This is a big exhibition about the smallest things — a huge space given over to tiny jewels of almost infinite fame. Over 200 treasures all by the iconic jeweller, Fabergé.
A lot of what’s here is going to be obvious, from the gold boxes to the famous eggs, but there’s enough “I never knew they made that” to turn a shop window of jewellery into an education as well.
Did you know Fabergé made hand grenades? And they’re not meant to be decorative.
Fabergé is one of those firms that could only exist at one point in history. When the wealth of the monarchy and nobility was extreme and a jeweller emerged who could tap into their desire for lots of shiny things.
And oh so many shiny things.
About a third of the exhibition space is given over to the Fabergé that people instinctively know about – the Russian royal family and their spendthrift ways, even accepting that many of the items ordered were for gifts to be given away, and to the sort of people who wouldn’t need to pop down to the pawnshop to swap them for something more useful – such as money.
That extravagant opulence in a poor country though being one of the many pressure points that would trigger a revolution.
A third of the display is given over to something less well known — that Fabergé had a London showroom. Their only such shop outside of Russia, and we see how the Russian craftsmen both adapted their work for the English market, but also tapped into a burst of early 20th-century mania for all things Russian, almost going a bit over the top with their Russian designs.
The Bond Street store closed in 1917 when rival jewellers, Lacloche Frères bought up the remaining stock and relabeled it as theirs. So it’s possible that some Frères jewels are actually Fabergé.
There’s almost too much to comment on here, I could list item after item that causes a person to stop and stare. From the small model of one of the factory cleaners to the oddly grotesque metal frog, silver models of horses, and tiny carved stones.
Some of the objects on display are interesting more for the story. A large gold religious icon was shipped from Russian to the UK using normal postage and got stopped by customs. After that, they changed how they shipped valuable items around. The custom made boxes that housed the jewels are here, that famous lid that when opened on an episode of Antiques Roadshow tells you that there will be a lot of pound-signs attached to the object within.
Do look out for the two Tiffany tiaras just before the exhibition turns into the darker rooms, as there’s just enough of a reflection in the glass that you can stand in front of the display case and see your head wearing a tiara.
There’s a modest amount of information boards here to offer a flavour of the company, but one of the best has to be a photo of the Chief Workmaster’s workshop, and you can see two bearded men working on the Rothchild Egg, while it’s still very plain.
But the small display boards by the objects tell much more. To learn that the diamond jewels in a tiara have a specific meaning – representing Cupid’s arrows for example. Or that a tiny silver elephant can move – it’s got a miniature clockwork engine inside. Or that a collection of cigarette cases were annual gifts between two very rich people.
Many of the objects have been loaned to the museum by private collectors, some on public display for the very first time. Unsurprisingly, The Queen, through the Royal Collection owns a lot of Fabergé items, so expect to see her name on lots of display cards.
Fabergé’s downfall was tied, unsurprisingly to the Russian Revolution, and to the wider social changes that took place during WW1, and even Fabergé had to stop making baubles and start making bombs. Hand grenades in fact, and two (disarmed) rare hand grenades are on display, their dull grey appearance looking totally out of odds with the rest of the exhibition, and all the more startling for it.
The jewel in the exhibition though are the eggs, but almost as much, the way they’ve been displayed. A single darkened room with a clever mirror effect and lighting gives the whole space a feeling of something very special, and in here, pillars each holding a couple of the previous jewelled eggs.
You can spend ages staring at them looking for the small details or just stand back a bit and soak up the overall effect of all that miniature work that went into creating them.
There are 15 eggs on display, out of a known 57 Fabergé eggs that still survive, so the exhibition currently houses the largest single collection in one place. On loan of course, and features the largest egg made, the Russian government-owned Moscow Kremlin egg which has never been seen in the UK before.
Three of the eggs haven’t travelled that far though – they belong to The Queen.
As a collective exhibition, the eggs alone would be a draw, but pulling together so many and so wide a range of objects lifts the exhibition to exceptional levels. The V&A has held two Fabergé exhibitions in the past, so based on past gaps between them, there won’t be an exhibition like this again in the UK until the 2040s at the earliest.
Entry is £18 and tickets should be booked in advance from here.