In the waning decades of their rule, Russia's Romanov imperial family maintained a standing order with Peter Carl Fabergé to create jeweled Easter eggs.
One-hundred thirty-six years ago, Tsar Alexander III of Russia commissioned Peter Carl Fabergé to create a jeweled egg as an Easter gift for his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna. It was meant to be a one-time order, but the result was so pleasing that the tsar immediately placed an order for the following year. Thus began an annual tradition that his son would adopt when he took the throne and that would continue until the end of the House of Romanovs’ three-century reign, at the outbreak of the Russian revolution in 1917.
Fabergé, whose father Gustav founded the eponymous firm, completed a total of 50 eggs for the royal family, 43 of which are accounted for today. After the first egg he was given creative control, and from then on details about each new piece were kept secret—even from the tsar—until the work’s unveiling.
Fabergé oversaw production, but the eggs were crafted by teams of metalsmiths, jewelers, designers, and other specialists who in turn were given wide artistic latitude. Although the eggs were made from precious materials, their value lay not in the cost of the particular jewels or metals used (some eggs were comparatively modest in that regard) but in the inventiveness and skill the artists brought to each one.
When the Bolsheviks took St. Petersburg, they seized the eggs, selling some of them and holding on to others. From that moment, each piece has gone on its own journey: In the early years the eggs weren’t particularly sought after—the market was flooded with Romanov art and objets—but gradually collectors became more keen, most famously the media magnate Malcolm Forbes, whose art collection at one point included nine eggs. Today they sell for tens of millions of dollars.
The eggs are the rare works of decorative art that offer multiple and evolving layers of interest. They provide an intimate view into the lives of the family for whom they were made, as well as a visual and tactile history of a 32-year-long virtuosic performance by one of the world’s preeminent jewelry and art firms. They have also taken on a new life since entering the international art market, appearing and disappearing in private and public collections, some seemingly lost forever, others rescued from obscurity by chance or dogged scholarship.