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A royal family collection of Faberg'e

Few names can be more evocative. It has become a powerful symbol of excellence, luxury, and sophisticated taste. Its owner, of course, was Peter Carl Faberg'e, the jeweler to the Russian imperial family and court who was patronized enthusiastically by the royalty and aristocracy of Europe and beyond in the years before the Bolshevik Revolution. That his popularity never wanes can be seen in London again this year. The collection of Queen Elizabeth II is on display in the small private gallery attached to Buckingham Palace.

Kenneth Snowman of Wartski's, the London jewelers, is a leading authority on Faberg'e (1846-1920). He describes the royal collection as a very personal selection of the artist's work. It is a family collec tion to which several generations have each contributed something of themselves.

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Speak of Faberg'e, and one immediately thinks of the fabulous jeweled Easter eggs given each year starting in 1884 by the Czar Alexander III to his wife, and then by their son Nicholas II to both his wife and his mother. Each egg opens to reveal a ``surprise'' in the form of a portrait, a vase of flowers, or even, in one case, an articulated model of a coach. These superb confections, however, represent a very small part of Faberg'e's oeuvre. For almost 50 years his workshops, employing over 500 craftsmen, produced thousands of individually designed objects. There was no production run of any item.

Single-minded devotion to perfectionism can be very impressive, and Faberg'e's objects have about them a strange intensity. His choice of colored enamels and hardstones and varicolored gold combined with gemstf his life Faberg'e spoke disdainfully of other celebrated jewelers who loaded their pieces with costly stones. It was an axiom of his that the value of the materials should not exceed the cost of the workmanship.

There is an extremism about Faberg'e that is similar to the extremism to be seen in some works from prerevolutionary France a century earlier, where the pursuit of perfection also reached new bounds. Looked at with the benefit of hindsight these pieces have an added dimension of tension and a sense of danger, like bombshells waiting to explode.

Faberg'e's exquisite bombshells were tossed all over Europe as they were the ideal gift for those who already had everything. The great showroom in St. Petersburg [now Leningrad] was probably the most spectacular gift shop the world has ever known.

At this time the Russian and British royal families were closely related, the Czarina Marie Feodorovna and Queen Alexandra being sisters. Edward VII became one of Faberg'e's most important customers, and his gifts to his Queen formed the nucleus of the great collection.

Her taste was not for the highly elaborate; she loved flowers, birds, and animals. Her sprays of single flowers and berries, set in rock crystal cleverly contrived to look like simple jars filled with water, are among the most beautiful of the many objects on display. There are literally scores of animals and birds carved in a variety of colored hardstones, among which is a unique series of portrait models of animals on the Sandringham Estate, the private home of the King and Queen.

Queen Alexandra's collection passed to the next generation, and Queen Mary added as many pieces as she inherited. Her preference was for the bibelots, the boxes, and the impedimenta of the well-equipped writing table. She also bought the three Easter eggs, two of which are from the Russian imperial set. The Queen, a noted needlewoman, was probably specially attracted to the Mosaic Egg, given by Nicholas II to his wife in 1914. It is composed entirely of a network of platinum wire into which are set panels of flowers in diamonds and colored gems giving an appearance of petit point. The ``surprise'' is a cameo portrait of the five royal children.

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To show that the collection continues to be a family concern, the Queen Mother has lent items from her own collection, including a delicious pot of buttercups. Princess Anne has lent her riding crop, surely the ultimate in riding crops with a handle of jade, gold, and enamel, and the Prince and Princess of Wales have parted temporarily with a lively green frog in nephrite, which perches on top of a pink enamel table seal.

The exhibition continues through to November.

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