Fabergé's production of flower studies is thought to have begun in the 1880s. The process was a collaborative one that involved the many skilled artists and artisans in the firm. It began with the designs which, according to Bainbridge, were executed by Carl Fabergé himself, with the assistance of Franz Birbaum. The work was then carried out in stages: carving the hardstone leaves, setting the precious stones, enameling the flowers when the design called for it, adding the gold stalks and grasses, and finally assembling the flowers (see Caroline de Guitaut, Fabergé in the Royal Collection, London, 2003 pp. 103-104).
Fabergé flower studies were exhibited as early as the All-Russian Industrial Exhibition in Moscow in 1882 (G. von Hapsburg, M. Lopato, Fabergé: Imperial Jeweler, London, 1993, p. 58.), although Bainbridge states they were first exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. Regardless, Fabergé's flower studies soon drew the attention of the Imperial family. With her purchase in 1895 of a yellow rose, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna was the first member of the Imperial family to purchase a flower study. She was soon followed by Empress Maria Feodorovna, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, wife of Vladimir Alexandrovich, and Queen Alexandra of England. Lilies of the valley were among the Fabergé flower studies owned by members of the Imperial family. Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna jointly purchased a lily of the valley study on December 4, 1899 for 250 roubles. Lily of the valley was said to be the favorite flower of the Empress. Empress Maria Feodorovna purchased a lily of the valley study on March 22, 1914 for 275 roubles (V. Skurlov, In Search of Fabergé Flowers in Russia in Marilyn Pfeifer Swezey, Fabergé Flowers, New York, 2004, pp. 108, 111, 113). In addition, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna's collection of thirty-four Fabergé flower studies at Vladimir Palace included a lily of the valley in a rock crystal vase with nephrite leaves, gold stem, and pearls set with rose-cut diamonds. The lily of the valley was listed in the inventory of her collection that was compiled on October 30, 1917, just days after the Revolution. The inventory remains in the Russian State Historical Archives (RGIA) (see Swezey, op cit, pp. 113-114).
Several Fabergé lily of the valley studies are known. Studies in rock crystal vases include those in the Royal Collection of Fabergé (previously in the collection of Princess Victoria and Queen Alexandra) and in The India Early Minshall Collection, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio. The latter bears a very close resemblance to the present lot. A lily of the valley study in a rock crystal was sold Christie's, New York, October 20, 1998, lot 91.
The enduring appeal of lily of the valley is due in part to its symbolism. Not only is it a bridal flower, but it is seen as a herald of the arrival of spring, as it blooms just as winter is departing.