Glittering competition: the rivals of Faberge

To many collectors of nineteenth-century silver and objets de vertu, imperial Russia is the fount of Europe's most exotic work. And even for those who can only dream of its legacy de luxe, mention of Mother Russia immediately triggers thoughts of one name, Fabergé.

But regardless of its preeminence on the international market, thanks to the firm's shop in London (in addition to the main establishment in Moscow, and branches in Saint Petersburg, Odessa, and, briefly, Kiev),1 Fabergé was by no means alone in the field, and this was especially so in the production of Russian silver wares, one of the most engaging areas of the decorative arts. Actually Fabergé produced only jewelry until 1887, when the Moscow branch, specializing in silver for dining and display, opened.2

Russia's long-standing appetite for sil------ver was rooted in the Middle Ages and Renaissance when most of the traditional forms of hollowware were devised-notably the bratina---a form of loving cup, the charka-a shallow one-handed drinking cup resembling an English porringer, and the boat-shaped kovsh-a ladle with a characteristic flat handle. In the Westernized atmosphere inaugurated by Peter I (the Great; r. 1682-1725), and perpetuated by his successors during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Russian silver design often followed the French trends that dominated the rest of Europe (see Fig. 3). But the 1840s witnessed the beginning of a revival of traditional forms and design motifs in what was called the pan-Slavic or pan-Russian style. Fired by the demand of Russia's enormously wealthy aristocratic community-not to mention its burgeoning industrialist families--Russian silvermaking firms, and the legions of gifted workmasters they employed, executed many variations of these forms, and their decoration lent a truly national distinction to their wares.

By the time Peter Carl Fabergé's father, Gustav (1814-1893), set up shop in Saint Petersburg in 1842, Russia could boast a great number of important silver firms. Among these, Sazikov was the earliest. Founded as a workshop in Moscow by the merchant Pavel Sazikov (active 1793-1830) in 1793, the firm was described as a "factory" by 1810, suggesting how greatly the business had expanded by then, though the workshop remained family run. Pavel's son Ignatii (1796-1868) succeeded him, and opened a Saint Petersburg branch in 1842, having been accorded the title of court supplier and the right to incorporate the imperial double eagle in the firm's trademark in 1846. Following Ignatii Sazikov's death in 1868, the firm was run by his three sons, Ser-gei and Pavel in Moscow and Valentin in Saint Petersburg. Although the Saint Petersburg branch closed in 1877, the Moscow branch continued operations for another ten years, until it was taken over by the relatively new firm of Ivan Khlebnikov.3

During the Sazikov firm's long existence, its productions-including high quality silver----ware, as well as cast-silver sculpture and silver decorated with cloisonné enamels-reflected successive trends in design, from the French taste of the era of Alexander I (r. 1801-1825) through the chased naturalistic and stylized floral motifs popular in the mid-century and later.

 

Of considerable historical significance is the Sazikov punch set of 1874 to 1875 in Figure 5, presented by imperial order in 1894 to the English explorer Captain Joseph Wiggins (1832-1905), who in 1874 had pioneered the practicability of the Kara Sea route through the Arctic Ocean to the Yenisei River, which enabled direct shipping and trade between Britain and inland Siberia. Weighing nearly four hundred troy ounces (approximately 27.4 pounds avoirdupois), the set includes the punchbowl, ladle, twenty-four mugs (all with gilt interiors), and a large tray. The rim of each mug is chased with one of several proverbs in Old Slavonic characters, and the sides are engraved with traditional geometric designs. The bowl, supported by an engraved and pierced spreading foot, is decorated with similar motifs and applied with four flat panels engraved to imitate old woven hangings. Two sculptural cast silver handles, in the shape of peasant girls, each support a flat traylike disk to hold a mug, while a separate removable pierced and shaped panel can sit across the bowl to hold additional mugs. Given the potent concoctions that typified nineteenth-century punch, the czar's gift was not without its irony, for Wiggins was, in his own words, "a rigid teetotaler."4

