Gem News International Gems & Gemology, Winter 2016, Vol. 52, No. 4

Fabergé Symposium

Fabergé egg from the McFerrin Collection.
Fabergé’s Kelch Rocaille Egg (1902), featuring green translucent enamel, diamonds, and yellow gold rocaille ornament, is part of the McFerrin Foundation Collection. Photo by Hank Gillette/CC BY-SA 4.0.

“The Wonder of Fabergé: A Study of The McFerrin Collection” was the title of the Fabergé Symposium held at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences (HMNS) November 3–4. Comprised of over 600 objects including the egg in the image above, the collection of Artie and Dorothy McFerrin is the largest privately owned assortment of Fabergé objects and Russian decorative art in the United States. (Worldwide, only the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg and Queen Elizabeth II have larger collections.) It has now been the focus of two Fabergé symposiums, the first in 2013. Photos from the McFerrin Collection were incorporated into all of the talks.

Researcher Dr. Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm (Helsinki) presented “Fabergé in the Light of 20th Century European Jewelry,” which covered the years 1881–1915. In 1881, Carl Fabergé took over the family business from his father Gustav and, along with his younger brother Agathon, began building their brand. The Fabergé brothers opened shops in other cities and became court jewelers to Russia’s imperial family, but 1915 marked the end of the successful enterprise. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 increased the cost of materials and sent many goldsmiths off to the front lines. In 1917, along with the end of the 300-year reign of the Romanovs, the House of Fabergé was closed. Many of Fabergé’s workmen and their families emigrated to Finland to work for the A. Tillander firm in Helsinki. The speaker came to know these individuals as a young girl. 

Dr. Galina Korneva (Russia) spoke on “Imperial Gifts Created by Fabergé for the Coronation of Nicholas II: New Archival Research.” Dr. Korneva and her sister Tatiana Cheboksarova have discovered and reviewed thousands of handwritten archival documents. The coronation of Nicholas II was celebrated May 6–26, 1896. Fabergé gifts from Nicholas II included a yellow and white diamond brooch in the shape of a rose given to his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorvona; a brooch and the Lilies of the Valley basket for his mother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna; 18 brooches in the shape of crowns for the Grand Duchesses; pectoral crosses for the clergy; plate and salt cellars; and bracelets, brooches, pins, snuffboxes, and cigarette cases for members of the imperial court and other dignitaries. Fabergé marked the occasion a year later with the Imperial Coronation Egg, which now resides in the Fabergé Museum.

Art historians Timothy Adams (San Diego, California) and Christel Ludewig McCanless (Fabergé Research Newsletter, Huntsville, Alabama) discussed “Fabergé Smoking Accessories: Materials and Techniques of a New Art Form.” With the popularity of smoking in the first half of the 19th century and the demand for smoking accessories, the Fabergé firm had a production line for these items. In one studio, ten men made nothing but cigarette cases. These items were large, with a tinder cord and a vesta compartment that held matches, which were very expensive. The cigarette case became more streamlined with the invention of the cigarette lighter in the late 1800s, making the bulky tinder cord and vesta compartment unnecessary.

Researcher Mark Moehrke (New York City) lectured on “Fabergé Silver-Mounted Art Glass.” These objects are both functional and decorative. Neo-classical in style, most of them are colorless cut glass, but they were also made from hardstones, metals, and ceramics with applied silver bases, handles, and stoppers. Included in the discussion were three objects from the McFerrin Collection: a Louis Comfort Tiffany favrile glass vase with Fabergé silver base, made by workmaster Victor Aarne; a Louis Comfort Tiffany favrile glass scent bottle with silver stopper, handles set with natural pearls, and a silver base; and a rectangular Lötz glass lamp with silver mounts, including a base of stylized dolphins and scrolls to imitate ocean waves, also by Victor Aarne.

In “Collector Tales,” Artie and Dorothy McFerrin (Houston) described how they started accumulating Russian decorative arts. Their first purchase turned out to be an imposter egg, or “Fauxbergé,” which is on display in the museum. They also discussed their favorite pieces and took questions from the attendees.

Dr. Wilfried Zeisler (Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, Washington, D.C.) presented “From Canvas to Silver: Enameled and Repoussé ‘Paintings’ in Russian Jewelry at the Turn of the 20th Century.” Dr. Zeisler used examples from both the Marjorie Merriweather Post and McFerrin collections to illustrate how paintings were reinterpreted as art objects. The subject of a painting would find its way onto small boxes, caskets, and cigarette cases by way of engraving, enameling, or lithograph. Feodor Rückert, an enamel master from Moscow, supplied such items to Fabergé from 1886 to 1917.

Mikhail Ovchinnikov (Fabergé Museum, St. Petersburg) discussed “Fabergé’s Renaissance Style Objects in the Context of 19th Century European Revival Jewelry.” Fabergé was inspired by the pieces exhibited at the museums he visited on his grand tour of Europe. Objects made using the pietra dura method influenced his hardstone figures. Fabergé also worked in the Hermitage examining and repairing ancient jewelry, which would influence his later designs.

Rose Tozer is senior research librarian at GIA’s Richard T. Liddicoat Library and Information Center in Carlsbad, California.