Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, December 14, 2001

Replicas of Fabergé's Imperial eggs in several colors. Inside each is a rosebud case that holds a necklace.

Egg roles

Reproductions of the renowned
Fabergé eggs serve as reminders
of the world's fragile beauty

By Scott Vogel

Other than a drift toward extremes, there's little consensus on the character of post-Sept. 11 America. Divorce is up as hordes of conflicted cohabitants decide that they don't wish to spend their remaining years tethered to the wrong ball and chain. But there's been a surge in weddings as well, an equally defiant contingent persuaded that now is the time to formalize an eternal bond.

Some Americans are making a renewed commitment to spiritual renewal and healthy living, while an apparently equal number are bingeing on junk (a k a "comfort") food during long nights spent flopped on the couch of CNN America.

A large Imperial Egg that contains a jeweled miniature crown hiding another jewel surprise. Only 42 of the 50 original eggs created by Carl Fabergé in the late 1800s are known to exist.

But nowhere is the clash of opposite views so evident as in our attitudes toward Christmas 2001, an already strange holiday made even stranger by recent events. After all, Christmas was always a duplicitous affair: capitalist extravaganza on the one hand and simple commemoration of a manger birth on the other.

But the best gifts this season -- or at least the ones most evocative of current tidings -- are those that speak to both sides of our present nature: the voice that counsels austerity and the one that says to eat, drink and be merry.

Meet Tatiana Fabergé

Where: Neiman Marcus, Ala Moana Center
When: 10 a.m. to noon and 3 to 4 p.m. today; noon to 4 p.m., tomorrow
Admission: Free

The Neiman Marcus in Ala Moana may seem an unlikely venue for compromise gifts. The very name conjures images of opulence and $6.7 million helicopters offered via the company's legendary mail-order catalog. But it is also the purveyor of superior-quality reproductions of Fabergé eggs, those pristine and delicate remnants of yet another empire (the Russian one) that once seemed invulnerable.

Fragile, intricate and utterly one of a kind, the original collection of Fabergé eggs, of which there were only 50 or so, represents the apogee of 19th-century jewelry craftsmanship.Crafted from translucent enamel, precious metals and gems, they were originally designated as Easter gifts for the wife of Czar Alexander III in 1885, the eggs quickly grew into a phenomenon, the czar demanding that one original egg be produced each year, an egg that contained within it an unguessable surprise.

Tatiana Fedorovna Fabergé, 71, smiles as she leafs through a coffee-table book on the subject that she co-authored, its pages stuffed with adoring photographs of the Fabergé 50 (or rather the 42 that survive) and their various surprises. Among the latter is an exact 4-inch replica of the coach rode by Czar Nicholas' wife, Alexandra, to their coronation following the 1895 death of Alexander, Nicholas' father.

Fabergé's Coronation Egg contained a 4-inch replica of the coach that carried Czar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra to the ceremonies.

"They are beautiful, first of all," says Fabergé of her great-grandfather Carl's objets d'art, "but then there's also the historical significance, the tragical ending of the czar and all his family."

She speaks slowly, the French inflection in her voice adding further gravity to the proceedings. Fabergé is also no doubt jet-lagged, having arrived just a few hours earlier by plane from her home in eastern France, just across the border from Geneva, where she was born. (Later, she will show photos of her 1746 farmhouse, complete with a strapping young farmhand, a dutiful dog named Gypsy and a bust of great-grandfather Carl in the living room.)

The Fabergé eggs gain a great deal of cachet from their association with Nicholas and Alexandra, whose reign began with one of the most lavish coronations in the history of the world and ended with the execution of the czar and his entire family in the basement of a house in Ekaterinburg. As symbols of ostentatious days gone by, you might think that the eggs would be targeted for destruction by the Bolsheviks, who looted and took over the Romanov palaces on the road to communist triumph. But instead, most of the Fabergé eggs were transferred to the Kremlin Armoury, where they were kept secure during the days of the revolution.

"They had them there and they stayed there until 1927," explained Fabergé, "when (the Bolsheviks) realized they had something they could sell. At that time they really needed hard currency."

Carl Fabergé having fled to Switzerland, his brother Agathon was ordered to assess the value of the eggs and was eventually jailed when the price he recommended was higher than anyone was willing to spend. "They almost shot him three times, and then he got typhoid fever. But he still managed to survive," she noted.

Tatiana Faberge, in Neiman Marcus to discuss Fabergé egg reproductions that the store carries, is the last surviving member of the Fabergé family. She doesn't own any authentic eggs herself. Only 50 were made by her great-grandfather Carl Fabergé, and one was purchased recently for $5.6 million. The reproductions cost $65 for miniatures and up.

Thus began the dispersion of Fabergé eggs around the world (the Kremlin only kept 10 of them) and the beginning of their now worldwide fame. Tatiana Fabergé's own personal favorite, known as the Winter Egg, was recently bought by an anonymous collector for $5.6 million. Carved out of a single piece of crystal and encrusted with 4,500 diamonds, it is a superb feat of high-end artistry and one that encases a remarkably modest surprise -- a tiny, if exquisitely rendered, basket of white flowers.

In the absence of the genuine article, coffee-table books and authentic facsimiles are all the average egg enthusiast can hope for. Tatiana, described in press materials as "the last living member of the Fabergé family," has given her seal of approval to a new line of replicas that range from $65 (for miniatures) to $2,500 and beyond. Fabergé will be in the Neiman Marcus home decor department today and tomorrow, signing limited-edition Fabergé reproductions.

"It doesn't take much to make something disappear," said Fabergé wistfully, her comment referring specifically to the lost world of the Russian czars and the glittering House of Fabergé. Nevertheless, with everyone walking on, yes, eggshells these days, it was impossible not to be reminded of our own nation's recent travails. Fabergé pooh-poohed the comparison as America inches toward its oddest Christmas in recent memory.

"It hasn't been as drastic," she said. "But you never know."

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