In 1885, Tsar Alexander III came up with the perfect Easter gift for his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna: a one-of-a-kind egg commissioned from Peter Carl Fabergé, a master goldsmith of the jewelry company, House of Fabergé.
The Hen Egg was a simple white enamel egg that twisted apart to reveal a golden yolk, the yolk opened to show a golden hen, and in the hen was a diamond crown and a tiny ruby pendant egg. The empress was so delighted that the tsar gave a royal order to the House of Fabergé and from that year through 1893, ten opulent eggs were made for the Russian court every Easter. Alexander’s son, Nicholas II, continued the tradition, and commissioned 40 more eggs, giving one to his mother and one to his wife Alexandra every year, each more elaborate than the last.
They were the ultimate achievement of the renowned Russian jewelry house. So imaginatively conceived and opulently executed, Fabergé's work elevates jewelry to a decorative art unequaled since the Renaissance. The eggs are laden with gold and other precious metals, drip with diamonds, pearls, rubies, emeralds and other gemstones and hide surprises, ranging from more jewels to family photos, miniature clocks and hand-wound automata. Year by year, Fabergé's eggs reached new heights of invention and extravagance. According to author and Fabergé expert, Géza von Habsburg, "They are the absolute summit of craftsmanship. They are unbelievably made. They were the sort of apogee of what Fabergé was able to do, and he lavished everything he could on them."
The celebrated series of 50 Imperial Easter eggs are considered the last great commissions of objets d’art. They are also inextricably linked to the glory and tragic fate of the last Romanov family. During the Russian Revolution, the eggs were taken from the palace, and carefully packed and stashed at the Kremlin in Moscow. The Russian government later sold many of them when it ran low on funds.
Today, the 43 known eggs that have survived and been recovered are scattered around the world in private collections and museums, and each one is worth millions. The Kremlin Armoury in Moscow has ten, the largest number in any one place. The Fabergé Museum, which opened in 2013, is home to nine imperial eggs, among a trove of other Fabergé objects, all from the collection of Russian businessman Viktor Vekselberg. He bought the collection for $100 million in 2004 from American entrepreneur and magazine publisher Malcolm S. Forbes.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has five from the collection of Lillian Thomas Pratt, and three eggs that belonged to Matilda Geddings Gray reside at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and are on display through November. Queen Elizabeth also owns three Imperial Eggs that form part of the Royal Collection.
Occasionally, a missing egg magically appears: In 2015 a scrap dealer found one at a junk sale, paying about $14,000 for it. He planned to scrap it for its parts until he searched online for “Vacheron Constantin,” which was engraved on the clock inside, and “egg,” which led him to a 2011 newspaper article about the search for the Third Imperial Easter Egg. He had the egg appraised and it turned out to be the missing one, worth $33 million. With as many as seven eggs still out there, the greatest royal Easter egg hunt in history continues.
All of the Fabergé eggs are stunning masterpieces, and here are ten that we would love to find in our Easter baskets:
The Hen Egg, 1885
The Hen Egg is particularly significant, as it was the first imperial Easter egg created by Peter Carl Fabergé for Czar Alexander III to present to his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna, in 1885. Inspired by an 18th century original, the czar himself had a hand in the design and requested that the final surprise "be a small pendant egg of some precious stone." This was so well received that it paved the way for further commissions from the imperial family and others with a taste for exquisite jewels and objets. The Hen Egg has an opaque white enameled outer "shell," opening with a twist to reveal a first surprise: a matte yellow gold yolk. This in turn contains an enameled chased gold hen that once held a replica of the Imperial Crown with a precious ruby pendant egg within. The drop by itself cost more than half of the egg’s total price (both have been lost to history, being only known from an old photograph). On view at the Fabergé Museum.
Renaissance Egg, 1894
According to Fabergé, this was to be the last egg commissioned by Alexander III before Nicholas II took over the Easter tradition of gifting Fabergé eggs to his wife and mother every year. This piece is inspired by an oval agate casket by Le Roy in the Dresden Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vaults), the museum founded by Augustus the Strong in 1723. Cleverly transformed by Fabergé into an egg shape, it is particularly intricate and delicate, with an exceptionally gentle mixture of materials and colors featuring Fabergé’s signature detailing. The egg is made of white agate and covered with a dainty trellis connecting individual flowers set with rubies, diamonds, and pearls. A red enamel band divides the two egg halves, and the top bears the date 1894 set in rose diamonds. On either side of the egg is a lion’s mask with gold swing handles. Sadly, the egg’s surprise was lost, but it is believed to have featured pearls. On view at the Fabergé Museum.
Rosebud Egg, 1895
This egg, applied with diamond-set Cupid’s arrows symbolizing love, was the first egg that Tsar Nicholas II gave his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, a few months after their marriage in 1895. Widely acknowledged as predominantly honoring the new Empress and her love of roses, the egg is crafted from multi-colored gold, decorated with bands of rose-cut diamonds, and covered with a translucent, red guilloché enamel. The rosebud surprise inside is a beautiful yellow enamel rose — yellow roses were most precious in her native Germany at the time. At its apex, the egg has a miniature portrait of the young Emperor under a table-cut diamond. Inside, they contained further surprises: a diamond-set crown and a ruby drop, but these have been lost since the Russian Revolution. On view at the Fabergé Museum.
