for National Geographic News
Fabergé Easter eggs have been prized possessions of the wealthy for over a century.
Crafted in the shops of Peter Carl Fabergé from 1885 to 1917, the eggs were designed primarily at the behest of Russian Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II as annual Easter gifts for Tsarinas Maria and Alexandra.
One of the most glittering examples is the Winter Egg, presented to Maria by her son Nicholas II on Easter 1913. Studded with 3,000 diamonds, the egg sold at a 1994 auction for U.S. $5.6 million and was resold eight years later for $9.6 million.
Not all of the eggs were made for the Russian imperial family. Alexander Kelch, a Russian gold magnate and industrialist, gave his wife Barbara seven eggs between 1898 and 1904. The Duchess of Marlborough, formerly Consuelo Vanderbilt and the wealthiest young woman at the turn of the 20th century, also commissioned an egg of her own.
According to Christel McCanlessco-author with Will Lowes of the 2001 work Fabergé Eggs: A Retrospective Encyclopedia (Scarecrow Press)the workmanship embodied in each egg has no modern equivalent.
The Coronation Egg, for example, contains an exact replica of the tsar's coronation coach, complete with wheels that turn. This piece alone took 15 months to craft.
It is not just the artistic labor involved in the production of each egg or even the eggs' diminutive scale that makes them so intriguing. "Many of these eggs have wonderful historical associations," McCanless said.
A case in point is the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg, produced in 1900 to commemorate the completion of its construction. Inside, the egg contains a miniature model of the railway.
This intricate craftsmanship and attention to detail is a reflection of Fabergé's artistic vision and ingenuity. However, Fabergé himself was not responsible for making any of the art objects, "which comes as a shock," McCanless remarked. Instead, "he was the entrepreneurial spirit behind [them]."
In fact, Fabergé managed some 500 employees and employed apprentices, starting at the age of 12, to learn the craft. "If they were good," McCanless said, "they stayed there a lifetime and eventually became work masters and were able to put their marks on pieces."
It is believed that a total of 66 eggs were produced by Fabergé's craftsmen between 1885 and 1917. Each one was unique, with some opening to reveal marvelous miniatures and others functioning as clocks.
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