Russian jewelers revive the spirit of Fabergé

New York Times, December 12, 2008

NEW YORK — Russia's rampant style of capitalism has bred a well-documented taste for bling among the oligarch class. This gaudy ostentation, however, eclipses a more fundamental truth about Russians and jewelry: At the turn of the last century, they laid claim to one of the greatest jewelry cultures on earth.

Even casual observers can cite the work of Peter Carl Fabergé, whose gem-encrusted Easter eggs are synonymous with imperial glitz and glamour. Born to French Huguenots who had settled in St. Petersburg in the mid-19th century, he inherited the family business from his father, Gustav, and, along with contemporaries Carl Edvard Bolin and Pavel Ovchinnikov, built up a dazzling Russian jewelry tradition heralded for its opulence and incomparable workmanship.

The October Revolution of 1917 put an end, of course, to all that bourgeois extravagance. In its place, it ushered in a drab era of trinkets, or so-called "no-gems" jewelry, marked by lightweight metalwork and the meager sparkle provided by cheap synthetic stones. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russians were poised for a spectacular rejection of its austere sensibilities.

"There's the idea that Russians have had a lot of suffering," said Dr. G. Clotaire Rapaille, a medical anthropologist and psychiatrist and chairman of Archetype Discoveries Worldwide, a market research firm based in New York, who is currently studying what he terms the "Russian code," or the unconscious associations that Russians make when buying consumer products. "Today, they're waking up and realizing that and they want revenge - and luxury is the best revenge."

This uniquely Russian brand of vengeance has given rise to a generation of jewelers eager to revive, if not inherit, the Fabergé legacy. Pallinghurst Resources, a mining investment company that bought the Fabergé brand from Unilever 18 months ago, will claim the most overt bragging rights when it relaunches the name in April. But there are other contenders, too.

More than 3,500 jewelry manufacturers and 20,000 jewelry-trading companies have formed in Russia since 1991, said Alexey Shcherbina, editor in chief of Russian Diamonds & Jewellery, a trade magazine.

"The fact that Russian jewelers were isolated for so long became their competitive advantage, as they managed to create really unique pieces," Shcherbina said, citing techniques like enameling, filigree work and stone setting as Russian strong suits.

He might also have said diamonds, fields of which underlie the frozen expanses of the Russian Arctic. Lev Leviev, a native of Uzbekistan, made a fortune exploiting them and parlayed it into a string of eponymous salons - in New York, London, Dubai and as of this autumn, Moscow - that vie with Graff and De Beers for the billionaire business. Giving him a run for his money, however, is a group of emerging designers whose jewels come closer to reflecting the legendary Russian soul.

Among the rising stars, a standout is Jewellery Theatre, founded 10 years ago by Irina Dorofeeva and Maxim Voznesensky. At their boutique on Kutuzovsky Prospekt in Moscow, windows cloaked in black cloth feature shifting spotlights and music evoking an elaborate stage production. The leading roles belong to an avant-garde collection of diamond and pearl jewels with a supernatural beauty that recalls the brilliant world conjured up in Mikhail Bulgakov's celebrated novel, "The Master and Margarita."

"We are doing all we can to revive the traditions of Russian jewelry art and return it to the level it was at before the revolution," Voznesensky said. "Today, Jewellery Theatre is less a commercial enterprise than it is a cultural and educational organization."

Indeed, an entire art history lesson could be gleaned from just one of the company's myriad collections. Karen Kettering, vice president of Russian works of art and icons at Sotheby's in New York, said a pearl pendant on the Jewellery Theatre Web site fashioned in the shape of a pommée, or bezant, cross - a cross with a roundel at the end of each arm - was "straight out of Byzantine art, which makes perfect sense because the Russians are the sole heirs of Byzantine culture and were its preservers after the Ottoman Turks took over Constantinople."