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Art historian Valentin Skurlov: "Faberge, like all court jewelers, actively used diamonds"

05 march 2018

valentin_skurlov_xx.jpgValentin Skurlov is a historian of jewelry art, a candidate of art history, an honorary academician of the Russian Academy of Arts, a scientific secretary and a herald master of the Faberge Memorial Foundation, and a research consultant for the Fabergé masterpieces at Christie's Russian Department. He was born and raised in Leningrad, where graduated from the Leningrad Institute of Soviet Trade in 1975, completing a postgraduate course in Economics and Trade Organization in 1978 and still later a postgraduate course at the Department of Art Studies of the Humanitarian University of Trade Unions. Valentin Skurlov is a member of the Russian Genealogical Society since 1992. He is an expert on the assessment of artistic valuables of the Ministry of Culture and Mass Communications (since 2002) and a full Chevalier of the Order of Carl Faberge.

When and how did the Faberge theme come up in your life?

It first arose in the mid-1980s, when I came to work at the Research Institute of Jewelry and was appointed to head the department for the study of demand, assortments and advertising. At that time, I supervised 25 factories operating under Russia’s Main Administration of the Jewelry Industry, but could not help getting interested in this thing: What was better in our jewelry art than Faberge? In 1989, while studying the archives of Academician Alexander Fersman I found notes on the history of the Faberge firm written by its chief master Franz Birbaum (1872-1947) in 1919. Now these Notes are the "Bible" for any researcher of Faberge's work. I began to study the history of this jewelry house. When the graves with the name of Faberge were found at the Lutheran cemetery in St. Petersburg, I wrote a letter to Carl Faberge’s great-grand-daughter Tatyana living in Switzerland, and then we met and became friends. Then I had the idea to establish the Memorial Foundation of Carl Faberge, for which I developed its Charter, and in 1996 the Foundation was approved in Moscow, and I became the Academic Secretary of the Foundation, and then its Heroldmeister. Currently, there are 680 people who are the holders of the Faberge Foundation awards – these are jewelers and craftsmen, jewelry art activists, art historians and top managers of jewelry businesses. I am a confidant of Tatiana Faberge with whom we are engaged in promoting the artistic creativity of Carl Faberge and have published 12 books in co-authorship.

What are the goals and objectives of the Faberge Foundation?

The goal of the Memorial Foundation is to preserve the memory about the life and work of Carl Faberge and his firm.

There are many tasks: opening memorial plaques and monuments; taking care for the graves; identifying the best jewelers, who preserve and develop the traditions of Faberge; bestowing them with awards and badges of the Foundation (the latter accounts for 680 chevaliers of such awards); publishing literature on this topic; and creating a database of jewelry artworks by the Faberge firm.

Please, tell us about your scientific work.

In the early 1990s, I found genuine invoices for the Imperial Easter Eggs in the archives, which allowed to establish their exact number - 50 artworks. Also, I was the first to draw attention to the importance of attributing the Faberge goods with the help of scratched inventory numbers and developed an algorithm for reading these numbers. The database of jewelry goods produced by the firm, which in 1999 contained 18,000 items, has now increased to 43,000. This database is used by museums, collectors and auction houses. Actively working in the private archive of Tatyana Faberge and being her literary secretary and co-author, I compiled a list of employees of the firm, which in the early 1990s numbered more than 35 people, and today it is more than 450 people.

I have more than 300 publications, which appeared from 1990 to 2017. In 2012, I defended my Ph.D. thesis on "History and traditions of the Faberge firm in the stone carving art of Russia (late XIX - early XXI centuries)." Every year I deliver about 20-40 lectures on Faberge, also taking part in five or seven scientific conferences.

What is your opinion on the collection of Viktor Vekselberg and the St. Petersburg Faberge Museum?

The question is incorrectly posed: there is no Vekselberg collection. Viktor Vekselberg is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the ‘Link of Times’ Foundation. There is a jewelry collection of the ‘Link of Times’ Foundation, some part of which is exhibited in the Faberge Museum opened in late 2013 on the Fontanka embankment. This is the world’s largest and best Faberge Museum in terms of the number of exhibits. Suffice it to say that there are nine Imperial Easter Eggs being displayed in this museum - there are more eggs only in the Armory Chamber of the Moscow Kremlin. The Faberge Museum is now the third by attendance in St. Petersburg after the State Hermitage and the Russian Museum, and it continues to replenish its collection. The Faberge Museum displays more than 600 exhibits of this master, while about 200 to 300 exhibits demonstrate the skills of other firms of Faberge’s contemporaries: Khlebnikov, Ovchinnikov and Sazikov. A large section (more than 70 works) is dedicated to the Moscow enamel workshop of Fjodor Rückert, where orders from Faberge accounted for 80 percent of its business. The Faberge Museum has an insufficient number of stone-cutting goods, there are few pieces made from precious stones, first of all belonging to the "diamond group." The firm’s assortment had no less that 33 percent of jewelry pieces attributed to this group, but its share in the modern antique auction market is no more than 2 or 3 percent.

