Collecting guide: 15 things you need to know about Fabergé

The story of the legendary jewellery house and its greatest creations — from the iconic eggs to flowers, figurines and snuff boxes — plus the distinctive styles of its various branches and master artisans

It’s not just about the eggs

While it was the magnificent jewelled enamel Easter eggs that made the House of Fabergé so famous, they represent only a fraction of its artistic creations. The head craftsmen or workmasters of Fabergé transformed everything from cigarette cases to mantel clocks into imaginative works of art. It was this trademark ability to enhance everyday objects through the application of sophisticated enamelling techniques, goldsmithing and stone-setting that made Fabergé such a paragon of Russian art, famous throughout Europe’s royal courts.

Even its 19th-century rivals, such as Cartier and Tiffany, clearly drew inspiration from the great Russian jeweller. By studying the range of objects created by Fabergé — including frames, hardstone animals, flowers, bell-pushes and jewellery — we can gain insight into their importance, whether as imperial gifts or personal tokens.

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The Rothschild Egg. A jewelled vari-coloured gold-mounted and enamelled egg on plinth, incorporating a clock and an automaton by Karl Fabergé, dated 1902. Sold for £8,980,500 in November 2007 at Christie’s in London

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The Winter Egg. A highly important Fabergé imperial Easter egg with original surprise given by Tsar Nicholas II to his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna at Easter 1913. Sold for $9,579,500 on 19 April 2002 at Christie’s in New York

That said, the eggs are pretty incredible

The Russian imperial family were Fabergé’s most important clients, and the Easter eggs its most important commissions. Peter Carl Fabergé — also known as Karl Gustavovich Fabergé — first attracted the attention of the family at the Pan-Russian Exhibition in Moscow in 1882, where he exhibited a replica of a 4th-century B.C. gold bangle from the Hermitage Museum’s Scythian Treasure.

Emperor Alexander III was so impressed by the accuracy of Fabergé’s copy that works by the jeweller were put on view at the Hermitage as representations of Russia’s great craftsmanship.

In 1885 the House of Fabergé was awarded the title of ‘Supplier to the Court of His Imperial Majesty’ and received its first commission for an imperial Easter egg. Just over 50 Fabergé eggs were made, and the design and creation of each took the firm more than a year to complete. It is exceptionally rare, and therefore very exciting, when one of these objects comes on to the market.

Beware of imitations

Fabergé’s success meant that its works were copied from very early on. Given the prevalence of fakes, it is important to see as many pieces as possible offered by reputable auction houses and dealers, and in museum collections. In particular, you should examine the quality of enamelling, the crispness of chasing and the overall design.

Works that imitate Fabergé are often over-decorated with imperial symbols, such as the double-headed eagle. Even the age of a piece can be deceptive, because some turn-of-the-century European objects have been retouched with Russian Fabergé marks to enhance their value. The marks on a piece should be the last thing you examine; it is a suspicious sign if they appear to have been too heavily struck.

Perhaps the trickiest area of Fabergé’s production to authenticate is its carved hardstone models of animals and figures. Fabergé worked with a number of stonecutters, such as the Imperial Peterhof Lapidary works in St Petersburg and factories in Idar-Oberstein in Germany, sourcing hardstones for vases, boxes and models of animals.

As a result, it can be very difficult to differentiate works by Fabergé from the lapidaries’ own productions. Fabergé would often repolish the figures it sold and was solely responsible for mounting them, so key elements to study in hardstone pieces are the finish of the polish and the mounts around eyes or other jewelled elements.

Fabergé was a pioneer of enamelling techniques

Following a grand tour of the treasuries of Europe and his experience of repairing objects of vertu in the Hermitage, Fabergé revived various enamelling techniques and expanded their design possibilities. He went on to invent more than 145 new shades of enamelling.

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A rare and large silver-gilt cloisonné, guilloché and en plein enamel casket. Moscow, 1908-17. 5⅞ in (15 cm) wide, with handles. Sold for £262,500 on 23 November 2020 at Christie’s in London

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A jewelled and enamel gold bonbonnière in the form of a doge’s hat, by Fabergé. St Petersburg, 1899-1904. 1⅜ in (3.6 cm) high. Sold for £162,500 on 29 November 2021 at Christie’s in London

Fabergé created varied designs on the surface of precious metals and covered them with richly pigmented layers of glass enamel. Most notably, he perfected the extremely challenging technique of enamelling en ronde bosse  (in the round), which can be seen on the firm’s most impressive eggs.

