The Beauty of Russia:
Fabergé Reminds Us How the Romanovs Lived

Fabergé created this diamond tiara around 1890. The stunning briolette diamonds were a gift from Tsar Alexander I to the
Empress Josephine after her divorce from Napoleon Bonaparte. This piece is one of only a few tiaras ever made by Fabergé.

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When I think of Russia, I think of snow, communism, vodka and Fabergé.

It's admittedly a vague picture. I've never been to Russia (mostly because of the afore-mentioned snow), and yet its dichotomy fascinates me.

This is a country that held 80 percent of its peasant population as slave-like serfs until 1861. That's over 23 million serfs—to compare, in 1860 the United States had about 4 million slaves. It's the land of the Potemkin village, the Bolsheviks, and currently a healthy mafia culture.

But it was also the land of Fabergé.

It is possible, I think, to both dislike the final tsars for their iron-fisted rule over a poor, increasingly backwards country and to also be enraptured by their personal lives and the absolute opulence that surrounded them.

The story of the last tsar, Nicholas II and his family is interesting by any standard. Nicholas and his wife Alexandra had a rare royal love story. They fell in love when Alexandra (then known as Princess Alix of Hesse) visited Russia in 1889, but both families opposed the marriage and tried to arrange more fortuitous matches. Alexandra refused to marry her cousin Prince Albert Victor, who was heir to the British throne, and Nicholas declared he would rather join a monastery than wed the princesses of his parents' choosing. When Tsar Alexander III died rather suddenly in 1894, Nicholas acceded to the throne and married his sweetheart.

The tradition of the Fabergé egg actually started with Alexander III, who commissioned one for an Easter present (Easter being the major holiday in the Russian Orthodox religion) for his wife Empress Maria Fedorovna in 1885. This first egg, known as the Hen Egg, was made entirely of gold and coated with white enamel to resemble a real egg. It opened to reveal first a matte yellow gold egg yollk, which contained a gold hen, a diamond replica of the Imperial crown and a ruby pendant. Both the Tsar and Tsarina were so thrilled with Fabergé's creation that Alexander named him 'Goldsmith by Special Appointment to the Imperial Crown.'

The eggs would continue every year with Fabergé having complete creative freedom as long as each contained a hidden surprise. When Nicholas II took he throne, he continued the tradition by gifting one each to his mother and his wife until the revolution in 1917. When the Bolsheviks took power, the eggs along with the other imperial treasures, the Fabergé pieces were first stored and later sold off to the four corners of the globe by Stalin in a desperate bid for currency. Only 10 are now in Russia, the rest remain scattered in private collections, fetching seven-figures at auction.

Fabergé might have become famous for his exquisite eggs, but the Houston Museum of Natural Science exhibit "Fabergé: Imperial Jeweler to the Tsars" shows his range, as well as the pure opulence in every detail of Russian royal life. HMNS has some showstopper pieces, to be sure, namely the Empress Josephine Tiara, an incredible showcase of diamonds given to Empress Josephine of France by Tsar Alexander III in 1890 after her divorce from Napoleon. (Now that's an 'independence party' present even a Real Housewife of Atlanta would be jealous of.

Though the collection has no Romanov eggs, the one egg the is on display is beautiful and completely unique. Made for Alfred Nobel in 1913-14, it's known as the Nobel Ice Egg or the Snowflake Egg, a pale grey-blue egg etched to mimic a delicate frost in a rare natural theme.

The rest of the pieces are stunning not only for their beauty and craftsmanship but for their number. Imagine a world in which a picture frame is made of ornate gold and enamel, where clocks are examples of Edwardian craftsmanship, where a snuff box would be made of green enamel with a crest of diamonds. They are all here—brooches, cosmetic cases, umbrella handles, cigarette cases (one example even has a few royal cigarettes inside), pendants, miniature eggs, and other small items most people don't even notice. In the house of Romanov, they were each treasures.

'Fabergé: Imperial Jeweler to the Tsars' is on view at the Houston Museum of Natural Science through April 4.

Article by Sarah Rufca
Culture Map Houston
7 January, 2010