Innovatus at Christmas, 2014
On the 2nd December, senior women’s networking group Innovatus had its sixth meeting – inviting along male partners, colleagues and friends for the first time, welcoming them at The Institute of Directors in Pall Mall.
Another first for Innovatus was a male speaker: Philip Birkenstein, Chairman of the St Petersburg Collection.
Established in 1984 and based in Princes Arcade, Piccadilly, Philip’s gallery specialises in the creations of Theo Fabergé, scion of the famous family of craftsmen and jewellers. Chance played a great role in their venture: until they met, Theo was a retired engineer and craftsman with a passion for offset lathes, who only made the occasional intricate jewelled piece on commission. Philip was a businessman with a marketing background who picked up a magazine on a flight to South Africa containing an interview with Theo; inspired by the article, he decided to try and make contact. Eighteen months later, they were in business together.
Originally a Huguenot family from northern France named Fabri, the Fabergés arrived in St Petersburg via Germany in the early 1800s. The jewellery business was started by Gustave Fabergé who took his ambitious young son Carl on a tour of museum and university collections to gather inspiration. At 24 Carl took over the business and built a worldwide reputation for extravagant design and painstaking workmanship.
Though they represented only a small percentage of the company’s output, the best known of Carl Fabergé’s designs remain the eggs – prompting Philip to answer the question of why Carl focused his skill on an object as mundane as an egg. It turns out to be their symbolic value, as well as their monetary or design potential: “In 1840, half a million Russians ate ten million eggs on Easter Sunday. They represent new life; even today new parents in Russia are presented with little eggs to hang on a jewellery chain for their daughters. It used to be Polynesian tradition to bury the dead in egg-shaped coffins, and Jewish families have burnt egg on the table at their Passover meal.”
The Imperial Russian Czar established a tradition of presenting a Carl Fabergé ‘Imperial Egg’ to the Czarina or Dowager each year, often spending the equivalent of a million pounds. Carl had been commissioned to make – and not design – eggs for the Czar in 1885 and 1886, both of which contained what became a company trademark: a surprise hidden inside (in this case, a tiny enamel chicken with a further diamond surprise within the chicken). The following year Carl struck a deal to design and manufacture an egg in secret, for delivery and unveiling with great fanfare on Easter Sunday. Fifty of these ‘Imperial Eggs’ were made, the whereabouts of 43 of which are known. According to Philip, “an egg that hadn’t been seen for over 100 years, inside which was a working clock, had been picked up by a scrap metal dealer in the United States in the 1960s for $8,500 in order to be melted down. When he thought he’d lost money on the deal he’d put it on a window sill and forgotten about it. There it sat until recently and sold for $40m…”
Driven by the public’s response to the Imperial Romanov family’s enthusiastic endorsement, the company thrived, opening branches in St Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa and Kiev – and in 1903 in London, firstly in the Berners Hotel and later in Bond Street.
By the watershed year of 1917 the company had produced over 100,000 pieces, some rare and enormously expensive, others less so. Abiding by the design philosophy that jewels were used for decorative value, not for their financial worth, Carl Fabergé and his four sons presided over a business that effectively used serf labour (employees worked for 14 hours a day, six and a half days a week) to create exquisite pieces. Enamellers used a cocktail of arsenic, lead and mercury to produce over 140 colours of enamel. Change, however, was on the way.
According to Philip, “when the revolutionaries arrived at the Fabergé premises in St Petersburg, Carl walked out and never entered again”. Perhaps surprisingly, the stock and other seized items weren’t ransacked or lost in the chaos: “every piece was catalogued and saved by the Bolsheviks”.
The son who had opened the family’s London branch, Nicolas, stayed in England and became one of the first fashion photographers, and his own son was born in 1922. Young Theo clearly had a talent for precise design: he made his first model at the age of four, and, after serving in the RAF during the second world war, started an engineering firm.
Casting around for something else to do after a successful career in engineering and the sale of his business, Theo set about restoring offset lathes – the mechanical precision of which appealed greatly – eventually helping to save around 150 worldwide. It was only at the age of 57 that Theo was persuaded to begin making eggs, at first for individual commissions. In 1984 he commenced working on the St Petersburg Collection with Philip.
Theo died in 2007 at the age of 84, having seen his designs become highly sought after through the business that they built together, continuing the remarkable legacy of his grandfather.
The limited edition eggs produced by the company are individually signed and numbered, and made via a long-winded and logistically complex process by some 30 specialist craftspeople working in their own studios in England. There is no factory: Theo insisted that each specialist had to agree to train an assistant in their particular skill, some of which are unique in the world. Roughly half are women: “it’s all about talent, and patience” (which, Philip contended, women tend to have more of).
Whilst labour conditions have (mercifully) improved, the process of pattern cutting, enamelling, stone setting and creating mechanics in miniature is still painstaking, with 15 individual craftspeople often working separately on a piece. Enamelling remains a risky business, even without a toxic cocktail of ingredients: each colour used needs to be fired at a different temperature, and faults in the colour due to overheating or other mishaps lead to the eggs being destroyed. These losses can account for a startling 30% of the pieces.
Over a thousand Carl Fabergé pieces are owned by the British royal family, with Queen Victoria being the first collector. Victoria’s granddaughter-in-law, Queen Mary, developed the habit of visiting stately homes with Carl Fabregé creations in their collections, asking to see them, and dropping heavy hints until they were presented as gifts (which is a nice trick if you can get away with it).
The world’s second largest collection, at just under 700 pieces, belongs to the King and Queen of Thailand, and is never publicly displayed. The third largest collection was recently sold in New York to a Russian multimillionaire who has put them on display in his native country.
Philip showed us a selection of the eggs, pendants, lacquered boxes and watches (unbranded, with only a tell-tale egg cut-out showing the internal workings) that the company makes today; as one would imagine, the workmanship and colours were extraordinary.
The St Petersburg Collection Gallery 9 Princes Arcade St James’s SW1Y 6DS 020 7495 2883