Was Peter Carl Fabergé the ultimate craftsmen or the ultimate copycat?

Every artist seeks inspiration, and this was certainly true for Carl Fabergé. After attending the Fabergé Symposium in January of this year and listening to his great-granddaughter, Tatiana Fabergé, speak, I was initially surprised by what she was showing us. However, once I considered the artist that was Fabergé, her presentation came into clear focus.

Tatiana presented various screen shots of objects found in Dresden, Germany, as well as work completed by Fabergé. What was so shocking, you might ask? It was the eerie similarities of older, famous items to renowned Fabergé pieces. These works of art, side by side, were almost identical. Although to be fair (or maybe a bit biased) the Fabergé pieces were just a little more beautiful.

My first shocking thought was that Fabergé might have made a job out of creating replicas. However, after continued study of the objects in the presentation, I began to see what was unique to Fabergé. It became evident that he did not steal designs; he was inspired by them and created something even more beautiful and, in some cases, more functional. Like any good artist, Fabergé sought inspiration outside of his own sphere, using what he found to create stunning, unique pieces.

Tatiana went on to explain that her great-grandfather had been sent around the world to study the best types of jewelry-making and goldsmithing. However, it was when his family moved to Dresden that Fabergé would find significant inspiration. The city had treasures of baroque art that could stir the imagination of a young artist. One piece Fabergé studied that is of interest to us in particular was a cup made of rhinoceros horn, held by an oriental figure. The Houston Museum of Natural Science, with gratitude to the McFerrin Collection, has the honor of displaying the object that was created from this inspiration.

Faberge's Dresden Inspiration

This particular statuette, a near replica, is made of nephrite and smoked topaz with pearls and small precious stones. It was shown in the 1893 Fabergé Moscow catalog and sold for 4,000 rubles, the same amount the Russian Royal Family paid for a single Imperial Easter Egg. It is uniquely Fabergé, yet German baroque art as well.

Faberge's Dresden Inspiration

Visit the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Fabergé: A Brilliant Vision to see this object among others that Fabergé sought to create in his own style.

Making the common uncommonly beautiful: Fabergé takes on the bell-push

Editor’s note: This blog comes to us from Fabergé historian and guest curator Timothy Adams. Adams has 30 years of experience in the jewelry industry and was a guest scholar for the “Fabergé: Imperial Jeweler to the Tsars” exhibition at The Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, Calif., which also featured pieces from the McFerrin Collection.

The turn of the century brought many new inventions to the lifestyles of those who prospered from the industrial revolution of the late 19th Century. With the advent of electricity came the electric light, the telephone and one of my favorite items: the bell push.

Many people wonder what a bell push is when they see a case of them in the HMNS exhibition Fabergé: A Brilliant Vision. A bell push was another convenience of the Edwardian age that Fabergé set his imaginative mind to designing.

The stately homes of the aristocracy and wealthy merchant class were often staffed with many servants. For centuries, when one needed to call for a servant, one walked over to the wall and used the “bell pull.” This was a long piece of fabric, often with a beautiful tapestry design with a tassel, that was attached to a cable that ran inside the wall down to the servants quarters “downstairs” and rang a bell when pulled.

With the invention of electricity, a simple button attached to an electrical wire could set off a buzzer and/or electric light downstairs, letting the servants know which room needed their assistance.

The McFerrins have collected some beautiful examples of Fabergé bell pushes made of many different materials and gemstones. No two items from Fabergé were ever exactly alike. These are wonderful examples of his enamel work and use of hardstones like nephrite and bowenite, as well as wood.

Fabergé liked to use cabochon-cut gemstones for the actual button or “thumb push.” The bell pushes seen here are round, square and triangular and come in a variety of styles from neoclassical to art nouveau.

"Fabergé: A Brilliant Vision" Exhibit, Houston Museum of Natural Science, Houston, Texas 2013.02.10Image via Pixel Party attendee and Flickr user fossilmike

One of the most unique is the three-elephant bell push believed to be purchased by Nicholas II for his mother. It has three elephants with castles on their backs, which is the symbol of the Danish Royal House, and the Dowager Empress was born in Denmark. There is an invoice dated December 24, 1898 that shows the Emperor purchasing a bell push with three elephants. This bell push had to be for a large, important house to have not just one or two buttons, but three. Each thumb push, or button, is a different color cabochon-cut stone. As each stone is pressed, the elephant and carpet it stands on lowers to activate the bell push.

