"Once you were one of the approved suppliers to the Crown, it was a very lucrative source of business," says Faberge expert Christopher Forbes. "Every time the Czar went on a visit or received another head of state, there was an exchange of gifts. Also Russia was growing as an industrial power, and Faberge was catering to this whole class of nouveau riche Russians. The Imperial eggs were his loss leaders to give him the cachet. But the cash was all coming from these newly minted millionaires in Russia."
Author Geza von Habsburg continues: "And when the Czar and Czarina traveled, they traveled with suitcases full of Faberge, which were presented here and there to people in thanks. By 1896, the year of the coronation of Nicholas II, virtually all the major presents came from Faberge."
But ironically, the man who conceived of and hand-delivered these incredible
pieces had little to do with their actual fabrication. According to
Christopher Forbes: "Faberge was the head of the firm.
These men were organized into autonomous workshops under master craftsmen hand-picked by the Faberge brothers. "The head workmasters were the key persons in the realm of Faberge," says author Geza Von Habsburg. "They stood at the apex of the pyramid immediately under Faberge, and they controlled the entire output of the workshops. The inventions came from Faberge. These were discussed with the head work masters, then taken to the design studio."
The process of making the eggs usually took about one year. After the preliminary period of detailed and meticulous planning, sketches and models were prepared. Discussions were held among the goldsmiths, silversmiths, enamellers, jewelers, lapidary workers and stonecutters who would contribute their talents to the finished creation. Then the parts were farmed out to the various Faberge workshops.
"Faberge had his mechanisms made in Switzerland, and he had the
portrait miniatures either done by Russians or Germans or Scandinavians,"
adds Forbes. "He used the best available craftsmen from wherever
he could find them to create these objects. But most of the eggs, as
far as we know, were made in the workshops of either Michael Perkhin
or Henry Wigstrom, who was sort of the head craftsman. And they had
whole teams of people working under them."
While his competitors used a standard palette of whites, pale blues, and pink, Faberge took it upon himself to experiment. He created resplendent yellows, mauves, salmon and all shades of greens Ц over one hundred forty new colors in all.
"Faberge wrote to his clients saying that everything he produced was one-of-a-kind, guaranteed," adds Von Habsburg. "Anything that was unsold at the end of the year Ц this was real salesmanship at that time Ц would be destroyed. So shopping at Faberge's must have been the ultimate experience, because everything was unique. This is the greatest thing about Faberge and the reason I admire him most of all. He never repeated himself. Imagine producing 150,000 different objects without repeating yourself!"
Faberge was given carte blanche in creating the Imperial eggs, the only requirement being that each must be unique and each must contain a surprise. Concealing his plans Ц even from the Czar Ц Faberge would spend nearly a year meticulously designing and crafting appropriate surprises. "And we're told these eggs were, at that time, conversation pieces. There was no TV and no radio, so people were curious and would discuss what Faberge was going to be making each year. And even the Czar would ask, 'What's the surprise going to be in the next running?' But Faberge would only say, 'Majesty will be satisfied.' So it was the best-kept secret in St. Petersburg."
When an egg was complete, it was brought to the palace and presented to the Czar in person by Faberge, while the anxious craftsmen remained at their workstations, waiting until Faberge returned to assure them of its safe delivery.
Copyright © Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). All rights reserved.