I recently attended a fascinating webinar organised by the Worshipful Company of Marketors of which I am a Past Master. The subject was the restoration of the famous Fabergé brand presented by Sarah Fabergé who is a great-granddaughter of Peter Carl Fabergé, the creator of the marvellous Fabergé eggs. The story of Fabergé in the years since the Russian revolution is long and complicated. Sarah, a founder member of the Fabergé Heritage Council, today works with Fabergé Ltd which creates high and fine jewellery, timepieces and objets d’art.
The ancestors of the current Fabergé family lived in the Picardy region of northern France. The family’s name was then Favri and they were Huguenots in a predominantly Catholic country. When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which gave Huguenots protection, they fled and headed north-east. Over the years the family’s name changed from Favri through Favry, Fabri, Fabrier to Faberge. By 1800 an artist called Pierre Favry (later Faberge), had settled in the Baltic province of Livonia (now Estonia).
In the 1830s Gustav Faberge (born in 1814) went to St Petersburg, the capital of Russia, to train as a goldsmith. Initially he worked under Andrea Spiegel, a gold box specialist, but later joined the celebrated firm of Keibel, goldsmiths and jewellers to the Emperors of Russia. In 1842, his apprenticeship completed, Gustave Faberge changed his name to Fabergé. He opened a jewellery shop in the city’s fashionable street, Bolshaya Moskaya and married Charlotte Jungste. In 1846 the couple’s first son Peter Carl Fabergé was born. In the early 1860s Gustave Fabergé retired to Dresden with his family, leaving the business in the hands of managers.
Peter Carl took a course at the Dresden Arts and Craft school. In 1864 he embarked upon a grand tour of Europe receiving tuition from respected goldsmiths in Germany, France and England and he attended a course at Schloss’s Commercial College in Paris. He also viewed the masterpieces in the galleries of Europe’s leading visit museums.
In 1866 he returned to St Petersburg and became involved with cataloguing, repairing and restoring masterpieces in the Hermitage (the museum founded by Catherine the Great as a court museum). This allowed him to study the forgotten techniques mastered by goldsmiths in antiquity. He later restored and repaired the 18th-century objets d’art in the Collection including exquisite French gold and enamel snuff properties. During this period seeds were undoubtedly sewn in his mind for using the past genre as inspiration for contemporary objects.
In 1882 Peter Carl took sole responsibility for running the company. Having seen the House’s work at the Pan-Russian exhibition in Moscow, the Tsar Alexander III ordered it to be displayed in the Hermitage as examples of superb contemporary Russian craftsmanship. In 1885 the Emperor commissioned the company to make an Easter Egg for his Empress. Fabergé is bestowed with the coveted title, ‘goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown’. According to the Fabergé family tradition, the company was given complete freedom for future Imperial Easter Eggs. Not even the Emperor knew what form they would take: the only stipulation was that each one should contain a surprise. As for example the Bay-Tree Egg that was presented by Tsar Nicholas II to his mother in 1911. When the clockwork automation is wound up and set in motion, a feathered bird appears, flaps its wings, turns its head, opens its beak and sings.
In 1900 at the World Exhibition in Paris the House was awarded a gold medal and the city’s jewellers recognised Peter Carl Fabergé as maitre. Additionally he was appointed a Knight of the Legion of Honour. By this time the business was at the height of its success employing around 500 craftsmen and designers. It was the largest jewellery firm in Russia. In 1903 Fabergé opened a branch in London and in 1906 a branch in Kiev. Nicholas, the youngest of Peter Carl’s four sons (all of whom worked for the House), became one of the London branch managers.
When the Great War broke out there was a fall in demand for luxury goods as well as a lack of precious metals. Fabergé produced copper articles such as cruets, plates, mugs and snuff boxes. The workshops also made syringes and equipment, and parts for the military including grenades. In 1915 as Russian capital tied in foreign operations had to be repatriated to Russia to finance the war effort, the Bond Street shop closed but trading continued. In 1916 Fabergé became a joint-stock company with a capital of 3 million roubles. In 1917 the remaining stock of the London branch was sold to a Paris jeweller and lawyers were instructed to wind up the London business.