Sazikov's successor, Khlebnikov, who opened his Moscow workshop about 1870, won prizes at the great European exhibitions and achieved international fame for enameled silver. Among the Khlebnikov specialties were silver chasing and casting to simulate wood, birch bark, and fabric.5 This kind of trompe-l'oeil design was an extremely popular aspect of the pan-Slavic style, and in addition to boxes and cigar cases engraved to look like actual cigar boxes, including their labels and tariff stamps, Khlebnikov and other makers also produced trays and salvers in the form of woven reed fruit baskets, sometimes with a draped napkin and occasionally a leafy fruited twig, entirely done in chased and wrought silver (see Fig. 4). These were so popular abroad that Tiffany and Company in the United States retailed imported examples, and firms like Gorham copied them for their own market.6 

 

Khlebnikov was one of several makers also celebrated for their cloisonné and plique-à-jour enameling, in which powdered colored glass or vitreous paste is applied to the silver and then kiln fired. For cloisonné enamels, the outlines of the overall design are formed by an intricate network of fine silver wire soldered to the surface of the piece. Each of the cloisons (cells) formed by the network is filled with a separate color, and the piece is then fired. Like cloisonné, plique-à-jour (literally "open to light") is also set into a wire framework, but to achieve translucence, there is no silver backing. Hence it is the most fragile of all enamels and produces an effect like that of a miniature stained-glass window.

The four silver-gilt pieces in Figure 7 exemplify the delicate plique-à-jour mastery of Khlebnikov and the rival firms of Ovchinnikov and Grachev, which are discussed below. Although plique-à-jour was also used with plain silver, in each of these examples the warm iridescence of the gilding lends particular richness to the jewellike colors of the transluscent enamel. Moreover, while the spoon and the charka, with its characteristic flat handle, reflect the pan-Slavic revival of traditional Russian styles, the lobed simplicity of the two Khlebnikov bowls shows the influence of the German Jugendstil and Vienna Secession style.

Nichols and Plinke, which was the most important Saint Petersburg luxury firm before the advent of Fabergé, began with the 1829 partnership of the Englishman Charles Nichols and the workshop of William Plinke, which had been in business since 1815. Their success was due in part to their production of extremely popular copies of silver pieces imported from England. In 1852 they produced an order of forty coffee sets for the court of Nicholas I (r. 1825-1855), as well as hundreds of other pieces ordered to expand the existing court services. The extensive tea and coffee set in Figure 2, made in 1879, presumably as a wedding gift for Alexander III's cousin, the Grand Duchess Anastasia Mik-hail-ovna, who that year married Friedrich Franz III, grand duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, displays the firm's sophisticated restraint in silver design during this period.7 Though the vessels and tray are ornamented with bands of geometric patterns, there is a satisfying balance between ornamented and unornamented areas, allowing the sheer beauty of the polished silver itself to offer a textural contrast.     

Though the Morozov firm, founded in 1849 by Ivan Yevdokimovich Morozov (d. 1885) in Saint Petersburg, was primarily a retailer of silver fashioned by other makers, Morozov himself was a master goldsmith whose workshop was regarded as one of the finest in Russia.8 Granted the imperial warrant as court supplier of sil--ver and enameled works in 1884,9 Morozov produced silver that is often distinctive for its neoclassical elegance and restraint (see Fig. 6), evocative of the great Georgian goldsmith Paul Storr (1771-1844).

A handsome architectural style silver-gilt tea caddy, dated 1859, with reserves in niello showing four views of the Kremlin is a characteristic product of Vasilii Semenov, who founded his workshop in 1852 (Fig. 9). The firm, which continued production into the early twentieth century, was cel--ebrated for its niello silver wares.10 An alloy of copper, sil--ver, lead, and sulphur, niello was powdered after smelting and rubbed into designs engraved on polished silver and gold. When fired in a kiln the powder fused into a black enamel-like substance that dramatically emphasized the design against the silver or gold surface. Niello work, a technique adopted from Byzantine craftsmen, was already identified as a Rus---sian specialty in the pioneering technical treatise On Divers Arts by Theophilus, a German Benedictine monk and metalsmith writing around 1125.11 Its dra-m---atic effects remained closely identified with Russian silver and gold design throughout the ensuing centuries and played an important part in the nineteenth-century revival of older styles.

