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Property from a Private Collection

Of trapezoidal form, matte finished rock-crystal quartz cover applied with rose-cut diamonds surrounding a watch, platinum, circa 1914, unsigned, numbered, accompanied by an unsigned platinum chain of later addition, red Fabergé egg-shaped case

Size/Dimensions: pendant-watch 5.7 x 4.7 cm (2 1/4 x 1 7/8 in); chain 44.5 cm (17.5 in)
Gross Weight: 57.0 grams
Most likely commissioned by Dr. Emanuel Nobel (1859-1932) from Fabergé circa 1913-1914
Cf. G. Habsburg, Fabergé Imperial Craftsman and his World, United Kingdom, Booth-Clibborn Editions, 2000, p. 219

Brought to you by

Daphne Lingon
Daphne Lingon Head of Jewellery Department, Americas

Lot Essay

This important and rare piece by Fabergé is almost identical to the watch pendant ‘surprise’ from the famous Nobel Ice Egg, sold at Christie's, Geneva, 17 May 1994, lot 294, currently in the McFerrin collection, Houston Museum of Natural Science, United States. It constitutes a wonderful discovery, bringing to light the only other known ‘frost’ watch pendant, ingeniously created by Alma Pihl (1888-1976), the leading designer in the Fabergé workshops.

The present watch pendant is scratched with inventory number ‘98289’, while the surprise of the Nobel Ice Egg is scratched with the consecutive number ‘98290’. This suggests that both watch pendants were made around the same time and were most likely commissioned by Swedish industrialist Dr. Emanuel Nobel (1859-1932), director of the Nobel oil empire and one of Fabergé’s most important clients.

Dr. Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm has extensively researched the ‘snowflake’ designs by Fabergé, and no one explained the interaction between the designer, the Fabergé firm and Dr. Emanuel Nobel better than her. In her article ‘Snowflakes from Russia’ (D. McFerrin, ed., From a Snowflake to an Iceberg: The McFerrin Collection, Houston, 2013, p. 264-267) she writes:

‘A jeweled object – in itself a thing of beauty – comes to life with the story of how and by whom it was created and who originally owned it. Happily, the story of Fabergé's young designer Alma Pihl and her family of goldsmiths has been preserved for posterity. So has the story of the Swedish industrialist and oil magnate Dr. Emanuel Nobel, a true admirer of Alma Pihl's designs.

If there is such a thing as a 'jeweler's gene’, Alma Pihl surely possessed it. She was born into a family of jewelers. Her father, Oscar Pihl, was the head of Fabergé's jewelry workshop in Moscow, and her mother was the daughter of Fabergé's renowned head jeweler August Holmström. Her uncle Albert Holmström, himself a jeweler, continued his father's work at Fabergé. Her aunt Alina Holmström was a talented designer of jewelry, and her younger brother, Oskar Pihl, a skillful enameler and designer.

Alma showed a rare talent for drawing at a tender age, a sketchbook being her constant companion. In school, Alma's art teacher saw her natural gift and encouraged her by giving her private lessons in draftsmanship. At the age of 20, she was employed at the workshop of her uncle Albert Holmström, then Fabergé's head jeweler. This was the workshop that produced the fine jewelry for Fabergé. Alma started off as an apprentice draftsperson. At that time it was the custom to sketch each object as accurately as possible in a stock book. Full-scale sketches of the piece in question accompanied by details of the precious stones used and the cost of labor were entered into the ledger. This was excellent experience for the young apprentice, and Alma soon learned how to calculate the costs of production, rising to become the workshop's cost accountant. During her rare moments of leisure, Alma tried her hand at designing herself. When Uncle Albert saw her efforts, he took them to the sales department below, returning in triumph to announce that they were thought excellent. This was how Alma's career as an assistant designer began.

One winter morning in 1911, Dr. Emanuel Nobel, esteemed habitué of Fabergé, paid a hasty visit to the firm. He said that he urgently needed around 40 small brooches and had specific parameters for his order: The jewels should have a new and fresh design and they should not be made of a costly material – if broken up, not much intrinsic value was to remain. Dr. Nobel was planning a gala dinner to which he had invited his most important clients. His idea was to hide a small gift of jewelry in the napkin of the wife of each of his clients at the dinner table, and he was, therefore, most desirous that the gifts not be mistaken for bribes.

Having received Nobel's order, Fabergé quickly directed it to the head jeweler, who in tum gave the design task to his young trainee Alma Pihl. This was Alma's chance to prove herself a qualified designer. January was, and still is, the coldest month in St. Petersburg, the windows often being covered in hoarfrost. When the sun shone, the sight of the window glass was dazzling. It seemed like an enchanted garden of frost flowers. Alma's desk was in front of such a window. She sat there thinking and playing with her pen, searching her mind for inspiration, when an idea all of a sudden struck her: snowflakes! What an exciting concept. She quickly started transferring nature's ice crystals onto her sketch pad as designs for Dr. Nobel's brooches. Both Fabergé and her uncle Holmström were pleased with the idea. Alma's designs were without delay put into production in the workshop.

Dr. Nobel was overwhelmed with the 40 small brooches delivered to him on such short notice. They were brilliantly original in design, winter motifs being rare in the history of the goldsmith's art. As gifts for foreign guests, they were delightful symbols of the Russian winter wonderland. Alma's new idea led to a mass of similar commissions from Nobel. In the years that followed, Alma elaborated on the theme, designing more snowflake brooches, bracelets, ice pendants, frosty pillboxes, and bonbonnieres, not to mention a multitude of small Easter eggs. A new alloy consisting of platinum and silver was used for the dainty settings richly encrusted with the tiniest rose-cut diamonds.

The snowflakes became Dr. Nobel's gift of choice, not only for his clients, but also for members of his family and close friends. Especially charming was his idea to present the bridesmaids at family weddings with a snowflake brooch. Many of these bridesmaids' gifts have survived in the collections of the descendants.

Nobel asked Fabergé for a monopoly on Alma's winter theme. Only one exception was discussed – Fabergé wished to use Alma's design idea for an Imperial Easter egg. Dr. Nobel gladly agreed to this’.

We are grateful to Dr. Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm and Dmitry Krivoshey for their assistance with the research of the present lot.

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