Alma Pihl: A Woman in the House of Fabergé

Nestled in the Russian State Archives is the original bill sent in 1913 to Tsar Nicholas II from the renowned court jeweler, Fabergé, for the purchase of the most expensive Imperial Easter Egg ever made – the 1913 Winter Egg.blog2begg-winter-faberg25c325a9

The bill records the price as 24,600 rubles; the highest ever paid. It also details the egg’s composition: a total of 3,038 diamonds used.

These numbers, though superlative, are not surprising given the opulence and grandeur of the Russian Court.

However, what is surprising about this Egg is that it was designed by a 25-year old female employee named Alma Pihl.pietari_almapihl

Alma Pihl was the niece of Albert Holmstrom, an important workmaster at Fabergé’s St. Petersburg workshop.

In 1909, seeing the girl had some artistic talent, Albert Holmstrom secured a job for Alma (aged 20) as an apprentice draftsmen. For the first two years of her employment with Fabergé, she made full-scale, accurate sketches of the pieces the firm constructed for cost and accounting purposes.

Although she was kept busy with record-book sketches, Alma managed to make some drawings of original designs. Her uncle Albert noticed these, took a chance, and showed them to the sales department. The sales team thought they were excellent and Alma graduated to a position as an assistant designer.

In January of 1912, an urgent commission came in from Dr. Emmanuel Nobel, an important client of Fabergé. He wanted 40 brooches to give to the wives of his customers. His instructions were that he wanted a brand new design using a relatively inexpensive material so the brooches couldn’t be perceived as bribes.

Alma, looking out the workshop’s draughty frosted windows, suddenly got the idea to design the pieces around frost flowers – the icy blossoms she has seen almost daily in the Russian winters. The brooches were fabricated using rock crystal as the main material and accented with platinum and diamonds in the spiky jagged shapes of frost.

This new design was so successful, Dr. Nobel commissioned many more pieces to follow. Riding on the design’s popularity, when it came time to design the Easter Egg for the Tsar the following year, Alma was asked to do so.

What resulted is the most documented, spectacular, and pricey Imperial Easter Egg ever made.1913winter1

The 1913 Winter Egg is made of finely carved transparent rock crystal. Frost-like patterns are edged on the inside and out. To add to the frozen effect, jagged platinum and diamond fittings adorn the exterior. Inside, the ‘surprise’ is a small trellis basket made of platinum and diamonds filled with spring flowers carved from white quartz with gold stems and stamen; demantoid garnet centers, and carved nephrite leaves on a bed of golden moss. The egg rests on a detachable rock crystal base carved to affect a melting block of ice fitted with platinum and diamond rivulets.

The entire effect is one of winter giving way to the emergence of spring.

The Winter Egg is, thankfully, not one of the ‘lost’ eggs.

In 1927, the Winter Egg was one of nine Imperial Eggs sold by the Antikvariat (a committee set up by the Bolsheviks to sell off imperial treasures to raise money for their large-scale projects) to Emanuel Snowman of Wartski, London. Since then it has changed hands numerous times with it disappearing from the market from 1975 to 1994 due to the death of its previous owner. In 1994, it was found in a London safe. It was last sold in 2002 at a Christie’s New York auction to a bidder in Qatar for $9.6 million USD.

As for Alma? After the 1917 Revolution, she and her husband endured a few years of hardship in Petrograd (St. Petersburg). In 1921, she was finally granted permission to leave Russia. She went to Finland where she lived out the rest of her days as a provincial secondary school art teacher.

Sources:

Mieks Fabergé Eggs: http://www.mieks.com/faberge-en/1913-Winter-Egg.htm

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_%28Faberg%C3%A9_egg%29

Schildt’s: http://www.sets.fi/

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