In what way did Faberge use diamonds in his work?

Faberge, like all court jewelers, actively used diamonds - although, probably, he could use them even more often. Henry C. Bainbridge, Faberge’s first biographer, writes that he was always amazed at how many new "fancy" models Faberge was developing. According to him, it was enough to take a few models, make them cheaper, and it would be enough for quite a hefty piece of bread and butter, as for example diamond jewelry was in great demand in those years. Bainbridge noticed another distinction of the time: some of Western jewelers often turned into usurers taking diamonds of their high-ranking customers as collateral. Usurious transactions brought even more income than the work to improve the product range. This was the reason why the work of Russian jewelers based on creativity was valued higher.

The 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was the time of change in artistic styles. How was it reflected in the work of the Faberge craftsmen?

Initially, diamonds and colored gems were used as an addition to gold - that was in the 1860s, and there appeared jewelry pieces made exclusively of diamonds. ... Their favorite motifs were branches of flowers, spikes and artificial bows with flower petals and leaves being forged and fixed by diamonds. That was the best time for diamond artworks. Jewelry pieces were notable for various pulpy patterns clearly read even at a distance – the vogue was for large diadems, egrets, collar shaped necklaces, corsage breastplates, buckles and large bows.

The next period was influenced by the Empire style with its inherent brevity. The strict lines of meanders and volutes prevented the use of reliefs – diamonds, that were in the same plane, lost part of their fire, destroying each other with their brilliance.

At the end of the XIX century there came the era of Art Nouveau, but the enthusiasm for it soon began to fade. Instead, people turned to be fascinated with small ornaments graced with tiny diamonds. Such work is applicable only in small items - in rings, bracelets, brooches and pendants, in which the eye can distinguish and appreciate the richness of drawings, the completeness of details. Most of these jewelry pieces were made from pure platinum or from its alloy with silver - a beautiful gray tint underlined the whiteness of the diamond.

Excessive use of small diamonds was then considered a mistake: jewelry pieces lost their fire, and this is the main advantage of diamonds. In addition, the abundance of small stones reduced the material value of the object, while at the same time increasing the cost of the work. A successful novelty in the jewelry pieces of that time was the use of colored stones of rectangular shape with one facet - with an even selection of stones, these colored strips placed between diamonds made an excellent impression.

Did Faberge’s products use other precious stones as well?

As for other precious stones, this is too big a topic, which I have not yet studied. But I must note that as early as 1886 the number of employees of the firm was only 28 people, and it was known precisely as a firm producing diamond things. Only in the late 1880's the company expanded its product range, and from the 1890s began to produce stone-cutting goods. In 1887, Faberge opened its branch and jewelry workshop in Moscow (managed by Oscar Pihl, who came from St. Petersburg). In 1890, the firm launched the Moscow Silver Factory. In 1896, the Faberge firm had a staff of 455 workers and 31 apprentices in its units in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The diamond group and the group of precious stones still occupied an important place, but not the leading one - the company turned to be multiproduct.

In addition to Faberge, there were other famous diamond jewelers. According to Franz Birbaum, “the jewelry part of the dowry to the members of the imperial family was entrusted to Bolin, and we made the silver part.” In 1856, the coronation crown of Empress Maria Alexandrovna was made by jeweler Zeftigen. In 1896, jeweler Gahn created the crown for Empress Alexandra Feodorovna assisted by Carl Blank, Mikhail Anikin and Alexander Wahlberg.

By the way, Faberge often used semi-precious and ornamental stones - even carneols collected by the tsar's children in the Crimea - along with diamonds. In this case, the important thing was the beauty of the drawing pattern - and this was the jeweler’s work, which brought profit. Incidentally, Bolin used to buy expensive stones and put them into settings, thus earning a profit of 10 percent, while Faberge earned 100-200%.

He was a genius in general - I've been studying him for almost 30 years.

Galina Semyonova for Rough&Polished