Walking into the exhibition immediately you feel the nature of the exclusivity of the brand and the luxury of which these ornaments possess. Each object displayed exquisitely in their own selective groups laid on soft fabrics and under crystal clear light, allowing for the viewer to see them sparkling away in all their glory. With each piece being highly personalized to the receiver yet still maintaining that Faberge identity.
Once you enter through the doors of the exhibition no cameras are allowed, so we did not get any images of the artwork, but this led me to show an increased interest in the people behind the work. I do not want to take away from the magnificent ornaments and their beauty which you should see for yourself. I want to emphasize the processes, the skills and the people behind each part of the journey of these detailed ornaments.
Firstly Carl Faberge himself, was not the original founder of the company, his father was in 1842 in St. Petersburg. Carl Faberge joined his father in the family business once he had traveled europe and studied as an apprentice of a goldsmith, it wasn’t until 1872 when he fully took over and the business was propelled forward by his genius and creative mind, allowing for the name Faberge to become known all other Russia and internationally.
Faberge himself did not make any of the products, even though he was highly skilled, which relates back to his ethos of caring more about the value of the craft that goes into the production of the piece rather than the value of the product itself. Each stage of the process was trusted to a highly skilled craftsman all with different expertise and working under the guidance of separate chief workmasters. 1901 saw the collaboration of all of these separate expertise under one roof when Faberge moved all production to one house in St. Petersburg, all production was carried out on the different floors and a show room was downstairs to allow customers to browse the wonderful collections. The growing strength and popularity of Faberge’s work was evident as his business flourished.
It was time for expansion, Faberge had to decide between France or England. He had spent a lot of time in both with the French luxury jewelry being a strong pull, yet England was the final decision due to the loyal client relations with the ruling families within England and the increase of wealth in English society along with the awareness and desire for Russian luxury pieces, such as Faberge’s work.
The Edwardians enjoyed gift giving between the wealthy and royal families, however there was a fine line between giving a gift out of gratitude and giving a gift in order to buy someone’s favour. A piece from Faberge’s workshop was the ideal answer to that, as most of his works had more emphasis on the value of the skill in production rather than the value of what it was made from, hence popularity and demand grew in England within the aristocracy.
Once in London, Henrik Wigstrom, who started as an apprentice with the previous chief workmaster now moved up to be the chief workmaster himself, carrying this role from 1903 till 1918. He played a prominent role in the London store and helped allow for the expansion to be successful outside of Russia. One more individual who really caught my attention was Alma Pihl, a women designer employed by Faberge at the young age of 20 years old which was very unusual for the time as there was a small number of women in the industry and an even small amount who were actual designers like herself. She was born into a family of master jewelers and designers prominent in Faberges workshops, and her own designs were quickly seen in Faberge’s work, with many of her pieces of jewellery being some of Faberge’s most celebrated today along with two imperial egg designs.
The War and Russian Revolution saw the start of the downfall for Faberge, with World War one affecting demand internationally. Many now saw extravagant gifts as not a necessity and insulting to the time where everyone was meant to be aiding the cause of supporting their country in a World War. In addition the Faberge factory was now conscripted to making munition, as his artisan ability and workers skills were ideal for making such metal work. The creative ornaments were still trying to be made, as the products changed to more modest gifts like cooking bowls and beakers made from simpler and more affordable materials.
Then the Russian Revolution forced Faberge to shut his doors, Faberge became heartbroken and devastated, he lacked purpose if he could not create his works of art. He ended up fleeing Russia in fear of prosecution, same as many of his colleagues and ended up in Switzerland where he unfortunately died, still broken-hearted at the complete disintegration of his life’s work in 1920.
The legacy of his life’s work still lives on to this day, we still treasure what was managed to be salvaged from Russia and admire what was kept by the British ruling families today. The craftsmanship is still remembered and honored along with the actual ornaments that we see presented in the exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The fact that we still are able to see and look in awe at the work from a hundred years ago shows the quality, talent and skill that went into all his work.
I loved the exhibition. Each cabinet was a treasure-trove of beauty, you found yourself leaning closer and closer to see the fine details and extreme techniques used to create such exquisite masterpieces.
Thank you to the Victoria and Albert Museum for curating such a wonderful exhibition! https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/faberge
Words by Amelia Vance, Images courtesy of the V&A Museum