Faberge eggs have always made a strong first impression.
Czar Alexander III gave the first one to his wife, Empress Maria Feodorovna, in 1885, and she was so delighted by its rubies, gold and ingenious construction that the exchange of Faberge eggs became an Easter tradition in the royal family.
Visitors to “Faberge Revealed,” the new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, can get a sense of Maria’s reaction when they see the Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg, the first item in the show.
Created in 1903 from gold, platinum, diamonds, rubies, sapphire, ivory and crystal, it is one of only 50 imperial eggs that Faberge created, 42 of which are still known to exist.
“These, of course, were the most spectacular products of the House of Faberge — and among the most beautiful art objects ever created,” said Dean Lahikainen, curator of American decorative art at the PEM.
But if the many exquisite works in this show leave a lasting impression, it is also because of the story of their production and the bloody times in which they were created.
The House of Faberge produced an estimated 150,000 items in its 35 years of existence, generating around $175 million a year in business, Lahikainen said. And every item they created was unique.
More than 230 of these appear in the exhibit, all from the Lillian Thomas Pratt collection at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which has the largest Faberge collection in the United States.
In addition to four imperial Easter eggs, the exhibit includes a range of utilitarian items like snuff boxes and parasol handles, tankards, cups and serving dishes. There are also cases filled with miniature carvings of animals inspired by Japanese netsuke, made from silver or semiprecious stones native to Russia.
“They were whimsical creations, things to delight, to put on a shelf and enjoy,” Lahikainen said.
Most of the jewelry Faberge created was sold by the Bolsheviks after they murdered the Romanov family during the Russian revolution, but there is no shortage of precious materials or exquisite craftsmanship in this exhibit.
A green jade cup adorned with gold, rubies and sapphire features a handle in the shape of Neptune’s trident.
There is a chess set made of aventurine quartz, which Czar Nicholas II commissioned for one of his generals, a sort of consolation prize when he was defeated by the Japanese; and a small gold column bearing an enamel portrait of the czar that is encircled — and crowned — by gems.
Peter Faberge, the man behind the eggs, inherited his father’s small jewelry business in St. Petersburg in 1872 and within 25 years had transformed it into an international firm.
The items he created and sold in St. Petersburg, which appear in the first gallery of the exhibit, were designed to appeal to the contemporary tastes of that city’s cosmopolitan and international elite.
His Moscow complex, represented by items in the second gallery, produced goods in traditional Russian styles for a more conservative, nationalistic clientele.
Faberge’s success was due in part to the high standards he pursued in workmanship and choice of materials, Lahikainen said, but also to the innovations he introduced, which included collaborative production methods that employed 500 master craftsmen and another 1,000 workers.
He was also an innovator in marketing, pioneering the concept of the collectible and introducing new lines of goods each year, Lahikainen said.
Faberge’s work was rewarded in 1885 when the Romanovs made his firm their official supplier of luxury goods, which allowed him to use their double-headed eagle crest on everything he made.
While this anointed his works with prestige, it also yoked Faberge’s rise and fall to that of the Romanovs, and it may lead some visitors to reflect on the somber story that surrounds all these beautiful creations.
The interplay of luxury and tragedy is especially poignant in the last gallery, which draws elements from the interior of a palace outside St. Petersburg where the Romanovs lived while their empire crumbled.
“This is where the family took refuge and spent their final days under house arrest,” Lahikainen said. “They spent most of their time surrounded by Faberge objects, religious icons and the royal Easter eggs.”
Some Faberge religious icons are grouped on a gallery wall, and the three remaining Easter eggs are also displayed here, in a darkened portion of the gallery that makes their brilliance even more apparent.
Each of the 50 eggs had a commemorative theme, and two of these celebrated Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna’s charity work, while a third commemorates the survival of the Romanovs’ son, Alexei, whose hemophilia had nearly killed him.
There are also a great number of Faberge frames in this gallery, with photographs of the Romanovs, which they distributed to promote their image as a “normal” family, Lahikainen said.
Clearly, no one was persuaded that these were average Russians, and it is hard not to dwell on the Romanovs’ personal fates while looking at their faces from across a century of turbulent history.
A photo of Grand Duchess Tatiana, one of the the czar’s daughters, is held in a Faberge frame that is shaped like a star and was one of the few possessions the family took with them when they were forced to leave the palace.
“That’s one of the few possessions we can document with the Romanovs at the time of their mass murder in 1918,” Lahikainen said.
IF YOU GO ... What: "Faberge Revealed" When: Now through Sept. 29. Open Tuesday - Sunday, 10 to 5; open till 9:30 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month. Where: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem Tickets: $5, which includes audio tour, in addition to museum admission. Regular museum admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors; $11 for students. Youth (16 and under) and Salem residents free. Information: www.pem.org, 866-745-1876.