Mention the Tsars of Russia, and eventually, the topic of the bejeweled Faberge eggs will come up. Given as gifts by the last two reigning tsars to their wives and mother, they are exquisite examples of goldsmithing and design, and there have never been another craftsman who has managed to reach these heights of fantasy since.
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Author Toby Faber takes the story beyond a brief biography about Carl Faberge and which tsar gave which tsarina what. Instead, he takes a look at the cultural and political surroundings of both the givers and the makers, and attempts to give a psychological meaning to each of the eggs. For these are much more than pretty trinkets, it seems, and each egg has a particular symbolism attached to it.
Tsar Alexander III presented the first of the Imperial eggs to his Danish born wife, Marie Feodorovna, in 1883. It was very simple, just a white egg that opened in half to reveal a gold yolk. Opening that revealed a golden hen with ruby eyes, and inside the hen, was the real surprise -- a piece of jewelry that alas, has since been lost. It is said that Empress Marie was delighted with her Easter present, and soon afterwards, there would be a regular presentation of a bejeweled Easter egg to the empress. The tsar stipulated that that only the gift was to be egg shaped, have a surprise inside, and that no design or theme was to be repeated. Otherwise, the jeweler was to have free reign to design as he wished.
When Alexander III died suddenly, it was his son, Nicholas II, who doubled the order for the Imperial eggs -- one to his mother, now the Dowager Empress, and another for his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna. And it was with designing for Alexandra that Faberge hit a rough spot -- unlike Marie, who was a glittering, lively and sociable woman, Alexandra was obsessively shy and retiring, facing social duties usually with a red face and stiff manners, neither of which endeared her to Russian society. But when the craftsman started to incorporate elements that recalled her religious devotion and family life, there was a chance of pleasing and surprising the empress.
Along with the stories about designing and creating the eggs, Faber also delves into how Faberge objects became the required gift for European royalty and aristocrats. Besides the eggs, there were jewelry, hardstone carvings of animals and everyday objects that were created using new enameling methods and creative alloys for gold and silver, both of which have remained a secret that Faberge took to the grave, and only have just started to be rediscovered today.
One of the more fascinating stories in this book were the tales of how the Eggs became dispersed across Europe and America, some of which were put up for sale by the new Soviet Union to raise ready cash, others just simply -- vanished. Even today, rumours of an Imperial Egg being auctioned off can create spectacular bids reaching into the millions of dollars, and the mystique of the Romanovs certainly adds to the luster of these beautiful objects. Along with the authenticated eggs, there has been a steady market in what is called "Faux-berge," and these other objects have never managed to equal the quality of the originals.
The only real disappointment that I have with this one is that the photographs that are included are rather shoddy and paltry. However, that can be make up for by getting one of the many oversized and photo filled books that are out there about Faberge's eggs.
But the best parts of the book for me were to be found in the last two appendices to the story. The first was a listing of all the known Faberge Eggs that were given, what they looked like, and the surprise that they contained, their current whereabouts and who has them now. This part was carefully researched, and I found it very interesting to flip through, especially with a larger pictorial reference nearby to give me a visual reminder of what they looked like. The other was the extensive bibliography, which has a listing of Internet sites for those who want to find out more on line.
Summing up, this is an excellent history of Faberge, his life, and the creative genius that revealed itself in his designs. I can happily recommend this one for anyone interested in artistic design, the Romanovs, or craftsmanship. Four stars overall, with only the lack of suitable pictures to knock it down from a perfect five.
Faberge's Eggs: The Extraordinary Story of the Masterpieces that Outlived an Empire
2008; Random House Publishing
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