May 1 1885 was a special day for Marie Feodorovna, Empress of Russia. It was Easter Day, and her husband, Tsar Alexander III, had a gift for her. For 19th-century Russian Orthodox Christians, Easter Day always came with the exchange of eggs, but this one had been made for her by the jeweller Peter Carl Fabergé. The tsar reported “back to Fabergé that the gift had had the desired effect on the recipient,” says Hanne Faurby, assistant curator at the V&A.
Thus the Romanov tradition of Fabergé’s imperial Easter eggs was born. After Alexander died in 1894, Marie received 20 more eggs from her son, Nicholas II, who also gave his wife Alexandra an egg every Easter until April 1916, when Easters as they knew them would come to an end.
This month is a significant one for the history of Fabergé. On November 20, the V&A’s exhibition Fabergé in London: Romance to Revolution opens, showcasing over 200 objects, including a number of Easter eggs. Then, on November 29, Christie’s will auction 86 Fabergé objects from the collection of businessman Harry Woolf. But how did Fabergé grow so popular – and why did the Romanovs take to his eggs?
Dr Géza von Habsburg, curatorial director of Fabergé, is the world’s foremost expert on Fabergé’s Easter eggs. Sadly, he says, salacious tales surrounding the eggs are few: “In their time the eggs were not visible to anybody except the Russian imperial family. Nobody wrote about them, because nobody saw them.”
The first egg was a relatively modest affair. It cost Alexander III 4,151 rubles, explains Toby Faber in his 2008 book Fabergé’s Eggs; this was not so much “that the decision to order it needed very much thought.” The Diamond Trellis Egg, given to Marie in 1892, was a pale green shell of jade; its surprise – almost all the eggs contained a surprise – was a clockwork ivory elephant, a reminder of Marie’s childhood growing up as Princess Dagmar of Denmark, since an elephant appears on the coat of arms of the Danish royal family.
By 1913, Fabergé’s Winter Egg for Marie cost Nicholas II just under 25,000 rubles. The following year, the Mosaic Egg, made from hundreds of precious stones, looked “as though it could be made from tapestry of needlepoint,” writes Faber.