The wilderness years are over: Fabergé is back and once again producing head-turning jewellery. By Paul Ashton
There are some for whom the rebirth of the Fabergé brand means more than most; for Sarah Fabergé, it’s personal. “It’s a wonderful name to carry, but also a tremendous responsibility,” says Sarah, the great- grand-daughter of Peter Carl Fabergé – the creative force of the company when it set the standard for fine jewellery in the early 20th Century.
Now, with a series of collections of high jewellery, a watch collection unveiled at Baselworld, and new stores in London and New York about to open to supplement the existing facility in Geneva, the venerable name of Fabergé is in the kind of shape its famous forebears would be proud of.
Proud, and a little surprised, perhaps, as the renaissance has been a long time coming. The seeds were sown by the investment holding company Pallinghurst Resources, which – spotting a wasted opportunity – bought the Fabergé name from Unilever in 2007 and set about the job of resurrecting it as a high jewellery specialist. With a net asset value across all its investments of $481 million, Pallinghurst’s major interests are at the industrial end of the precious metals and gems business. Fabergé is therefore an interesting fit – a jewel in the portfolio – and it’s also a business that is being built from the bottom up, with the past few years having been spent ensuring that the foundations are in place. The Fabergé team is small and you don’t need to spend too much time with them to feel the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a start-up – there is nothing of the arcane feel of a brand with the weight of history upon it. “It’s a unique situation, with such a small company carrying a large name. We have to get things right,” says Sarah.
Sarah now sits on the firm’s Heritage Council, a body that also includes her cousin Tatiana Fabergé and author and Fabergé expert John Andrew. “We exist to protect the heritage and to ensure that anything we do is in line with our illustrious history,” Sarah says.
It was Pallinghurst who approached Sarah after buying the rights to the name. “They had to convince me! But I saw that they were enthusiastic and genuine, and Tatiana and I needed to take this opportunity to have an influence. If our name was going to be over the door, it was our duty to have our say.”
And having their say is just what they are doing: the Council is anything but a cosy a nod to the past. “I’m not here to be wheeled out as a dusty relic! I chair our regular breakfast briefings, and I advise on strategy – which codes to take from the past. I work closely with our inspirational managing and creative director Katharina Flohr, who has worked tirelessly to seek out the craftsmen capable of making the Fabergé pieces of today,” she says.
It was a long 20th Century for Fabergé, with normal business (which actually started in 1842) interrupted after 1917. The Russian revolution marked the end of the line for the famous Imperial eggs, made every year for the Romanov family. But Fabergé was always about more than just eggs, and the company pioneered a range of techniques and finishes that ateliers still refer to today. (You can get a flavour of the variety of their work from our piece on Russian art on page 88.) It’s tempting to think that if there had been a large constituency of yacht owners and interior designers at the time, Fabergé would have been much in demand.
Post revolution, the sons of Peter Carl Fabergé reconstituted the company in a small way in Paris, producing one or two designs and undertaking repairs. But over time, the family lost the right to use the Fabergé trademark, and by the 1960s it was associated with high-turnover toiletries – Brut 33, which men of a certain age splashed all over, was a Fabergé best seller. So what did the natural heirs to the Fabergé brand make of this? “We knew the name was being underused but we had to just live with it,” says Sarah. “It never occurred to me that it would be possible to be back where we are now.”
But back they are, and very much in the style that takes its cues from, but isn’t beholden to, the past. “Carl Fabergé was cutting edge for his time. He was very interested in contemporary art movements. The times around him influenced him, and we try to incorporate that spirit. We look at the collections we have and grow them organically. What shall we take from the past? What will enchant people now? Fabergé is very much about the creative use of stones and storytelling,” Sarah says. The themes of the company’s existing collections echo these concerns, with high jewellery pieces based on Constructivist art and Russian folktales, and a white diamond collection, Le Carnet de Bal, which evokes the balls and soirées of pre-revolutionary Russia. “We like to use typical Fabergé materials and processes, such as enamels. We use precious stones, but also semi-precious – what matters is the artistic use. Carl Fabergé once said he cared not for big rocks for the sake of big rocks.”
Sarah’s own favourite piece? “That always changes, but I’ve recently been enchanted by a piece from a private collection, a silver bellpush in the shape of a crab with blue chalcedony stone. The crab is perfect. It’s exquisitely made, quirky, whimsical, and it makes you smile. No one but Fabergé would have been making this in the early 1900s.”
These days, new collections are born out of a two-day lockdown in a secret location (“a house in the country” is all they will say), which happens every few months. “We discuss ideas, sparking off each other and using mood boards. Then we funnel the ideas down to something that will work.” From conception it takes at least a year for the pieces to see the light of day. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed – in Carl Fabergé’s day, work on next season’s Imperial eggs started the day after that season’s were handed over.
At his peak, Peter Carl Fabergé had 500 people working for him. Ateliers today are more dispersed, and part of the creative team’s job is enthusing a new generation of craftspeople. “Katharina has spent a lot of time finding not only people who can execute a piece but who also understand what we are all about. Most high jewellery artists are already passionate about Fabergé and are delighted to be working under that banner.”
Bespoke pieces are also part of Fabergé’s offering. “We’re happy to work with clients, though it has to be under our influence. It has to look like a piece of Fabergé.” And of course, they’ll go that extra mile for clients, like the man in New York who saw a Fabergé ring in the New York Times magazine. “He called us to say it was his wife’s birthday in three days and that he’d like that ring, so we sent someone over to deliver it,” Sarah says.
The latest collections, unveiled in Paris in July, include the first in a series of high jewellery egg pendants that mark the reappearance of official Fabergé eggs for the first time in almost a century. Each of the 12 pendants represents a different month. Also unveiled in Paris was a collection that echoes Russian folklore and the seasons, including the Zhivago collection for winter. It’s as if Fabergé have invented a new category of ‘narrative jewellery’.
Despite the recent activity, Sarah insists: “We’re going gently and slowly. We’re not out to make thousands of pieces immediately. We know we are competing with other high jewellery names so we have to do things a little differently.”
A century on from their previous peak, and after decades in the post-revolutionary wilderness when you were more likely to find the Fabergé name on the shelves of your local supermarket than in a high-end jewellery store, the company is now poised to weave its magic over a new generation of aficionados.
This feature is taken from the September/October 2011 edition of SuperYacht World. Click here to buy the issue for your iPad.