The emperor of Easter eggs
by Andy Bryenton
Although she never got a single chocolate one for more than a decade, it’s safe to say that Maria Feodorovna holds the title for ‘best Easter egg collection ever’. That’s because her devoted husband was Tsar of Russia, absolute ruler of a massive kingdom that included the famous House of Faberge, artist-jewellers with a reputation for almost lunatic extravagance.
Master artisan, goldsmith and jeweller Peter Carl Faberge took over his father’s business in 1882. Faberge brought with him a new focus, moving away from producing gigantic multi-carat rings and pendants for the nobility. He was fascinated with making everyday objects into sparkling displays of gold, gems and precious materials, using lacquering, gilding and insetting stones to turn doorbells, cigar lighters and spectacle cases into priceless (and sometimes unusable) objects of fantasy. His biggest breakthrough came when Tsar Alexander III approached the House of Faberge about an Easter egg. It should be so far above the usual chocolate confections that the Tsar’s wife, Maria, would treasure it forever.
Faberge did not disappoint. This first egg looked like a normal if over-large white hen’s egg. It was able to be opened, revealing a solid gold ‘yolk’. That, too, opened up to reveal a cleverly-made golden chicken with ruby eyes.
Open the tiny hen, and you’d find a replica of the Tsar’s crown, inside of which was a ruby necklace. Maria was delighted. It was not just more costume jewellery, but a work of art with a surprise inspired by the traditional nesting Russian dolls popular at the time. Her husband was quick to tell Faberge he wanted a new and even better egg next year.
Faberge ended up crafting 52 imperial eggs, with a handful more bought by wealthy copycats keen to impress their own spouses. Every one contained a ‘surprise’, ranging from hidden clocks to a fully-functional model steam train. The origin of the term ’Easter egg’ to mean a surprise hidden by artists in a game or movie comes in part from the fame of the Faberge eggs. Sadly, some of these art treasures were lost during the communist revolution, while Stalin sold others to pay for war ordnance during the 1940s.
The revolution, in which working-class Russians overthrew the decadent aristocracy, was driven in a big way by the knowledge that while the poor were starving, their rulers were able to give gifts like the Faberge eggs. Nevertheless, the remaining examples are not just intricate works of art.
They are also symbols of a husband’s desire to give his wife a nice Easter present. We reckon you’d be just as well sorted with chocolate.