Fabergé often layered enamel in a variety of colours to create depth. The result is a surface that captures the moving light. When looking for works with Fabergé’s signature technique, it is important to study the layers of enamel. The surface should have a smooth polish and there should be minimal firing flaws or bubbles in the glass.

Head workmasters had their own styles

When Carl Fabergé and his brother Agathon took over their father’s jewellery business in 1882, its output increased so rapidly that they could not manage all the workshops themselves. Carl Fabergé decided to employ highly skilled goldsmiths to run their own workshops under the name of Fabergé.

These head workmasters developed their own characteristic styles, with the finished product ultimately approved by Carl Fabergé or one of his deputies. When looking at a piece, it can be very helpful to understand the types of objects in which each workmaster specialised, and their specific idiom. For example, Michael Perchin’s trademark styles are often considered to be the Neo-Rococo and Renaissance. He is also known for the high quality of his enamelling, chasing of gold mounts, and use of vari-coloured gold.

Imperial and royal provenance excite the market

Works with established provenance are the most valuable. For a specialist, it is always exciting to discover a piece that has descended directly through the family of one of Fabergé’s notable patrons. Over the past 10 years, collections with imperial and royal provenance are those that have most excited the market.

The provenance of works can be researched further when they have an original scratched inventory number. This number can sometimes be used to find the original Fabergé invoice for a work, which tells us who purchased the piece, when and for how much.

The Russian court loved lavish gifts

Fabergé imperial presentation pieces are another important collecting area, and they often have diplomatic provenance. The imperial court was renowned for presenting lavish gifts to Russian and foreign dignitaries, a tradition that flourished during the reign of Nicholas II.

A jewelled presentation snuff box (or tabakerka, from the French tabatière), set with a portrait of the emperor, was the most valuable gift awarded. More common examples include pieces of jewellery such as brooches, cufflinks and pins decorated with imperial symbols.

We can sometimes match the scratched number on these pieces to the imperial cabinet ledgers, which contain the description of each item, its cost, the name of the court supplier, and the name of the recipient.

Fabergé was a fan of holly wood

As many as 500 diverse craftsmen were employed by Fabergé, covering every aspect of the firm’s creations — including the boxes used to house the pieces. Although Fabergé sometimes varied the type of timber used and the colour of the lining, original boxes are most often made of holly wood and lined with cream silk and velvet.

The silk is stamped with the imperial warrant, the name of the firm and a list of the locations in which it had branches: St Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa and London.

As with most jewellery boxes, it is easy for the case to become separated from its jewel, so finding a piece that fits perfectly in its original bespoke box is particularly exciting.

Carl Fabergé himself oversaw many flower designs

Fabergé flowers are not always marked and can vary greatly in terms of style. Again, established provenance is very important for these pieces. The value of Fabergé flowers is enhanced by the fact that only around 80 flower and fruit studies are known to have survived. Their creation was a particularly collaborative process, involving many skilled artists and goldsmiths.

Designs were often executed by Carl Fabergé himself. The work was then carried out in stages: setting the precious stones; enamelling the flowers; adding the gold stalks and grasses; and finally assembling the flowers. The quality of the mounts on the flowers, the individuation of its parts and the thoughtfulness of the design are important indicators that the work is by Fabergé.

Fabergé’s Moscow branch specialised in silver

Following its success in St Petersburg, in 1887 the firm established a branch in Moscow. As the historical centre of the Russian silver trade, Moscow presented new opportunities for Fabergé to expand the range of its designs.

A gem-set silver-mounted hardwood kovsh, by Fabergé, Moscow, 1908-1917. 5½ in (14 cm) long. Sold for £60,000 on 29 November 2021 at Christie’s in London

Fabergé’s monumental works in silver were made exclusively in Moscow and were often designed in the Neo-Russian style. These imaginatively conceived works are among the finest objects produced by the firm and were usually made as diplomatic gifts, as trophies, or to commemorate important anniversaries.

