a teenager, Consuelo spent some time in Europe with her mother and fell in love with France and all things French, a taste that was to remain with her for the rest of her life.
In 1895 Consuelo was married, totally against her will, to Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough. It was the most outstanding example of American money marrying European titles at the end of the 19th century, with the Duke receiving a marriage settlement of approximately $2.5 million. So at 18, Consuelo found herself Duchess of Marlborough and chatelaine of Blenheim Palace, at the heart of the highest London society. She became close to the Prince and Princess of Wales and in 1902 she visited St. Petersburg with her husband. Due to her position in society, Consuelo came into close contact with the Imperial Family. She attended the Bal des Palmiers in the Winter Palace where she was seated next to Tsar Nicholas II at dinner. She also dined with the Grand Duchess Vladimir and saw her famous collection of jewels and had an audience with the Empress Marie Fedorovna (the Tsar’s mother) at her residence at the Anichkov Palace. Consuelo probably saw the Empress’ famous collection of Faberge eggs on display there and while in St. Petersburg took the opportunity of commissioning her own from the master.
The Marlborough Egg is a pure reflection of its time and its owner. It is executed in the Louis XVI style, reflecting Consuelo’s love of France and the shell is a delicate translucent pink with guilloche work on the gold base underneath, a masterclass in enamelling perfection. The colour is also an echo of Consuelo’s youthful exuberance. This egg is known as one of the clock eggs: the hour numbers are picked out in diamonds round its girth. When the clock is working, it revolves on itself on its base and a sensual diamond snake marks the hour. It is made of varicolour gold- the base is white enamel and one the panels is decorated with Consuelo’s monogram and ducal coronet in diamonds. The project was overseen by Faberge’s workmaster Michael Perchin and the egg is a prime example of the French styles he enjoyed working in.
Consuelo took the egg with her after her separation from the Duke of Marlborough in 1906 and thereon to France when she married the French war hero Jacques Balsan in 1921. In 1926 she donated the egg to a charity auction. It is an example of the low esteem Faberge objects were held in the 1920s- they were not intrinsically very valuable, and so not worth breaking up (hence their survival- by comparison, there is very little Faberge jewellery to be found nowadays) and with their rococo embellishments highly unfashionable and somewhat dowdy in the age of jazz and Art Deco. The market was flooded with Faberge from Russian émigrés and the Soviet Government itself trying to raise ready cash, so Faberge objects were not particularly rare. Also, with its Marlborough monogram and ducal diamond embellishments it was probably something Consuelo probably didn’t care to have around her, a reminder of the years she had spent unhappily married to the Duke of Marlborough.
The egg became the first Faberge egg in the famous Malcolm Forbes Collection, which was bought outright by the oligarch Viktor Veksleberg for around £100 million on 2004. The Duchess of Marlborough Egg is now housed with its counterparts in a newly built museum in St. Petersburg.