Once upon a time, a garden bloomed with daisies of white jade, crystal gardenias with moonstone pistils, and lilies of the valley of pearls set with rose-out diamonds.
In the garden lay magnificent eggs, ornamented with diamonds, enamels and gold. The eggs hatched more surprises: splendid paintings and miniature portraits that sparkled with diamonds and gleamed with gold.
Though the imperial Russian court for which they were created is no more, some of these jeweled indulgences worthy of a fantasyland still exist. And now, the National Geographic Society has brought 143 of them to Washington for a holiday season show opening today. They make almost everyone's Christmas presents seem like bundles of sticks and buckets of coal.
The jeweled objects are by Peter Carl Faberge, master goldsmith to the last czars of Russia. They have been mounted like the crown jewels they are by Peter J. Purpura, curator/director of the National Geographic's Explorers Hall, where the show continues until Feb. 23. The more important pieces are in lucite cases that catch and heighten the light, bouncing it back and forth ever the jewels. The backgrounds are color photographs of Russia, largely the work of Dean Conger.
The first object, set to make the visitor gasp, is perhaps the finest, certainly the most elaborate, piece: a gold basket, filled with spum gold moss. From it rise lilies of the valley with carved leaves of nephrite jade, stems of green gold, blossoms of pearls capped with silver crowns set with rose-cut diamonds. This unbelievable bouquet slowly turns in its case, making the blossoms move ever so slightly, as though in a warm breeze.
Four of the famous Imperial Easter eggs the Russian monarchs liked to give each other are displayed. The most beautiful is the egg of 1899, the ultimate in the art mouveau style. The egg is carved of nephrite jade, in a deep, mysterious green. The violet-enameled pansies rise from a gold leaf base, the stems ever-so-slightly bent. Set beside the egg is its "surprise," the gift to be found inside the splendid container.
Here it is a heart, mounted with the Ramonov crown set with jewels and displayed on a gold easel. If that weren't enough, the heart is docked with minute strawberry-enameled gold circles that lift to reveal tiny portraits of the imperial family.
The 1912 egg is more traditional, in the French Empire style to mark the 100th anniversary of the Napoleonic war. The egg is solid gold. Emerald and ruby-enameled panels are set with diamonds and golden double-headed eagles. A gold sunflower with a diamond center is set into the top around a crown and the cipher of the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna.
The surprise is a folding screen of six octagonal pieces, which are miniatrue paintings by V. Zuiev showing members of the Empress' regiments.
The wonders go on and on. The Imperial Easter egg of 1893 is, of course, solid gold in the Louis XV taste with a transparent red enamel. Into the sides are set four oval panels showing Abastuman, the mountain home of Czar Nicholas II. If you stand on the step and look over, you can see through a diamond a tiny, tiny portrait of the young duke who died in 1899.
There is more: the garden of jewels, snuffboxes, cigarettee cases, perfume bottles, manicure set, tiny animal amulets, spoons, boxes.
Peter Carl Faberge was the son of a Huguenot family that settled in St. Petersburg in 1842. According to the show's catalog, Faberge, in an audience with Czar Alexander III, suggested an egg surprise be made for the Czarinia Maria Fedorovna, then despondent over the death of her father-in-law. The Czarinia was so thrilled that Faberge was made gold-smith to the court.
The Easter eggs became a tradition, continuing through the reign of Nicholas II. Fifth-eight were said to have been made; of these the whereabouts are known of 45. The times were reflected in the eggs. The 1916 egg, of gunmetal, is decorated only with a Red Cross. When the Communists took over, according to the story, Faberge put on his hat and coast in his workshop, and left for Switzerland where he died in 1920 at 74.
Connoisseurs say that Faberge's work varies according to the workshop. The staff of 500 worked in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. The designs were divided between the French-influenced delicate eccelecticism (linked to Sergei Diaghilev, the ballet impresario) and the bolder, heavier Slavie designs. Though Faberge was the artist, the work was often executed by his workmasters and their craftsmen.
In any case, the workmanship may well surpass any other goldsmithry. The National Geographic has set some of the small objects with mirrors underneath so the beauty of the backs can be seen.
Most of the shows is from the Matilda Geddings Gray Foundation of New Orleans. The late Mrs. Gray, according to her niece, Matilda Stream, was an artist herself who worked in bronze and terracotta. The family money came from an oil well at Vinton, La.
"She saw her first Faberge egg at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition in 1933," said Mrs. Stream. "Back then, you know, they weren't thought of much.She bought her first piece, the pansy egg, from Dr. Armand Hammer. She gave it to us on our first wedding anniversary in 1947. (Hammer bought vast amounts of Russian art from the new Soviet government, in return for grain and medical supplies.) And then later, she bought other pieces from Messrs. Wartski of London. I remember they used to just sit around her house. One of the compacts is still half full of powder."
Many of Mrs. Gray's finest objects were kept in her house outside Paris. One day she and her niece had trouble getting their Lincoln Zephyr through a crowd of demonstrators."War is coming" said Mrs. Gray, and packed up everything and left for the United States in 1937.