The eclectic range of designs produced in Fabergé’s Moscow branch reflects the diversity of its clientele, and its output differs greatly from that of St Petersburg, which is what we more typically associate with Fabergé. Works that epitomise the branch of Fabergé in which they were made are highly collectable and can often be recognised without even looking at the marks on the piece.

Original design drawings offer invaluable insights

Records of original designs can be tremendously helpful when studying a work. In 1989, Christie’s sold a notable collection of original drawings from the House of Fabergé, which included designs for jewellery and works in silver, hardstone and enamel.

It’s very exciting to be able to connect an extant work by Fabergé to its original design, giving an invaluable insight into the creative process. Surviving correspondence from 1904 between the Grand Ducal Cabinet of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Eugène Fabergé reveals how the duke deliberated over the commission and design of an important jewel. The piece in question is likely to be the aquamarine and diamond tiara above, which was offered to Princess Alexandra of Hanover and Cumberland (1882-1963) as a wedding gift.

Scholarship in the field of Fabergé was advanced by the publication of two important books on the firm’s designs. In 1993, Fabergé: Lost and Found  by Kenneth Snowman, a previously lost album of jewellery designs for pieces by Albert Holmström, offered a remarkable insight into the work of Fabergé’s most talented jeweller.

A further album — Golden Years of Fabergé: Drawings and Objects from the Wigström Worksho  by Ulla Tillander-Godenheilm et al — was published in 2000, including a variety of coloured original designs from the workshop of the firm’s head workmaster, Henrik Wigström. Studying these albums is a very good way to familiarise yourself with the hallmark details of works by Fabergé.

Different workshops used different hallmarks — in Cyrillic or Latin

The Russian system of hallmarks includes a mark for the city of production, the date of the piece, the standard of gold or silver used and the name of the maker.

A variety of marks can be seen on works by Fabergé, associated with the different branches of the firm. For example, works from St Petersburg are marked ‘Fabergé’ in Cyrillic, while Moscow pieces are marked ‘K. Fabergé’ in Cyrillic and include the double-headed eagle of the imperial warrant. Objects that were produced for the London branch are hallmarked with ‘Fabergé’ in Latin script.

The House of Fabergé had workshops in a number of locations, including Moscow, St Petersburg and Odessa, each supervised by a workmaster such as Michael Perchin, Erik Kollin, Henrik Wigström, August Holmström or Julius Rappoport. The city and assay marks on a piece should always be consistent with the workmaster’s initials.

A silver-mounted hardstone tray, by Fabergé. Workmaster Julius Rappoport, St Petersburg, 1899-1904. 6¼ in (16 cm) long. Sold for £162,500 on 29 November 2021 at Christie’s in London

After more than 100 years, signs of light wear are to be expected

Given that works by Fabergé are more than a century old, it is rare to find them in pristine condition. General surface scratching and light wear are to be expected and do not have a great impact on value. Damage to Fabergé’s signature enamelling is more problematic, however, because it is very difficult to restore effectively.

Other points of condition to look for are cracks to hardstone objects, damage to the functional parts of frames and clocks, and missing or replaced gold mounts.

Other imperial jewellers, notably Bolin and Hahn, rivalled and sometimes surpassed Fabergé

As Fabergé scholarship has advanced, so has interest in the firm’s competitors. Important imperial presentation pieces were made not only by Fabergé, but also by a handful of other Russian jewellers whose works sometimes even surpass Fabergé’s in quality.

Among Fabergé’s most significant competitors were Hahn and Bolin. At its peak, Bolin supplied more jewels to the imperial court than all the other firms put together. Its most valuable works include imperial tiaras and snuff boxes.

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Fabergé collections can be seen around the world

The British Royal Collection includes a significant number works by Fabergé. Acquired through the exchange of birthday and Christmas gifts between the Russian, Danish and British royal families, the collection is unique in its quality and range.

In Russia, make sure to visit the Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg and the Kremlin Armoury in Moscow, both featuring as many as 20 Fabergé Easter eggs.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in the United States, home to the remarkable collection assembled by Lillian Thomas Pratt, including five imperial Easter eggs, should also be on your list. A few years ago, this collection was toured to the Palace Museum in Beijing, showing the international interest in and enduring popularity of Fabergé.

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