When you sit down to talk about the House of Fabergé, naturally you expect to talk about eggs. But there were many mores subjects to cover with South African-born mining engineer Sean Gilbertson, CEO of both Fabergé and African coloured-gem mining specialists Gemfields, including the challenge of steering the former Imperial jeweller of Russia into the modern era of luxury.
To many of us, the House of Fabergé is best known for having created the most extraordinary bejewelled Easter eggs the world has ever seen — prior to the Bolshevik revolution of 1918, of course — when tsars and their families indulged their every desire for elaborate and expensive whimsy.
Legend has it that Gustav Fabergé was commissioned to create no less than 50 intricately crafted jewelled Easter eggs for the Russian imperial court, with the House of Fabergé soon growing to become the largest luxury jeweller in Russia.
When things went south for the tsars, the Fabergé journey was not to be a straightforward one. With Gustav already retired to Germany, his son Peter Carl and the rest of the family fled to Switzerland and Finland, and what followed was a multitude of changes in ownership of the Fabergé name — even a segue into the worlds of aftershave, ties, and cellphones.
Fast-forward to 2007 when Pallinghurst Investments, a private equity company headed by former BHP Billiton mining boss Brian Gilbertson with investments in the mining sector, listed on both the Johannesburg and London stock exchanges and snapped up its first luxury jewellery brand.
Gilbertson’s son Sean was soon handed the reins of Fabergé, and what Pallinghurst had identified as an “unloved, overlooked and forgotten about” business with the potential for reinvention.
Of course, it made sense to get into the fine jewellery game. Pallinghurst was already invested in Gemfields, gemstone miners and marketers with emerald, ruby, and amethyst mines across Africa. The Kagem emerald mine in Zambia is the world’s largest producer of emeralds, and ruby sales from Montepuez in Mozambique are also breaking previous records.
It has been reported that Gemfields is hoping to do for coloured stones what De Beers did for diamonds — and with the coloured-stone trend gaining popularity in fine jewellery design and breaking records at the auctions, its efforts are clearly being rewarded.
But back to the charmed world of Fabergé. In the 10 short years that Pallinghurst has been the owner, a focus on fine craftsmanship and excellence has ensured that this 175-year-old jewellery brand has been warmly welcomed back into the luxury fold. Gilbertson says that the design and manufacture studio at Savile Row in London is creating high-end jewellery that Gustav and Peter Carl themselves would have been proud of.
“At 9.09am on the 9th day of the 9th month in 2009, we relaunched the House of Fabergé, with 150 beautifully crafted pieces of fine jewellery,” Gilbertson says. Parisian jeweller Frederick Xavier created the first collection, which deliberately steered away from eggs, and firmly positioned Fabergé in the fine jewellery category alongside the likes of Graff, Bulgari, and Van Cleef & Arpels.
Gilbertson says more important than the eggs is the artistry that Fabergé represents, and that the signature of the brand will always be based on surprise, wit and humour. “Those surprises will also be subtle, like the fine-jewellery flower bracelet we made with a teeny jewelled spider secreted on the underside of the flower,” he says.
If you think of all the wonderful brands that exist in the world, none come with the combination of history, legacy, heritage, and legend of the House of Fabergé
Magical timepieces are also an important part of new Fabergé, with Aurélie Picaud heading the team that has already won two important international awards for its unique designs.
“In an industry dominated by older men, she is a breath of fresh air,” Gilbertson says. Picaud’s Lady Compliquée Peacock Emerald watch won the Ladies High Mechanical award at the 2015 watch Oscars —the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. The timepiece, which is highly decorative and in fine Fabergé tradition, was inspired by Peter Carl Fabergé’s Peacock Imperial Easter Egg of 1908 and combined both beauty and impressive mechanics.
Fabergé won the Grand Prix in the Travel Time category in 2016, this time for the Visionnaire DTZ timepiece. Fabergé’s chronograph, marking 100 years since the start of the Russian Revolution, paid homage to the unfinished Constellation Egg of 1917, with a tiny, laser-engraved egg on the sapphire-glass case back.
Ah the eggs! So there are going to be eggs? “We will create Fabergé eggs,” Gilbertson says. “But we are going to tread carefully, out of respect for the fine craftsmanship that went into creating the Easter eggs for the Russian tsars.”
To date, Fabergé under Pallinghurst has made only one egg in the Imperial style: the pearl egg, which was designed by an in-house team. Hidden inside the egg, is a precious 12.17ct grey pearl from the Arabian Gulf.
For those who feel they need to own a Fabergé egg of their own: teeny enamelled and jewelled egg charms and pendants are included in the fine jewellery collection.
It’s all part of reviving the magical brand of which Gilbertson is now the custodian: “If you think of all the wonderful brands that exist in the world, none come with the combination of history, legacy, heritage, and legend of the House of Fabergé,” he says.
Fabergé jewellery is available in South Africa at Vienna Jewellers, Shop 94, Brooklyn Mall, Pretoria