His craftsmen were masters of enameling, especially enamel applied over metal, a process called guilloche, which produced a delicate filigree of geometric patterns. The result, a shimmering, iridescent surface, is a matter of artistry, not jewels, gold or platinum.
Faberge’s use of rock crystal, a transparent form of quartz, is as exciting as any of the rubies or diamonds that decorate his most luxurious items. The best of his work has, in fact, a striking reserve in its use of materials. A cigarette case, from the workshop of Mikhail Perkhin, one of the greatest of the Faberge artists, is made of white enamel guilloche, with a single, small ruby at its clasp. Its minimalist poetry speaks more clearly than most of the gaudier pieces in the exhibition.
While Faberge’s work has become synonymous with the tsarist over class — Faberge fled the country during the Russian Revolution— the master jeweler was in many ways more progressive than the society he served. His shop in St. Petersburg was, according to the curators of this exhibition, the first “multifunctional business complex” in Russia. It housed workshops, a showroom, offices, a library, and a residence for Faberge and his family. His top craftsmen were independent businessmen in a system that was remarkably horizontal for its day.
Faberge’s business model also prefigured successful luxury goods companies today: He insisted on perfect workmanship, created a steady steam of new designs and destroyed or removed old stock before it became old hat. He was helping to pioneer a very peculiar idea that we now take for granted: That we will pay purely for the status of a brand name, rather than the use value or inherent worth of an object.
Within the small and competitive world of master jewelers, Faberge was a bit of a mandarin. He never failed to serve the tsar and his family, but he didn’t respect their taste very much. He was also dismissive of other jewelers, including Cartier, who made inroads on his Russian market in the years before World War I. His French competitors, he said, were “merchants, not artist jewelers.”
Was it presumptuous to assume the title “artist jeweler”? The craftsmanship on display in the Virginia exhibition is exquisite but doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of art. There is something inexhaustible about the imagination that animates the Faberge brand, the small games and little touches of humor that distinguish the company’s oeuvre. But it’s a rather limited arena for the exercise of creativity. Each piece is different from the next and lives in its own world. But there’s no real progress of ideas or spirit in the work. It gives a one-dimensional pleasure.
But there are certain pieces, including an elaborate silver drinking vessel known as a kovsh, that are breathtaking. The cup comes alive on the table, with a vivid depiction of horsemen surging from its boat-shaped prow. It’s as vivid and lifelike as anything by a master sculptor.
And then there are the eggs. Try to hate them, but their whimsy charms in the end. They were perfect gifts, perfect toys, smallish things that could be held in the hand and endlessly admired. The miniature reproduction of a statue of Peter Great inside the great 1903 egg doesn’t just include a man on a horse; it also includes two concentric circular fences around the statue, one rendered in the finest chain link. This is pure, ridiculous virtuosity, like a Paganini caprice, absurd yet satisfying in its delicate play with reality.
In the end, even as you know it’s impossible and perhaps a bit obscene, you think: I’d like one of those. Great revolutions have foundered on these primitive shoals of the spirit.
is on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond through October 2. Admission is $15 for adults and requires a timed-entry ticket. For more information visit www.vmfa.museum.