Fabergé makes the common uncommonly beautiful. Read more about his intricate bell pushes on the Beyond Bones blogA whimsical design for a utilitarian object is one of the hallmarks of the House of Fabergé.  With unlimited imagination, Fabergé made the common place extraordinary.

Fabergé: A Brilliant Vision opens Friday — take a gander at some highlights here and hightail it to HMNS!

We can hear that sharp intake of breath from here. Believe us; we relate. The first time we saw the McFerrin Collection — an extension of the exhibit on display here in 2010 — it was hard to find the words.

When we were finally able to articulate ourselves, our utterances were monosyllabic: “Wow.”

Three-Compartment Vanity Case by Faberge, workmaster Henrik Wigstrom, St. Petersburg c 1910.

Three-Compartment Vanity Case by Fabergé,
workmaster Henrik Wigstrom, St. Petersburg c 1910.

The McFerrin collection has expanded to include more than 350 objects, all on extended loan at HMNS and free for members.

Gold-Mounted Rose Diamond and Moonstone Brooch Faberge, workmaster Feodor Afanasiev, initials of Faberge, assay mark of St. Petersburg Moscow, c 1899 - 1908.
Gold-Mounted Rose Diamond and Moonstone Brooch Fabergé, workmaster Feodor Afanasiev, initials of Fabergé,
assay mark of St. Petersburg Moscow, c 1899 – 1908.

Some highlights include a picture frame that once belonged to Liz Taylor (she replaced the Tsar’s face with her own, dahling), a handwritten note from Fabergé to a customer, and unexpected artifacts from the House of Fabergé’s war effort, including a surgeon’s knife.

For more information, including ticket prices and related special events, click here.

Ice Crystal Pendant by Faberge, workmaster Albert Holmstrom, St. Petersburg c 1913. Ice Crystal Pendant by Fabergé, workmaster Albert Holmstrom, St. Petersburg c 1913.

Educator How-To: Make your own Fabergé — ahem, Faux-bergé — egg, complete with a tiny surprise!

Hearing the name “Fabergé” evokes the splendor and extravagance of Imperial Russia. The famous House of Fabergé designed renowned Imperial Easter Eggs for the Romanov family, as well as an array of other practical items for the wealthy patrons of Europe.

Visitors to HMNS can glimpse this grandeur beginning Feb. 1 in a special exhibition from the McFerrin Collection. The exhibit, available with general admission, expands upon the collection exhibited in 2010 and features more than 350 objects, including a newly acquired Kelch egg and a frame that once belonged to Elizabeth Taylor.

Make your own Faux-bergé eggs with this simple hands-on activity! Decorate your hinged little works of art and design a special surprise to go inside:

Educator How-To: Making Faux-berge Eggs

•    Plastic egg – any size
•    Quick-dry craft glue
•    Old paint brush – to apply glue
•    Glitter in the color/s of your choosing
•    Thick cardboard
•    Scissors
•    Something fun to put inside your egg
•    Fake gems or other sparkles to decorate your creation

Educator How-To: Making Faux-berge Eggs

1.    Cut a circle of cardboard to fit in the bottom half of the egg as a resting spot for your object. (In our case, a very beautiful Glittersaurus rex.)
2.    Apply glitter to one side of the circle and set aside.
3.    Use a small piece of cardboard to create a hinge for your egg. Glue one side of the hinge to each half of the egg and allow to dry well.
4.    Paint your egg with glue and apply glitter liberally. Dry well.
5.    Apply gems or other decorations. Allow to dry.
6.    Insert your cardboard circle into the bottom of your egg. It should fit snugly.
7.    Lastly, put your treasure inside of your Faux-bergé egg.

Educator How-To: Making Faux-berge Eggs

Fabergé: A Brilliant Vision is organized by the Houston Museum of Natural Science with the McFerrin Collection.

Support provided by The Wortham Foundation, Inc.