Easter just wouldn’t be what it is without eggs and the jewelled, decorated ones that Fabergé created for the Russian Imperial family between 1885-1916 are the most famous of all. They are the pinnacle of the goldsmiths’ art: ingenious and beautifully made, some with techniques now lost to us. The quality of design of some of them is questionable, to put it charitably, but that can never detract from the incredible attention, care and detail that has been lavished on each one.
The tradition of presenting painted eggs to loved ones had long been established in Russia. Easter is the most important festival in the Russian Orthodox Church, celebrating as it does the Resurrection. It is always celebrated in the Spring, a time in which Russia is finally seeing the end of its long, harsh Winter and therefore a time of rebirth, the egg being a symbol of that rebirth. Before the Romanovs had started presenting each other with jewelled eggs, they had already been commissioning beautiful porcelain examples from the Imperial factory to hand out as official gifts.
The commission of the first Imperial Easter Egg was the culmination of a long PR campaign by Fabergé. Alexander III had already bought some small pieces from the firm and they had been working on cataloguing, restoring and organising objects and jewellery in the Hermitage for free during the 1870s. At some point during these years they had been challenged by Alexander III that they could not equal the craftsmanship of the great 18th century goldsmiths. They duly replicated an elaborate gold and red enamel snuffbox of the period and presented it to the Tsar, who declared the great master goldsmiths surpassed.
So it was natural that by 1885 Fabergé had become the Tsar’s go-to firm when he decided he wanted something extra special to present to his beautiful, accomplished pleasure loving wife, the Tsarina Maria Feodorovna. The result was the charming Hen Egg, beautiful and simple and lacking in the elaborate decoration of subsequent creations. It is made of a gold shell overlaid with white enamel. The shell ‘breaks’ open to reveal a golden yolk- this in turn unscrews to reveal a hen perfectly rendered in three colour gold. The hen opens to yield a miniature diamond crown with a ruby pendant. The egg could be said to be a close replica of an 18th century one in the Danish Royal Collection, made in ivory and revealing similar surprises- it would have been a sentimental touch to remind the Tsarina of her native Denmark. However, there is another one of an earlier date and similar design in the Green Vaults in Dresden- Peter Carl Fabergé spent much of his youth there as an apprentice, absorbing techniques and styles which he was later to distil into the world famous ‘le style faberge’. Almost certainly some of the incredible goldsmithing he studied there was the inspiration for the immaculate three colour gold rendering of the hen in the surprise.
The Hen Egg of 1885 was only supposed to be one off bespoke trinket- but the Tsarina was so delighted with it that Alexander III immediately put in a standing order for a yearly egg and gave faberge the title of ‘Goldsmith by Special Appointment to the Imperial Crown’. The tradition was continued by his son, Nicholas II, who increased the standing order to two eggs a year- one for his mother and one for his wife. In total, 50 Imperial Eggs were created, of which 43 survive.