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Artist, craftsman, perfectionist, connoisseur, visionary – Carl Fabergé was all these things and much more besides, he was the mastermind behind the largest and most important jewellery firm in Russian history.
Born in St Petersburg in 1846, Peter Carl (known as Carl) was the eldest son of Gustav Faberge who had established his own jewellery shop on the main street of Bolshaya Morskaya in 1842 after apprenticing with, amongst others, the celebrated firm of Keibel, goldsmiths and jewellers to the Emperors of Russia.
He was educated in their home town before moving to Germany to study at the Dresden Arts and Crafts School where he is known to have been a regular visitor to the famous Green Vault museum and its vast collection of treasures. In 1864 aged 18 he embarked on an educational Grand Tour of Europe before returning to St Petersburg in 1870 to help run his father’s firm. In the wake of his father’s retirement, it was being managed by a trusted team headed by the workmaster Peter Hiskias Pendin. Carl trained under Pendin who became both his tutor and mentor and over the years he built up a sound knowledge of the business as well as the craft of the jeweller. He married Augusta Jacobs in 1872 with whom he would go on to have four sons and in 1882 his brother Agathon joined him in the business just as he assumed sole control of the company following the death of Pendin.
Fabergé first came to the attention of the Royal family when Tsar Alexander III saw the firms display at the Pan-Russian Exhibition in Moscow with which he was highly impressed. He commissioned them to create an Easter Egg for his wife Maria Feodorovna which he presented to her in 1885, much to her delight. The Hen Egg would be the first of 50 Imperial Easter Eggs that Fabergé would create for the Romanovs, a series that grew more detailed and extravagant over the years and continues to fascinate and enthral today. They were granted the Royal Warrant soon after and given the title ‘goldsmith by special appointment to the Imperial Crown’.
In 1887 the firm opened a branch in Moscow which was managed by three brothers, Allan, Arthur and Charles Bowe and became a successful and busy operation with its own designers and workshops. The business was expanding significantly, and as the company’s reputation spread they collected awards and Royal Warrants including those of Sweden and Norway in 1897. By the following year it was clear that new premises needed to be found in St Petersburg to house the huge number of craftsmen and employees that now worked for Fabergé. A building further down the same street at number 24 was identified, purchased and totally refurbished to house not only the show room, design studios and workshops but also the Fabergé family apartment. They moved in two years later in 1900 by which time Carl had about 500 people in his employ and was running the country’s largest jewellery firm making a myriad exquisite objet and jewels that his wealthy clientele were endlessly captivated by.
Their exhibit at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris was an overwhelming success and helped establish the firm in Europe whilst securing many new clients. Their display included the Royal Family’s Imperial Eggs as well as a selection of jewellery, ornaments and accessories the splendour of which secured them a gold medal and Carl the award of the Légion d'Honneur.
In 1903 Arthur Bowe was sent from Moscow to London to establish a business base for Fabergé initially operating out of the Berners Hotel before moving to Grosvenor Square the following year. By 1906 the firm had opened another branch in Russia this time in Kiev and the London branch was fully established with premises at 48 Dover Street which was now being run by Carl’s youngest son Nicholas alongside Henry Charles Bainbridge. London’s high society fell for the charms of Fabergé’s works of art as surely as the Russians had and a steady flow of clients including members of the Royal family ensured the success of this, the only branch outside of Russia. In 1908 Carl visited London on his way to Paris to see for himself the Dover Street shop which three years later moved to 173 New Bond Street, where neighbours included other fine jewellery and luxury goods retailers such as Cartier.
The outbreak of war in 1914 slowed production considerably not only in terms of a drop in demand but also the lack of availability of precious metals so the workshops turned their hands to making equipment such as syringes and parts for the military. The Bond Street shop was closed in 1915 when all Russian capital held in foreign countries was forcibly repatriated in order to finance the war effort. Trading continued discreetly however for another couple of years until 1917 when the stock that remained was sold to Lacloche Frères.
Back in St Petersburg the political situation had continued to worsen and the Revolution of 1917 saw the House of Fabergé taken over before it was closed down and all stock confiscated in early October 1918. The following month Carl escaped the country and fled to Germany followed a month later by his eldest son and wife. Nicholas was still safe in London but Carl’s middle two sons were imprisoned by the Bolsheviks, fortunately both would eventually escape safely. Carl moved to Switzerland in 1920 but passed away just three months after arriving.
Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding the demise of the firm the name Fabergé lives on and remains as revered today as it was in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It stands as a testament to the exceptional talents of a vast orchestra of designers, craftsmen and sales people who were conducted by the uncompromising and remarkable leadership of Peter Carl Fabergé.