Houston Museum Extends
Fabergé Exhibit Run
This small "presentation box", shown here at about twice its actual size, was given by Czar Nicholas II to French politician Leon Bourgeois in 1902.
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While the exhibit Magic! may be drawing the crowds, dazzling illusions of another sort are worth seeking out in a quieter corner of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Fabergé: Imperial Jeweler to the Tsars showcases about 100 objects from the McFerrin Collection — one of the world's most important privately held Fabergé troves — that have never before been displayed together.
“Finding a significant Fabergé collection literally in the museum's backyard was a very nice surprise,” says curator and HMNS president Joel A. Bartsch, whose work has taken him to Russia many times.
The collection's owners, Artie and Dorothy McFerrin of Crosby, have added a few items to the exhibit since it opened. Among them are cigarette cases that were only discovered early last year in a Swedish vault, where they'd been stashed after the Bolshevik Revolution brought the Romanov era to an end.
Fabergé is well-known as the maker of the ornate Imperial Easter Eggs commissioned by Czar Alexander III and his son, Czar Nicholas II, each year in the late-18th and early-20th centuries. But Bartsch has focused instead on practical objects transformed by elaborate metalwork, enameling and gemstones into glamorous gifts.
Aside from the cigarette cases (smoking was new and popular), there are vanity cases, jewelry, boxes, picture frames, fans and stone figurines — pocket-size items that offer an intimate sense of the Romanovs' sentimental generosity.
“When the imperial family traveled, they loaded up on Fabergé and gave it as gifts to everyone they visited,” said Lynette Proler, who toured the exhibit with me. A co-author of The Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs (1997, 271 pp., Christie's), she's a former fine estate jeweler who now imports antique garden ornaments.
While the nobles kept them busy, the House of Fabergé had other clients as well. At the company's zenith in about 1900, master goldsmith Carl Fabergé (who inherited and expanded his father's business) employed about 500 artisans — including work masters who designed and oversaw the army of stone carvers, sculptors, miniaturists and enamelers. Fabergé's four sons managed shops in several cities; some of them were also designers.
The exhibit's first gallery, a magnificent white-columned space, is a replica of a ballroom at the Hermitage, the Romanov's primary residence. After a few more paces, you're in a blackened gallery that Bartsch calls his “chef's reserve” room: Here, a few of his favorite pieces float in pools of light that emphasize their opulence.
The refined Proler turns almost giddy when she's in a room full of Fabergé trinkets.
She's particularly fond of pieces featuring the enamel work called guilloche, a Fabergé specialty no once since has been able to replicate. Using a machine called a guilloché , craftsmen mixed powdered glass and metal oxides, heating them at extremely high temperatures as they engraved designs that included ribbonlike moiré and meshlike basket-weave effects.
Fabergé offered guilloche in about 140 colors. A single object might have seven layers of different colors, each heated to a precise temperature. And one little flaw could render a year's work garbage.
That's how the House of Fabergé operated, Proler said. If the temperature wasn't to the 'nth degree, guilloche would crack. “And if that happened, they would throw it out and start from scratch. It didn't matter how much time it took.”
She was admiring the translucent, cobalt blue guilloche of a vanity case also adorned with a trellis of tiny rose-cut diamonds around beautifully scrolled initials. “But also look on the back,” she said. “There's a bar of music etched into it, and it probably meant something to whoever received it as a gift.”
She also loved the feminine subtlety of a silk fan painted by Jules Donzel fils, who belonged to a famous family of French painters, partly for his pastel-hued renderings of the Fountain of Youth and Venus Triumphant. But her eyes also fixed on the fan's guards with guilloche and intricately set diamonds. “Look at the beautiful tracery of the diamonds,” she said.
The fan was a gift from Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich, Czar Nicholas II's uncle, to his girlfriend, Mme. Elisabeth Balletta, an actress in the Imperial Theater.
“It's a nice present to get from your sugar daddy,” Proler quipped.
She also oohed and ahhed over two pieces with gold garlands whose flowers and leaves are rendered in four colors — rose, green, white and yellow. One is a circa-1890 cigarette case — a 25th wedding anniversary gift whose diamond-encrusted Roman numerals, upside down, read as an interlocked V and M — for Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich and his wife, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna.
The other is the Fire Screen Picture Frame, so-called because it's likely a miniature of a fire screen in the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna's apartment. A gift from her son, Czar Nicholas II, it holds portraits on both sides — one of Nicholas and one of his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.
“There's a lot going on here,” Proler said. “That's the magic of Fabergé — that he was able to take all these elements and make it absolute perfection.”
She also lingered at the Nobel Ice Egg, one of only about 15 large eggs Fabergé made for clients other than the Romanovs. It was designed by Ana Phil, a granddaughter of work master Albert Holmström.
“It's said that Ana Phil was sitting by the window and it began to snow. And as the snow began to melt, she could see the patterns of the flakes on the window,” Proler explained. “The pendant shown alongside it would have dangled inside the egg.”
This and other snowflake-themed pieces were commissioned by Dr. Emanuel Nobel, a Swedish oil magnate who gave them as favors to his dinner guests.
And Proler couldn't help marveling at the largest piece in the show, the Empress Josephine Tiara.
Its name is slightly misleading: Czar Alexander I gave only the eight huge, briolette-cut diamonds to Josephine in about 1810, after Napoleon Bonaparte divorced her. They were passed down to her son, Eugene, whose son in turn married a Russian princess. Fabergé created the tiara in 1890, adding 214 old-cut diamonds and about 400 tiny sparklers. Because the white gold setting was left unpolished, I thought it looked a little more crude than other pieces in the collection.
Cartier was making flashier jewelry at the same time, Proler said. But with Faberge, “the item itself was key. Whatever held it together was not important; so all you see is the bling.”
The tiara's setting didn't bother her at all.
“I like diamonds,” she said. “I'd wear it 24 hours a day.”