BY ROSEMARY FETTER
The ubiquitous egg has been a traditional harbinger of spring from earliest times. As far back as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Persians, scholars believed that the world began with an enormous egg – not that far from the truth.
In medieval Europe, eggs decorated New Year trees and Maypoles. The affluent would exchange eggs covered with gilt or gold leaf, while peasants colored their eggs by boiling them with flowers, leaves or even insects. Household records of King Edward I of England (1239-1307) record a payment of eighteen pence for 450 eggs to be gold-leafed and colored for Easter gifts.
Some believed the yolk of an egg laid on Good Friday would turn to diamond after 100 years, although exactly how an egg could be kept intact for a century without a freezer remains uncertain. Good Friday eggs cooked on Easter Sunday were said to promote the fertility of the trees and crops and protect against sudden deaths. Two yolks in an Easter egg meant an omen of prosperity.
In the late 19th century, Russian goldsmith Peter Carl Fabergé created the world’s most valuable Easter eggs for Czar Alexander III and his son, Nicholas II, to give to their wives at Easter. Working with a team of nearly 500 designers, goldsmiths, jewelers and carvers, he created some of Europe’s greatest treasures from precious metals, enamels and jewels.
Fabergé was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, the son of a Baltic German jeweler and his Danish wife. Following his father’s trade, in 1864, he embarked a Grand Tour of Europe, studying his craft in museums around the world. Twelve years later he returned to St. Petersburg, married and studied under Hiskias Pend, his father’s key artisan. In 1882, he took over the company, developing a team of artist-jewelers who created exquisite works. The first Fabergé egg, crafted for Tsar Alexander III, was a gift to his wife, the Empress Maria Fedorovna, at Easter in 1885. Known as the Hen Egg, it is crafted from gold with an opaque white enameled “shell” that opens to reveal a matte yellow gold yolk. Inside, the gold beak contained a small ruby pendant suspended from a minute diamond replica of the Imperial Crown. That year, the Tsar gave the House of Fabergé the title; ‘Goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown.’
One of the most impressive eggs celebrated the coronation of Nicholas II in 1897. The motif for the five-inch masterpiece, inspired by the coronation robes, was stitched from gold cloth embroidered with a double-headed eagle. The egg opens to reveal a replica of the czarina’s coronation coach, modeled in enamel with gold mounts with a miniature rose diamond version of the imperial crown.
Faberge’s clientele included the hierarchy of Europe, Asia and America from 1870 until shortly after the Russian Revolution. In 1918 the Bolsheviks nationalized. The House of Fabergé and confiscated their stock. He and most of his family fled to Germany and eventually Switzerland, where he died two years later, His work remains as a glorious tribute to both his craft and the Easter celebration.
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