Fabulous Faberge

Area arts enthusiasts are getting an enticing glimpse into the opulence of Imperial Russia through an exhibition of Faberge objects at the Frick Art & Historical Center in Pittsburgh.

“Faberge: The Hodges Family Collection” is the first major exhibition of Faberge objects to be shown in Pittsburgh. Area residents have a final opportunity to view the Faberge display at the Frick museum from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today, Jan. 15.

The only Faberge egg on display is a miniature Easter egg that is no bigger than an average fingertip. Visitors expecting to see many of the celebrated Faberge Easter eggs might be disappointed by this show; however, they are equally likely to be amazed and impressed by the range of delicate, elegant objects on display. The House of Faberge produced an array of decorative items for Russian and European patrons from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century.

A docent leading a guided tour of the exhibition was quick to point out that Imperial Russia was vastly different from the Russia of today. Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the imperial family and members of the court enjoyed lavish lifestyles, filled with opulence and elegance. Catering to that circle, the House of Faberge created jewelry, the fabled eggs and other ornate items, both practical and decorative, for the Russian court and other wealthy clients.

The exhibition at the Frick features more than 100 objects made by the world-renowned goldsmith and jeweler to the Russian court. The exhibition is organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art.

These objects were made by famed artist and jeweler Peter Carl Faberge (1846-1920) and his staff of designers and jewelers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The items displayed are from the collection of Dr. David Lee Hodges.

According to information provided by Frick officials, Hodges began collecting Faberge items in 1990. Over the past two decades, officials said, he “has succeeded, despite escalating prices, in assembling a carefully chosen collection.”

An explanatory panel accompanying the exhibition states: “The collection comprises frames, clocks, exquisite enameled cigarette cases and boxes, a group of carved hardstone animals, a rare botantical piece and an extraordinary block of Persian turquoise surmounted by a coiling serpent … The variety of objects, techniques and styles on display are representative of Faberge’s output from the mid-1880s through the end of the firm’s production vividly illustrate the consummate skill of the House of Faberge.”

The docent related that the 100-plus objects assembled in Pittsburgh constitute only a portion of Hodges’ extensive collection. He has placed part of his collection on extended loan to the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Gustav Faberge, whose family could be traced back to 17th-century France, founded the jewelry firm in St. Petersburg, Imperial Russia, in 1842. He was followed by his son, Peter Carl Faberge. The House of Faberge remained in business until 1918, when the firm was nationalized by the Bolsheviks.

A signature piece in the exhibit is a Bismark box, made in 1899, and “thought to be one of the first imperial commissions received by the House of Faberge and is the first in an important line of imperial presentation boxes.” Officials said that this box is most likely the only imperial portrait presentation box set with a portrait of Czar Alexander III, father of Czar Nicholas II (who was executed by the Bolsheviks at the start of the revolution). On the box lid, the czar’s portrait is encircled with gems and accented by arrangements of larger gems; additional gems encircle the rim of the lid, enhancing the ornate appearance of the small box. The informational material also states that this Bismark box is believed to have been modeled after an 18th-century snuffbox that belonged to Czarina Catherine II, also known as Catherine the Great. It is noted that the practice of placing elaborate gem-set portraits on the lids of boxes became fashionable in the late 18th century.

A wall case contains objects that belonged to Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna or her daughter, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna. The most impressive object in this display is an imperial photograph frame that the dowager empress purchased on July 25, 1906. Accompanying material states that it was one of the largest frames produced by the House of Faberge.

The rectangular frame, with cut-out borders, features a brilliant deep blue guilloche enamel finish, with bright silver-gilt braided accents, for a regal appearance. Poignantly, the frame contains a portrait of the dowager empress’ son, the doomed Czar Nicholas II.

When the Bolsheviks seized power, the dowager empress fled to her native Denmark. She was joined there by her daughter and the grand duchess’ husband and children. In 1948, Olga Alexandrovna, the exiled grand duchess, emigrated to Canada.

Other displayed items that belonged to the dowager empress or her daughter include an imperial brooch of amethyst, diamond, gold and platinum and an Imperial Red Cross pendant. The pendants were presented to members of the imperial family or court who nursed the wounded returning from the Russian front in World War I.

One of the sweetest objects in the exhibition is a figure of a dunlin, a well-known shore bird in Russia. The bird, made prior to 1899, is crafted from rose jasper and 14-karat gold, with a iny cabochon emerald eye.

Hardstones are carved in the shape of other animals. The tiny figures include a flounder, a bison made of red jasper with wee diamond eyes, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel made of white opal, a great auk and three seated elephants, made from obsidian, gray jasper and rock crystal, respectively.

The exhibition features items made from silver, gold and other metals, adorned with brightly colored enamels and accented with gems and minerals. One display case holds several silver pieces, including an oval, two-handled tray produced prior to 1899; a pair of footed imperial pen trays and an imperial presentation bowl, all made between 1899 and 1908. Another display shows a pendant locket, a brooch and a lady’s small bag with black enamel exterior.

A trio of imperial presentation cigarette cases shows the scope of Faberge’s wares. One case, made prior to 1899, was covered in a vivid blue enamel; a yellow case was made between 1899 and 1908; a case dating to 1908-17 was decorated in a pale oyster white basket-weave enamel.

Other objects in the exhibition probably are unknown to most modern viewers. For example, the display includes a large folio knife, made prior to 1899, decorated with an interlaced green-gold laurel leaf garland and a rose-gold bow. A display card explains that a folio knife was used to turn the pages of expensive books.

The explanatory material for this particular folio knife adds, “The piece is unique in that it features the K. Faberge hallmark without the double-edged imperial eagle used on silver produced in Moscow. This may indicate that this knife was produced in Moscow specifically for sale in the firm’s St. Petersburg branch.”

Also shown in this display case is a smaller object, a page turner, that also could have been used as a paper knife. Another paper knife is made from one of the largest rock crystals ever used by Faberge.

Other practical objects on display include a parasol handle made of smoky quartz, with two-color gold enamel and a cabochan ruby; an imperial table clock with beautiful turquoise enamel; a stamp viewer; a bell push (to summon servants) made of bowenite and steel with a cabochon garnet and silver gilt; an octagonal box done in four-color gold with a tiny diamond; a smaller bell push of 14-karat gold and nephrite; a tiny sweetmeat box (“used to hold candies or perfumes to improve one’s breath”); a gum pot (for glue) shaped to resemble an apple; a sealing wax case; a stamp box; several photograph frames and a desk barometer.

For a formal table, there are a claret ewer, a cabinet cup, an ovi-form bowl, a two-handled condiment bowl, a pair of silver salts, a master salt, a fruit or pastry basket, pieces of flatware and a two-handled, footed sugar basin.

Although no prices are mentioned, the quality of the workmanship and the choice of materials suggest that Faberge objects were costly, even in the jeweler’s era. For instance, a display card for a small photograph frame states that a man received the frame as a gift from 25 friends.