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.

How the Medici family influenced Peter Carl Fabergé: Our exquisitely entwined exhibits

If you’re a Fabergé enthusiast, then you’ll know that seeing Gems of the Medici before it closes Sunday at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is a MUST! For those of you who have a passing knowledge of Fabergé, let me give you the scoop:

When Peter Carl Fabergé was born, it was already known, by his father, that he would become a jewelry maker. August Fabergé had started a relatively small jewelry enterprise that he hoped his sons would take over.

As Carl grew into a young man, he was sent across Europe to learn the art of goldsmithing. While this was very interesting to Carl, he found one of his real passions in the art of hardstone carving. While visiting Florence, Italy, Carl stopped at several workshops that specialized in hardstone carvings — workshops originally founded by the Medici patriarchs.

Peter Carl Faberge, via Wikimedia Commons

The Medici were insistent that Florence become the Mecca of the art world, which included stone and precious gem work. They became patrons of artisans and began workshops for others to practice their craft and learn the essentials of artistry. The Medici went as far as providing their own collection of cameos and hardstone carvings for young artists to study and replicate.

Two centuries later, these workshops were still functioning as they had been originally intended. Carl Fabergé was just one of many who took advantage of what was offered and learned techniques that would eventually be seen in his jewelry. Carl used what he learned at the Medici-founded workshops to turn simple jewelry and hardstones into works of art that were not only functional, in some cases, but admired and desired.

Visit Gems of the Medici at the Houston Museum of Natural Science before it closes this Sunday, March 31 and see the works of art that inspired Fabergé: A Brilliant Vision!

An interview with Caroline de Guitaut, Royal Curator, pretty talker and bona fide Fabergé expert

Caroline de Guitaut is many things. Her curator post at The Royal Collection Trust in London — where she oversees the Queen’s impressive Fabergé collection — is nothing to be sniffed at, but de Guitaut is perhaps first and foremost the organizer of Kate Middleton’s the Duchess of Cambridge’s bridal archive. Swoon.

We controlled our impulses to ask about all things Royal Wedding, however, to discuss our (very) special new exhibit, Fabergé: A Brilliant Vision, prior to de Guitaut’s Distinguished Lecture here at the Museum.

HMNS: So, what are your first impressions of the exhibit?

Caroline de Guitaut: It’s really interesting. It is an exciting thing, all formed over the last 10 years. The Royal Collection was formed primarily during Fabergé’s lifetime, while he was still producing. This collection is very modern. The Provenance is so good; it focuses on pieces with a lot of history.

Pixel Party: Fabergé!

HMNS: How would you term the House of Fabergé’s historical importance, particularly to England?

CDG: The Royal Collection can only now be seen, with modern eyes, as a museum collection. When it was formed, the objects were exchanged as gifts — fashionable, whimsical luxury items. It was only post-revolution, really, that the objects have acquired this mythical sort of importance. So many pieces are superbly personal — hand-inscribed tokens of affection.

HMNS: Do you have a favorite piece or a particular item/type of item that you find yourself coming back to again and again?

CDG: I like the more simple objects. The animals are charming, whimsical and fun. They demonstrate the whole range of hardstone carving. There is one particular object — a cigarette case in deep blue enamel. It’s so sumptuous and rich. A snake in fold and diamonds winds around both sides biting its own tail — the symbol of everlasting love. It was a present from Edward VII’s mistress to the king. It is in the art nouveau style with the concealed hinges that are a signature of Faberge, and when the King died in 1910, his wife gifted it back to his mistress as a token. The mistress, Alice Keppel, gave it to Queen Mary in 1936 and it returned to the Collection.

Visit Fabergé: A Brilliant Vision to see more objects of exquisite beauty and learn their (often romantic) stories. This special exhibition closes Dec. 31, 2013.