WHEN Russia was still repressively Communist it required special dispensation to visit a locked room in the Hermitage Museum. Concealed there were treasures from an extravagant past considered unacceptably decadent. I recall particularly Catherine the Great's saddle-cloth, edged entirely with swags of rose diamonds. Carl Faberge's works had been parked in the Kremlin vastnesses merely labelled 'Russian'.
Now, after seventy years, all is changed. Last June three hundred and fifty Faberge artefacts were exhibited in the Winter Palace and 200,000 astonished Russians paid to see the luxurious minutiae of a vanished era. They can be seen at the Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington until April 10.
The exhibition has been organized by The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Faberge Arts Foundation in Washington, D.C. The Foundation was initiated in 1990 by the wife of a former American Ambassador to Russia. Their intention is to restore the Faberge business premises at 24 Bolshaya Morskaya Street for use as a museum and training centre for jewellers and craftsmen. This has occasioned a bizarre feud with Faberge descendents emerging angrily led by a 63-year-old great granddaughter who lives in France, and an illegitimate grandson who sells bibelots in the Burlington Arcade.
One cannot fault the Curator of Silver and Jewellery at the Victoria & Albert Museum who comments: 'Whether the materials he was using were precious or not, Faberge set standards of craftsmanship and invention that have never been equalled'. Yet I find myself abhorring that such superb skills were wasted on objects so mindlessly vacuous -- the thousands of twee animals three inches long or less so meticulously carved; the single buttercup or diamond-centred pansy its gold stem set in rock crystal water: the one-and-a-half inch high jade watering can with red enamelled handle surrounded with diamonds, or the rock-crystal and onyx stamp-dampener its gold embellishments set with rubies. Not to mention the plethora of hat-pins, parasol handles, bell-pushes, sealing wax holders, even a clinical thermometer with an engraved gold mount set with a moonstone.
Yet the sheer perfection of these objects exerts fascination. Given half a chance, who would refuse one of the simple ribbed gold cigarette cases; or a desk set of ten or more different items in jade and gold. Many years ago I handled such a set. Each piece was still in its original, beautifully polished hollywood case, with the price in roubles casually attached. It had been purchased years before in Russia, put away and forgotten. It was as new. And of course one cannot forget the Imperial Easter Eggs, fifty-seven in all, eight of which are included in the present exhibition.
As the name indicates, the Faberge family were not Russian but French Huguenots from Picardy. After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Carl's grandfather, like many Protestants, took flight and went to Estonia. In 1842 his son established a modest jewellery firm in St. Petersburg, and there, in 1846, Carl was born. He was sent to one of the best schools in St. Petersburg and later to Germany, Italy and France. He spent several months in England to learn the language. Some years after his father retired he took control of the family business. It was 1870 and he was twenty-four years old. Quite soon he decided that the business should diversify and make decorative objects in beautiful materials but of no great intrinsic value.
Russia is uniquely blessed with rich sources of semi-precious hardstones -- obsidian, rhodonite, chalcedony, agates, jasper, cornelian, nephrite (jade) from Siberia, and of course lapis-lazuli and malachite. It was a period of great industrial growth in Russia, and a burgeoning class of industrialists and financiers created the demand for the beautiful trifles the Faberge workrooms produced. Faberge was a man of handsome appearance, astute and genial with a magnetic personality. …