Lilies of the Valley Egg, 1898
You can almost smell the lilies as you look at this egg. Crafted of pink guilloché enamel and done in an Art Nouveau style, it was presented by Emperor Nicholas II to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna and is virtually smothered with pearl- and diamond-set lilies of the valley sprays, her favorite flower. It is also designed in her most-liked style and stands on four cabriolet feet entwined with diamond-set foliage. When one of the pearls is twisted, the diamond crown on top of the egg opens to reveal the surprise miniature portraits of Nicholas II and their two daughters, Tatiana and Olga. On view at the Fabergé Museum.
The Basket of Flowers, 1901
Fabergé loved flowers and florals feature prominently in the Fabergé archive and are a focal point for nine imperial eggs. This one has a colorful bouquet of enamel wildflowers including pansies, cornflowers, daisies and mock orange that celebrates the arrival of spring. The bouquet also features leaves and husks cast in gold. The silver gilt–and-oyster guilloche enamel egg-shaped basket is mounted with a rose-diamond trellis and oval handle with four bows, all on a blue enamel base with a continuation of the diamond trellis. It was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas II as an Easter present for Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna in 1901 and she reportedly displayed the egg in her study at the Winter Palace — perhaps a reminder of the first blooms of spring after a long, cold winter. This egg is part of the Royal Collection Trust.
Rose Trellis Egg, 1907
The Rose Trellis Easter Egg commemorates the birth of the long-awaited Czarevitch Alexei Nikolaevich in 1904 and was presented by Tsar Nicholas II to his wife, Alexandra Fedorovna, in 1907. It was constructed by combining gold with translucent green and pink enamel, as well as a lattice of rose-cut diamond trellises. This delicate design is enhanced by a pink rose within each lattice, surrounded by gold vines and minuscule emerald-green leaves. The surprise is now missing, but according to the original Fabergé invoice, it was a diamond necklace with a medallion miniature of the Grand Duke Czarevitch Alexei Nikolaevich. In a photograph of the empress taken in June 1908, she is wearing a similar necklace, which could well be the missing surprise. On view at the Walters Art Museum.
The Peacock Egg, 1908
This famous Fabergé Peacock egg was commissioned by Tsar Nicholas and presented to his mother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, in 1908. Quite simple in style, the transparent egg is composed of rock crystal and gilt silver wire and is held together by a clasp at the top, which, when opened, falls into two halves, each with a rococo-style mount. The genius of the egg is in its surprise. Inside the egg sits a 4-inch-long mechanical gold and enameled peacock in the branches of an engraved gold tree with flowers made of enamel and precious stones. The peacock can be lifted from within the tree and wound up. Placed on a flat surface, it struts around, moving its head and spreading and closing its enamel tail. Clocksmith Semion Lvovich Dorofeyev, the Fabergé workmaster, reportedly worked on the peacock and its prototypes for three years.
Bay-Tree Egg, 1911
This egg, also known as the Orange Tree Egg, was presented by Emperor Nicholas II to his mother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, and is inspired by a French 18th century singing bird automaton. According to the Fabergé invoice, the bay tree comprises “325 nephrite leaves, 110 opalescent white enamel flowers, 25 diamonds, 20 rubies, 53 pearls, 219 rose-cut diamonds and one large rose-cut diamond." When the clockwork automation is wound up and set in motion, a little feathered bird appears at the top, flaps its wings, turns its head, opens its beak and sings.
The Winter Egg, 1913
The Winter Egg, made from more than 1,600 diamonds, as well as platinum, rock crystal and a cabochon moonstone, was designed by Alma Pihl and made by workmaster Albert Holmström. It is considered a highly important Imperial Easter egg. It was a gift in 1913 for Tsarina Maria Feodorovna from Tsar Nicholas II. The price in 1913 was 24,700 rubles, the most expensive Easter egg ever made. On a rock-crystal base formed as a block of melting ice, the thinly carved transparent body of the egg is finely engraved on the interior to simulate ice crystals, and the outside is further engraved and applied in carved channels with similar rose-diamond set platinum motifs. It opens vertically to reveal the surprise: a platinum double-handled trellis-work basket set with rose diamonds and full of wood anemones. Suspended from a platinum hook, each flower is realistically carved from a single piece of white quartz, with gold wire stem and stamens, and the centers are set with a demantoid garnet, some carved half open or in a bud. The leaves are delicately carved in nephrite, emerging from a bed of gold moss. The egg left Russia after the Revolution and ended up in a private collection. It was first sold at auction in 1994 at Christie's in Geneva for $5.6 million, the world record at that time for a Fabergé item sold at auction. The egg later sold for $9.6 million in an auction at Christie's in New York City in 2002.
The Mosaic Egg, 1914
Presented by Czar Nicholas II to his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna in 1914, the magnificent Mosaic Egg is considered one of the most iconic of all. Crafted from gold and platinum and pink and white enamel, the egg is pavé-set with a rainbow of rose diamonds, rubies, emeralds, topaz, sapphires, and garnets. Pearls and larger diamonds form bands around the egg, and the czarina’s initials are set in moonstone. The five oval panels around the center of the egg feature an elaborate and complex arrangement of gemstones creating a pattern like petit-point tapestry work. Considered one of the most sophisticated and extraordinary of Fabergé’s Imperial Easter Eggs, its surprise remains intact: an ivory medallion with profiles of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra's five children on one side and a basket of flowers and their names on the reverse. This egg is part of the Royal Collection Trust.