Today is Easter Sunday in many traditions, so I thought it was the perfect time to highlight one of my favorite royal Easter gifts: the Lilies of the Valley Egg, part of an imperial tradition carried out by the Romanovs.
In April 1898—125 years ago this month—Emperor Nicholas II of Russia celebrated Orthodox Easter by presenting his wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, with a beautiful bejeweled Easter egg. He was continuing a tradition started by his father, the late Emperor Alexander III. Every Easter, Nicholas gave bejeweled eggs to his wife and his mother. The treasures were made for the imperial family by the artists at Fabergé.
The egg that Nicholas gave to Alexandra in the spring of 1898 was adorned with one of her favorite flowers, lilies of the valley. The gold egg is covered with rose-colored guilloché enamel accented by thin rows of diamonds. The lilies of the valley are made of pearls and diamonds, with green enamel leaves.
The egg, which was crafted by Mikhail Perkhin, sits on a pedestal of four gold and diamond legs. It’s one of the first imperial eggs to be made in the Art Nouveau style.
Each imperial egg famously includes a surprise. The Lilies of the Valley Egg is topped by a crown set with diamonds and rubies. When a pearl button on the side of the egg is twisted, the crown rises, revealing a trio of miniature portraits beneath. The miniatures, painted on ivory by Johannes Zehngraf, are of Nicholas II, Grand Duchess Olga, and Grand Duchess Tatiana, Alexandra’s husband and daughters.
Olga and Tatiana were the eldest of the five children of the emperor and empress. Here’s a family portrait photograph from 1898, the same year that the Lilies of the Valley Egg was made. Grand Duchess Olga sits in her own miniature chair, holding a doll, while Tatiana sits on her mother’s lap.
The back of the egg’s portrait surprise is engraved with the Julian calendar date of that year’s Orthodox Easter celebration, 5/IV/1898 (April 5, 1898).
Alexandra loved the egg, displaying it for years in her study at the Winter Palace. It was also shown at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. The egg remained with the imperial family until the revolution, after which it was sold to Emanuel Snowman of Wartski. It was sold and subsequently repurchased by Wartski several times throughout the 20th century, and then in 1979 it was acquired by the American magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes.
Forbes amassed an impressive collection of Fabergé eggs during his lifetime. After his death in 1990, the collection was inherited by his children. They decided to sell, and in early 2004, Sotheby’s advertised the upcoming auction of the collection of 12 imperial eggs.
Two months before the scheduled auction, all 12 eggs, including the Lilies of the Valley Egg, were purchased by a Russian businessman, Victor Vekselberg, for a price in the neighborhood of $100 million. In November 2013, Vekselberg opened the Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg, displaying the Forbes eggs and other treasures from the jeweler.
The British royals are scheduled to attend an Easter Sunday church service at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor this morning. I’m celebrating the holiday with my family, but I’ll have coverage of the jewels worn by the Windsors on Easter published bright and early here on Monday morning. Happy Easter to those who celebrate!