What does one expect to find in an Easter egg? A chocolate bar and some candy? Or perhaps a fluffy, yellow chick soft toy? Spanning nearly 50 years, the Romanov empresses of Imperial Russia found a little more than some ordinary confections and trinkets for their Easter morning gifts. Presented by Tsar Alexander III to Tsarina Maria Feodorovna, a life-like egg twisted open to reveal a golden yolk. Within the yolk, was a golden hen nestled on a bed of golden hay, who further housed a tiny diamond crown that held an even smaller ruby pendant. This breathtaking creation, known as the Hen Egg, was the first of a total of 50 eggs commissioned annually by the Romanov dynasty’s last two Tsars - Alexander III and Nicolas II. Priceless treasures today, these ornate eggs are a breath-taking legacy of Russia's opulent past and are highly sought after by museums and collectors around the world.
These small, intricately decorated objets d’art were commissioned to the jeweler and goldsmith Peter Carl Fabergé. His jewelry firm- the House of Fabergé, had employed more than 500 diverse craftsmen to bring his visions to life, and occupied an impressive five-story building in St. Petersburg with four branches in Russia and one in London. Known for his craftsmanship and creativity, Peter Fabergé worked in close collaboration with the Russian Tsar, and the result of their cumulative efforts was the emergence of an extravagant artistic creation that put a spin on the orthodox Russian tradition of exchanging decorated Easter Eggs. The eggs were so well received by the Tsarina that the Tsar appointed Fabergé as a "goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown" and commissioned egg after egg, year after year - a new tradition of the royal family.
The eggs themselves were ‘immensely personal yet gloriously flamboyant.’ Handcrafted from gold, covered in fine layers of lacquer, and studded with precious stones from imperial quarries in the Urals and Altai mountains. Each of the one-of-a-kind designs featured richly pigmented layers of enamel, gold leaf, and laced metalwork, weaving diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. They ranged in size, from three to five inches tall, and took a year to be completed. Fabergé was given complete liberty over the design and materials required, the only stipulation being that each must contain a surprise. Some playful surprises that Tsarina Maria Feoderovna found hidden in her eggs included a musical box, a mechanical swan, a portrait gallery, a miniature clock, automatons like a walking elephant, and a peacock that fanning its bejeweled tail, amongst many others. Some famous eggs include the Winter Egg, the Bay Tree Egg, the Rosebud Egg, the Renaissance Egg, the Lilies of the Valley Egg, amongst so many others.
Fabergé’s career soared to its greatest heights between 1885 and 1917. The eggs became progressively more creative and elaborate and they served to cement Fabergé’s reputation as a ‘fabricator of jeweled fantasies’. However, Fabergé’s success as the official jewel supplier to the Russian Royal family, came to a screeching halt when the October Revolution of 1917 brought the Bolsheviks to power and put more than 300 years of Romanov rule to a violent end with the brutal murders of Tsar Nicolas II, Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children. In 1918, with the nationalisation of the House of Fabergé by Lenin, Fabergé went into exile in Switzerland and died two years later.
Furthermore, on Lenin’s orders, stolen and requisitioned eggs were packed off along with other Romanov treasures to the Kremlin Armoury. However, in the 1920s and ‘30s tragedy struck when the Russian economy tanked and the famine affected millions. The country's new leaders started selling the imperial eggs to international buyers. In the early years, the eggs weren’t particularly sought after; seeing as the market was already flooded with Romanov art and objects. However, they soon became a source of international intrigue, appearing and disappearing in private and public collections, some seemingly lost forever, others rescued from obscurity by chance or relentless pursuit. Today they sell for tens of millions of dollars. The "Winter Egg" was sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $9.6 million in New York in 2002. Five years later, an enamel, diamond-studded, gold egg was sold for another £9 million at the same auction house branch.
Of the original 50 imperial eggs, 43 are held in museums and private collections today. Seven are still unaccounted for, including the 1889 Necessaire Egg, last spotted in London in 1949, and the 1888 Cherub With Chariot Egg, last seen in New York in 1934. The hunt for the remaining Eggs continues, and the surprises keep coming. In 2015, a gold Fabergé egg re-emerged when a scrap metal dealer reportedly found it at a flea market. Inside was an intricate gold clock. Having purchased the object for $14,000, the man was initially told the gold was worth less than what he had paid for it. It was not until he searched the name at the back of the clock that he discovered he was in possession of the Third Imperial Easter Egg, designed by the House of Faberge in 1887 and worth an estimated $33 million.
Today, the Eggs are rare works of art that provide an intimate view into the lives of the family for whom they were made, as well as continue being a living legacy of one of the world’s preeminent jewelry and art firms. For over a century, the name Fabergé has evoked wealth, opulence, and the world's most extravagant Easter eggs are, still today, some of the most exquisite decorative works ever created. The artistry and mystery behind them aren't going to diminish any time soon.