Another preeminent jeweler and silversmith, Pavel Akimovich Ovchinnikov founded his Moscow firm in 1853. He was the first Russian silver maker to embrace the pan-Slavic revival style, and in 1868 nearly two de-cades before Fabergé, the firm received the title of court supplier, allowing it to incorporate the imperial double eagle in its trademark. A silver gilt covered bratina dated 1878 (Fig. 8) reveals a skillful combination of a traditional shape with cloisonné enamel. The cloisonné designs are accented with a central reserve of heraldic beasts done in what was then the more modern shaded-enamel technique, in which colors and tints are blended naturalistically, with no metal separating the colors.

The year 1866 witnessed the establishment of Gustav Klingert's firm in Moscow. Specializing in cloisonné enamel work in the traditional style, without shading, Klingert silver tends to recall medieval geometric motifs. The handsome simplicity of a four-piece tea and coffee set dated 1894, with ivory finials and enameled with polychrome foliage, attests to the aesthetics for which the jury at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 named Klingert one of the most important exhibitors (Fig. 10).12 

In Saint Petersburg, Grachev, founded by Gavriil Petrovich Grachev (c. 1830-1873) in 1866, was celebrated for its work in a variety of styles including neo-baroque, neoclassical, and art nouveau, as well as the production of sculpture in silver electroplate. After receiving the imperial warrant in 1896, Grachev Brothers, as the firm was known after several sons (there were eight in all) succeeded their late father in 1873, continued to produce fine work in gold, silver, and enamel until 1917 (see Figs.  7, 11).

 

One of the greatest names in enameled silver is that of Feodor Rückert, whose silver gilt, shaded and matte black enamel punchbowl and ladle of about 1910 represent the imaginative and virtuosic aspects of his work (see cover). Alive with vivid depictions of bears, convivial warriors, maidens, and hoary sages whose enameled features are further enlivened by the three-dimensional effects of repoussé surfaces, the punchbowl embodies the haunting nostalgia for a Russian Neverland that was so much a part of late nineteenth-century aristocratic culture. Rückert was active from before 1890, and though he sold most of his work through Fabergé, he also sold directly to clients, and through other firms.

Quite a number of companies were formed fairly late in the century, among them the Moscow firms of Feodor Lorie, founded in 1871, and Orest Kurliukov (see Fig. 13), founded in 1884, both known for their contributions to the Pan-Slavic revival style. Between 1884 and its closing in 1897, Ivan Dmitrievich Saltikov (active 1884-1897) ran a master workshop, producing exceedingly high quality objects with cloisonné and en plein enamels of particularly brilliant colors.13 Similarly, in Saint Petersburg between 1890 and 1917 the firm established by Karl Hahn (1836-d. by 1903) and taken over by his son Dmitrii Karlovich (d. 1911) produced objets de fantasie in gold, silver, and guilloché enamel, not to mention the imperial crown of the last empress, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918).14

In addition to these, and numerous other makers such as Olga Mukhina (active c. 1895) and Antip Ivanovich Kuzmichev (see Fig. 1), both in Moscow, there were small cooperatives of makers known as artels in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Kiev in the 1890s. Each artel tended to specialize in a particular style. In Moscow, for example, the Sixth Artel produced pieces entirely covered with cloisonné enamel most often in olive green, blue, and cream while the cloisonné work of the Eleventh and Twentieth Artels was influenced by art nouveau, combining triangular and rectangular cells with spirals and volutes and often traditional floral motifs. The Eleventh Artel specialized in a soft watercolor-like style in its enamel colors while the Twentieth favored shaded blues.15 The silver-gilt casket in Figure 12, made by the Eleventh Artel about 1907 to 1917, combines a strong profile based on medieval forms-the cove-shaped edge of the lid further accented by the bold splay of the feet-with equally strong cloisonné patterns in their characteristic palette of blue, violet, maroon, and green. 

