Two hundred years ago, Russia’s regal luxuries were made accessible to the public when in 1806 Emperor Alexander I signed a decree turning the Kremlin’s Armoury Palace into a museum to display the state’s treasures, such as gold and silver collections, court dresses, ecclesiastical vestments, precious fabrics and ceremonial arms.
The Russian Imperial Court was well known for its sumptuous excesses, so it is little surprise that the armoury’s collection contains nothing short of the best masterpieces. After the October Revolution of 1917, some items were sold abroad, but the best part of the collection was preserved. Looking at the exhibits today, a visitor can trace the evolution of the Russian jeweller’s art.
The famous collection of Easter eggs designed by Peter Carl Faberge, a descendant of the French dynasty of jewellers, comprises what are probably the best-known artefacts of Russian jewellery. In them, Faberge ingeniously merged two arts—the applied and the jeweller’s. Anything produced by the Faberge firm—tea services, cigarette cases, ash-trays, photograph frames, paper knives, miniature decorative bowls and so on—became jewellery masterpieces.
The first Easter egg was completed in 1885 for Alexander III. All in all, Faberge designed 50 eggs. Ten of them are held in the state armoury at the Kremlin, while others are scattered throughout private collections. Each egg took about a year to produce and features a unique design, including a hidden surprise associated with the history of Russia or the imperial family. For instance, the velvet-lined interior of the Trans-Siberian Railway egg contains a miniature replica of a steam train that can be removed and set to run when the locomotive is wound with a key.
The Clover egg was constructed using a very complex plique-a-jour enamel technique, whereby a gold framework is filled with hot liquid enamel, then subsequently treated with firing. As a result, the enamel glitters and looks like coloured stained glass.
Fabergé goldsmiths also designed fancy curios. Animal figurines and small flower arrangements from precious and semi-precious stones were among the most highly valued. Such was the Lady’s Delight commissioned by Nicholas II for his 10th wedding anniversary. The gift was styled as a simple crystal vase, almost like a medicine glass. Special treatment of the crystal made the vase appear to be filled with water. The petals of the flower were coated with enamel, and the stem was fitted with a small lever, which made the flower open to reveal the portraits of Nicholas II’s children.
Still more fanciful was the design of a dandelion. This flower was a popular symbol in the early 20th century, suggestive of a dream easily blown apart like a dandelion’s puff-ball. For greater authenticity, the designers used natural seed fluff attached to silver stamens with tiny diamonds and lacquered over. The petals were made of nephrite, and the stem of coloured gold.