Following the Russian Revolution, the House was taken over by a committee of the employees of the Company K. Fabergé. In 1918 the House of Fabergé was nationalised and in early October its stock was confiscated. In November Peter Carl Fabergé left St Petersburg on the last diplomatic train for Riga from where he fled to Germany. One of his brothers together with his mother escaped by sleigh and on foot to Finland but the Bolsheviks imprisoned the other two brothers. In 1920 Peter Carl and Eugène travelled to Switzerland to join other members of the family. Peter Carl died in September that year near Lausanne. The surviving brothers established Fabergé & cie in Paris in 1924 which traded in and restored objects made by the House of Fabergé, as well as general jewellery and objets d’art. The pieces they made were clearly marked Fabergé, Paris so as to avoid any confusion with items made by the House in Russia.
In 1937 Sam Rubin, an American of Russian descent, started a perfume business. On the suggestion of his friend Dr Armand Hammer, who at the behest of Lenin became the Soviets’ first foreign concessionaire, he branded his perfumes Fabergé and formed Fabergé Inc. This was done without the family’s permission.
After discovering Rubin’s activities, the Fabergé family decided to settle out of court so as to avoid high legal fees. Rubin paid just US$25,000 to use their name solely for perfume. In 1964 Rubin sold Fabergé Inc to George Barry’s cosmetic company Rayette for US$26 million. The combined company was called Rayette – Fabergé. In 1971 the company’s name reverted to Fabergé Inc. In 1984 this was sold for US$180 million, three years later Fabergé Inc acquired Elizabeth Arden for US$700 million. In 1989 Unilever bought Fabergé Inc. (including Elizabeth Arden) for US$1.55 billion. Noting that Rubin had registered the name for jewellery in 1946, it registered the Fabergé name as a trademark across a wide range of merchandise internationally and granted licences to third parties to produce a wide range of products under the Fabergé name. It changed the name of the subsidiary from Lever Brothers Ltd to Lever Fabergé Ltd, meaning that the name associated with Imperial Eggs appeared on a domestic cleaning range for use in lavatories, blocked drains, cleaning kitchens and bathrooms as well as washing machines.
In 1990 Victor Mayer began their relationship with Fabergé, becoming official workmasters. For Mayer skilled craftsmanship was the decisive standard of quality and he had an infallible aptitude for finding just the right thing. He handed the company down to his son along with his passion for Fabergé. Today, Marcus Oliver Mohr continues to use the old traditional techniques in jewellery making.
In 2007 Fabergé Ltd announced that it had acquired the Fabergé trademarks, licenses and associated rights relating to the Fabergé name from Unilever. Thus the Fabergé name was reunited with the Fabergé family. Fabergé Heritage Council, with Sarah as a founder member, was established to guide the company in its pursuit of Fabergé’s original heritage of excellence and creativity, design and craftsmanship. Since then there has been an increasingly successful range of campaigns using many famous celebrities from the world of fashion; opening its first New York boutique on Madison Avenue and running successful campaigns with Harrods in London.
In 2013 the company was acquired by Gemfields, a world leading supplier of responsibly sourced coloured gemstones. Gemfields specialises in the mining and marketing of emeralds and rubies from some of the finest sources in the world. Their goal is to operate in a way that contributes positively to national economies, takes a leading role in modernising the coloured gemstone sector and builds lasting, sustainable livelihoods for the communities around their mines. Fabergé has gone back to its roots in making eggs inspired by the original Imperial collection but has also branched out into other kinds of jewellery and also a fine time piece collection designed and made in Geneva. They have entered into collaborations with a wide range of leading brands including Rolls-Royce and they have opened up points of sale in Dubai, Venice, Porto Cervo and St Tropez.
There are only some 60 or so of the original Imperial Eggs around the world and I have seen a few of them both in the Hermitage and also close to where I live in a hotel called Luton Hoo that used to be the private home of Sir Harold Wernher and his wife Lady Zia, Countess Anastasia Mikhailovna de Torby. Princess Elizabeth spent some of her honeymoon there with her groom Philip.
I was fascinated by Sarah’s story and delighted to hear how the wonderful brand had been so well restored after going through such a torrid time, first of all with the Russian Revolution and then with the virtual theft of the brand by an unscrupulous American and then with a rather alarming exploitation of the brand by Unilever. For them I would normally have the utmost respect despite the fact that I started my professional career with its number one enemy Procter & Gamble. And I’m glad that the name Fabergé can no longer be seen on cleaning products.