In 1885, Tsar Alexander III commissioned a surprise for his wife — a bauble crafted to resemble an Easter egg. Easter was the most important holiday on the Russian Orthodox calendar, and a history existed of celebrating with Easter eggs far more elaborately painted than the ones we create nowadays by dipping eggs in dye. Among the wealthy, it was traditional to give beautiful eggs crafted from porcelain or precious metals, and covered with intricate paintings celebrating religious themes. But Alexander's idea for a gift for his wife was something even more elaborate.
The first Fabergé egg looked plain on the outside. It was covered in white enamel, though it had a seam around the middle that revealed the gold underneath. It could be opened up to reveal a golden yolk, which in turn contained a golden hen, with feathers in four slightly different shades, which itself could be opened to reveal a tiny gold crown with a ruby hung inside it, though the crown and ruby have since been lost. The clever design brought to mind traditional nested Russian dolls, and the tsarina, Maria Fyodorovna, was delighted with it.
Thus are traditions born; the tsar commissioned the jewel's designer, Peter Carl Fabergé, to create a new one each year. Each egg was to be unique and to contain some sort of surprise. When Alexander's son, Nicholas II, succeeded him to the Russian throne, two eggs were created each year — one for his wife, and another for the old tsarina, his now-widowed mother. The eggs were crafted until Nicholas was deposed during the Russian Revolution, which put rather a damper on the whole affair. Until that time, though, they became the most important work of Fabergé, already the most famous jewelry company in Russia, and dozens of artisans would collaborate for the entire year to create each one. In all, fifty-six were made.
Peter Carl Fabergé's ancestors had ended up in Russia after fleeing their homeland of France in 1685. They, along with the other Huguenots, a group of French Protestants, were persecuted heavily for their religious beliefs in their heavily Catholic homeland, and the family scattered across friendlier parts of Europe. Peter Carl Fabergé took over his father's jewelry business in 1846 at the age of 24. He was already favored by the Russian court — he was hired to catalogue and appraise the jewels of the Hermitage, the Russian Crown's collection of valuable art and royal treasures. The jewelry he created earned him yet more favor, and he was named the official jeweler of the Russian court by Alexander III.
The relatively nonspecific requirements for the eggs meant that their themes varied a great deal from year to year. Some were modeled after pieces of artwork, but many others were designed to commemorate historical events: the coronation of Nicholas II, with a working replica of the coach ridden by the new tsar and tsarina; the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which contained an intricate toy train, made of gold and gemstones; and during World War I, two with artworks celebrating the Red Cross. As the most important and famous work of the Fabergé company, new artistic techniques were developed for the eggs. Enamel, which existed in a small number of colors and was painstaking to apply — needing multiple layers, each one fired separately — was a major tool in the eggs' production. The company developed new techniques to produce previously unavailable colors, including the most prized iridescent oyster enamel. Fabergé refused to reveal his secret designs before the eggs were given, even to the tsar, merely saying that he was sure the tsar would be pleased.
Of the fifty-six made in total, only forty-four are still known, and of those only ten remain in Russia. The rest were mostly sold by the Bolsheviks after the Revolution, some for as little as $400; they remain abroad in the hands of private collectors. Of the missing twelve, two are known from photographs but the remaining ten are known only from descriptions. They are valued not only as intricate, beautiful examples of the jeweler's art but as artifacts of their time, an annual artistic record of the final years of the Romanov reign.
Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs (http://andrejkoymasky.com/liv/fab/fab00.html)
The Fabergé Eggs: An Illustrated Overview (http://users.vnet.net/schulman/Faberge/eggs.html)
Peter Carl Fabergé: Legacy of a Fallen Dynasty (http://germslav.byu.edu/perspectives/2003/Bailey.html)