Women Artists

A Piece of Winter: The Most Beautiful Fabergé Egg

Guest Profile 16 May 2024 min Read

It is always a joy to discover artifacts that capture the zeitgeist of particular historical periods. The Winter Egg designed at the House of Fabergé achieves exactly this. Looking like a piece of Russian winter, it truly exemplifies the Silver Age of Russian art. And what’s even more fascinating is that it was designed by the only female jewelry artisan working for the renowned House of Fabergé.

Fabergé eggs are the epitome of lavishness and grandeur. They were made specifically for the Russian court and like matryoshka dolls, they opened up to reveal little precious surprises hidden inside. These masterpieces carry the name of the renowned founder of the house—Carl Fabergé. At the turn of the 20th century, his oeuvre rivaled that of Tiffany’s and Cartier.

faberge winter egg: Fabergé’s premises at 173 New Bond Street, London in 1911. Image Credit: The Fersman Mineralogical Museum, Moscow and Wartski, London.

Fabergé’s premises at 173 New Bond Street, London in 1911. Image Credit: The Fersman Mineralogical Museum, Moscow and Wartski, London.

Something Special for Easter

The Winter Egg is not only the most beautiful but also the most precious of all Fabergé eggs. It was sold for 24,600 roubles, the biggest sum that Emperor Nicholas II ever paid to delight his mother Marie Feodorovna with one of these creations. The Emperor had a rather extravagant tradition of commissioning two special eggs every Easter for his mother and wife, and the jeweler was given the unenviable task of creating utterly original masterpieces every time. If they failed, he would risk the Emperor’s displeasure – or, even worse, that of the two most important women in his life.

faberge winter egg: Fabergé easter eggs. Elle Decor.

Fabergé easter eggs. Elle Decor.

A Hidden Gem in the Fabergé Workshop

But what I find most fascinating of all is that even though it is the most exquisite Fabergé egg ever made, the Winter Egg was not designed by Mr Fabergé. It was created behind the scenes by the only female artisan at the House of Fabergé—Alma Pihl.

She had already proven herself in the company by designing a line of icicle brooches for Dr Emanuel Nobel’s ball. Nobel wanted something unique as it was his habit to leave special presents, hidden in white linen napkins for each of his female guests. Pihl exceeded all expectations by delivering a little piece of winter to his ball brooches with a true frost-flower design. One can only imagine the spell-binding sight of the select beauties of Saint Petersburg wearing these wintery creations in their ball gowns and reflecting the light of the crystal chandeliers.

faberge winter egg: Photographs of Alma Pihl, 1910s. Faberge’s website.

Photographs of Alma Pihl, 1910s. Faberge’s website.

Even though Dr. Nobel held exclusive rights to this collection, no one could refuse the Emperor. As if carved out of ice, the egg’s wintery shell simulates the appearance of hoarfrost flowers. The crystal base it sits on is like a block of melting ice dripping with rivulets of diamonds. When the egg opens, it reveals a delightful surprise: a basket of white wood anemones. The way these gentle flowers made out of precious stones spring out of the frosty egg symbolizes the beautiful harshness of winter, which gives way to spring. It also stands for resurrection and the fact that we should never lose hope even after the longest of winters.

faberge winter egg: Alma Pihl, The Winter Egg, 1913. In the private collection of Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Doha, Qatar.

Alma Pihl, The Winter Egg, 1913. In the private collection of Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Doha, Qatar.

This design is one of a kind. It differs from the neoclassical style of Fabergé’s previous eggs, as if Alma Pihl managed to freeze a piece of winter into eternity with her ravishing artwork. She is rumored to have been inspired by the hoarfrost covering the workshop’s windows. It is wonderful to imagine her, pencil in hand, trying to think of a suitable design while winter itself drew upon the windows and captured her imagination. There doesn’t seem to be an official record of the egg’s reception but what speaks louder than any words is the fact that Pihl was invited to design an imperial egg again the year after that and this time it was for the Emperor’s wife, Alexandra.

“The Fabergé Girl”: A Behind-the-Scenes Exploration

The Winter Egg was an exceptional opportunity for a young artist to prove herself while at the same time a huge responsibility. Thinking of this young woman developing the costliest and most beautiful design of any Fabergé egg ever for a group of male artisans to execute is truly inspirational. And yet, she seems to be largely forgotten by history. Standing in the shadow of the larger-than-life and hugely famous Mr Fabergé, she is a footnote to his story. This is what inspired me to write my book, “The Fabergé Girl” to shine a light on her incredible imagination.

faberge winter egg: Front cover of The Faberge Girl (May 2024) by Ina Christova.

Front cover of The Faberge Girl (May 2024) by Ina Christova.

I think that all Fabergé eggs have something both beautiful and cursed about them. They are like artifacts of an Atlantis, a world that no longer exists. The Winter Egg is the chief one amongst them and after the revolution, it was like a piece of bygone Russian winter that attracted collectors’ attention and was sold at auction a couple of times.

Alma Pihl had a similarly tragic fate as she spent the last years of her life in exile in Finland, trying to hide her affiliation with the House of Fabergé. This is also part of the reason for her shadowy reflection in history. But it gives me great pleasure to know that it was a female jeweler who knew best how to delight the two capricious Empresses and who was able to create the most enduring of all Fabergé egg designs, which should be known as Alma Pihl’s Winter Egg.

Ina will be speaking about The Faberge Girl at Blackwells Oxford, UK, on 24th June.

Author’s bio:

Ina Christova is a Bulgarian writer. When not traveling around the world, she splits her time between London and Oxford. She completed an MA in English and German Literature where she was the recipient of the Eleanor Boyle and Kathleen Major prizes for her writing. Ina’s work has been longlisted for the Blue Pencil First Novel Awards and MsLexia, was shortlisted for the Adventures in Fiction Award and it won last year’s Novel London Literary Competition. The first draft of The Fabergé Girl was completed on the selective Curtis Brown Creative Course in London.

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