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The Opulence of Faberge Eggs

Easter in the czar's palace brought jeweled surprises from a master craftsman to delight and intrigue members of the royal family

ON Easter morning, Russian Orthodox family members typically exchange three kisses and painted eggs, symbols of resurrection. In the czar's family, where wealth flowed like the sea, the monarch presented, one supposes, the requisite kisses accompanied by some of the most exquisite decorative objects ever crafted - Faberge eggs.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is exhibiting 400 objects crafted by Faberge, including 15 of the 44 extant imperial Easter eggs produced from 1884 to 1917. Judges at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900 called Faberge objects "craftsmanship at the very limits of perfection, the transformation of a jewel into a true object of art."

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Peter Carl Faberge (1846-1920) brought impeccable execution and inventive design to the crafts of jewelry and goldsmithing. To assure quality control, he supervised and inspected the objects created in his St. Petersburg workshop. If he deemed one inferior, he smashed it with a mallet to keep the firm's reputation intact.

His artisans wielded enamels like a painter's palette, using 145 colors, including unusual hues such as opalescent oyster, mauve, lime green, and Prussian blue. They applied multiple layers of translucent enamel over a gold ground engraved with intricate patterns to give the surface texture and vitality.

Each egg contained a surprise - baubles like a diamond-encrusted picture frame, an animated peacock that strutted while fanning its multicolored tail, or a warbling gold bird that popped out of a jade-and-diamond orange tree. Nothing was too large to be converted into a surprise. The entire Gatchina Palace (an imperial retreat 30 miles from St. Petersburg) and its grounds, including trees, gas lamps, and statues, were re-created in chased four-color gold. Tiny panes of rock-crystal (transparent quartz) reflect light from the palace windows.

The most cunning surprise is a four-inch replica of the imperial coach used at the 1896 coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra. Taking 15 months to craft, the mini-carriage is red enamel over gold to simulate red velvet. Its platinum tires roll. The doors trellised with diamonds open with a turn of a latch the size of an eyelash. Articulated steps fold down, beveled rock-crystal windows are engraved with "curtains," and a diamond crown perches on top. The shell of the egg that contains this marvel is primrose yellow, like the ermine-trimmed cloth-of-gold robes worn by the royal couple.

Although the objects seem decadently opulent, Faberge actually nudged Russian aristocratic taste away from gaudy ostentation. Before his firm's creations became the rage, nobles favored diamonds as big as the Ritz, valuing carat weight and sparkle over workmanship. Even though blessed with a budget as limitless as his imagination, Faberge prized skill of design over sheer worth of materials. Today's avid collectors apparently agree. The long-lost Winter Egg of 1913 sold for $5.5 million in 1994.

The last imperial egg produced by Faberge in 1917 is not on display, for it was never completed due to the intervening Bolshevik Revolution. Called the Twilight Egg, it was conceived as a lapis lazuli night sky studded with inlaid gold stars.

The twilight of the Romanovs put an end to Faberge's "objets d'art et de fantaisie," as the firm described its wares. On Easter Sunday 1917, the czar and his family found themselves imprisoned. They were executed in 1918, due in part to distaste for the lavish lives their dynasty enjoyed while peasants starved by the hundred thousands.

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Like Humpty Dumpty, all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put that pampered society together again. Yet the eggs from a vanished age still dazzle with the light of history and the jeweler's art at its peak.

'Faberge in America'

Through April 28 Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

May 25 to July 28 Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, M.H. De Young Memorial Museum

Aug. 24 to Nov. 3 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond

Dec. 7 to Feb. 9, 1997 New Orleans Museum of Art

March 12 to May 11, 1997 The Cleveland Museum of Art

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