Despite the beauty of their works, very little is known about the actual members of the various artels. But as Redmond, Washington, dealer John Atzbach observes, "there were a prodigious number of silversmiths in nineteenth-century Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and many of them are still not known by anything more than their hallmarks, which appear regularly on pieces in the market. So there is considerable room for scholarly research in this field." 

Rooted as it was in Byzantine techniques, the intricate polychrome splendor of nineteenth-century Russian silver recalls an observation by the British diplomat Lord Frederic Hamilton (1856-1928), who was posted in Saint Petersburg during the 1880s: "To grasp the Russian mentality," he wrote, "it must be remembered that...Russia is not the most Eastern outpost of Western civilization; it is the most Western outpost of the East."16 Starting in 1825 with the reign of Nicholas I, Russia's silversmiths and goldsmiths gave full rein to this predilection for visual extravagance. And though virtually all these firms perished along with the imperial court, it is our great good fortune that their surviving works perpetuate their sumptuous legacy.

 

I am grateful to Karen Kettering, vice-president and specialist in Russian works of art at Sotheby's New York, for graciously helping to confirm a number of points in this article.

 1 Henry Charles Bainbridge, Peter Carl Fabergé, Goldsmith and Jeweller to the Russian Imperial Court: His Life and Work (1949; reprint Spring Books, London, 1966), p. 22.  2 Andrei Akimovich Gilodo, Russkoe Serebro/Russian Silver (Beresta, Moscow, 1994), p. 35.  3 Ibid., p. 33. According to Alexander von Solodkoff, Russian Gold and Silverwork, 17th-19th Century (Rizzoli, New York, 1981), p. 205, Sazikov received the imperial warrant in 1846, and the firm remained in business until 1917.  4 Henry Johnson, The Life and Voyages of Joseph Wiggins, F.R.G.S. (E. P. Dutton, New York, 1907), pp. 278, 313.  5 Gilodo, Russian Silver, p. 39.  6 For examples see Charles H. Carpenter Jr., Gorham Silver, 1831-1981 (Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, 1982), pp. 117-118. In addition, I possess a reproduction of a Gorham archival photograph from the 1880s of an unpublished Gorham example, pattern no. 5757, a fruit plate formed as a polished bowl holding a sprig of cherries and resting on a base of whitened silver chased to represent a fringed linen napkin.  7 Marriage date in the Almanach de Gotha, 1915 (Justus Perthes, Gotha, 1915), p. 61.   8 Solodkoff, Russian Gold and Silverwork, p. 199.  9 Gilodo, Russian Silver, p. 36.  10 Ibid.  11 Theo-philus (pseud.), On Divers Arts, trans. J. G. Hawthorne and Cyril Stanley Smith (1963; new ed., Dover Publications, New York, 1979), p. 13. The prologue assures readers that the book will teach them, among other important aspects of painting, glassmaking, and metalwork, "whatever Russia has learned in the working of enamels and variegation with niello."  12 Solodkoff, Russian Gold and Silverwork, p. 207.  13 Ibid., p. 208.  14 Bainbridge, Peter Carl Fabergé, Goldsmith and Jeweller, p. 9.  15 Solodkoff, Russian Gold and Silverwork, p. 206. 
16 Lord Frederic Hamilton, The Vanished Pomps of Yesterday (1919; rev. ed., Doubleday, Doran and Company, New York, 1934), p. 101.

BARRYMORE LAURENCE SCHERER
is a contributing editor of Antiques, and includes Russian silver among his many interests.

 

 

 

 

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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