Think Fabergé and what springs to mind? Priceless jewels and eggs encrusted with rubies, sapphires and diamonds?
Or Brut 33, the omnipresent antiperspirant with ad campaigns fronted by Henry Cooper, Kevin Keegan and Barry Sheene? If ever there was a brand that has weathered highs and lows it is Fabergé.
The company’s intriguing 177-year-old history has seen it find favour with royalty — most famously the Romanovs, the ill-fated Russian royal family — only to being frozen out with the force of a Siberian winter.
Sarah Fabergé, pictured, found out about her family’s jewellery links when she was 10
Today the brand is back with a vengeance and is, once again, creating the kind of jewellery that stirred the emotions of kings and queens. The woman responsible for this rebirth — for putting the ‘fab’ back into Fabergé, if you like — is Sarah Fabergé, great-granddaughter of Peter Carl, egg-maker-to-the-Tsars.
Sarah, a mother (to 26-year-old Josh), who lives in East Sussex with her long-term partner, has spent the past decade picking up, dusting off and helping to revive the brand made famous by her ancestors.
As you’d expect, her life is a whirlwind of black-tie dinners and celebrity-studded exhibition openings. But it wasn’t always like that. In fact how Sarah came to be a ‘Fabergé’ is an extraordinary modern-day fairytale.
We meet in her office, a Dynasty-style glass and marble penthouse at the top of a modern skyscraper in London’s West End. Diminutive and doll-like, with long tousled hair, Sarah holds out a tiny hand for me to shake, then sweeps me past giant plasma screens playing silent videos of gob-stopper-sized ruby rings and the kind of trendy stackable bracelets and rings loved by the world’s wealthiest women.
There are also necklaces, watches, shoulder-duster earrings. And, as you might expect, eggs. There’s an endless array in a variety of styles, some reflecting their heritage, others strikingly modern.
Many feature the layering techniques favoured by the Fabergé of the past, with rubies, emeralds and sapphires enhanced by glistening diamonds and guilloché enamel.
Sarah, pictured, was raised in Sussex and said her upbringing has kept her grounded and helps her understands people from all walks of life
Her father Theo Faberge, pictured, discovered his heritage when he was 47, in 1969. His father was Nicholas Fabergé who was sent to London by Peter Carl, egg maker to the Tsars, in 1903
Sarah, who was born in England to middle-class English parents and can’t speak a word of Russian, only discovered her incredible heritage at the age of ten.
Sipping coffee served in delicate white porcelain cups, in a room set aside for billionaire, bespoke customers, she attempts to untangle the complex histories of both the grandest ever Russian jewellery brand and her own family tree. Both, it turns out, have survived cruel twists of fate.
‘My father, Theo, was born in England and that’s why I have an English accent and am only a quarter Russian,’ says Sarah, who is now 60. ‘Fabergé is a French name with a Russian soul, but a strong London connection.’
At the height of Fabergé’s fame, in the late 19th century, all international sales came via Bond Street rather than salons in Russia. The brand had been founded in 1842 by Gustav Fabergé, Sarah’s great-great grandfather, a goldsmith and jeweller, who set up shop in St Petersburg.
He was successful enough to send his three sons on The Grand Tour, a cultural and artistic sightseeing trip of Europe’s fashionable hot-spots considered de rigueur for sons of social-climbing aristocrats. It was here the eldest, Peter Carl, spied bejewelled eggs among artefacts in Dresden. The rest, as they say, is history.
Tsar Alexander III was a patron, as was his son, Nicholas II. Peter Carl’s eggs became popular with European royals; Edward VII and Queen Mary were collectors. Our own Queen owns three Imperial eggs.
Sarah’s story picks up in 1903, when her grandfather Nicholas Fabergé was sent to London by his father Peter Carl and married redheaded English rose Marion Tattershall, a muse of romantic artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
I was working in management training . If someone had told me I’d be doing this at 60 I’d have laughed!
However, another flame-haired beauty also caught Nicholas’s eye: 17-year-old Doris Cladish, who bore him a son, Theo, in 1922. To halt a scandal, the baby born out of wedlock was given to a married aunt and raised as her own.
‘Dad grew up not knowing he was a Fabergé,’ explains Sarah. ‘He told me he remembers occasionally meeting an aunt and a kind gentleman for tea in London. They must have been his real mother and his father.’
Growing up as Theo Woodall in Chelsea, he excelled at anything to do with crafting. It was not until he was 47, in 1969, that his true ancestry came to light.
While he was attending a funeral, an elderly relative gasped at his likeness to Nicholas Fabergé and advised him to look at his birth certificate. Discovering that he was not, in fact, Theo Woodall, son of Linda and Norman from East Sussex, but the half-Russian scion of a great family turned not only his life around, but ultimately the fortunes of his daughter, too.
Sarah revealed that her father Theo, pictured in his workshop, would always make beautiful things and would spend evenings at his desk in their home
Sarah, an only child who was ten at the time, remembers being told the news but, like any young girl obsessed with ballet and school, it meant nothing. Her childhood was typically middle-class. Idyllic walks in the park collecting conkers, and holidays pony-trekking in Somerset. Everything seemed normal and yet her father, a mad Professor-type, always inventing, was anything but.
‘From an early age my mother, who I adored but suffered from very bad health, was housebound. It was my father who would take me to concerts and films. We used to drive to London for the day and, unusually for a man, he loved shopping.’
Stopping first for breakfast at J. Lyons tearooms in Park Lane, they would go window shopping in Oxford Street ending up in Selfridges to look at perfumes.
‘Coming from a small town in Sussex, I found this amazing. I can remember we didn’t have much money to shop. I was an only child, but certainly not born with a silver spoon.’ Her father ran a small light engineering firm employing half a dozen people.
‘Until I was ten we lived in a modest semi-detached house in East Sussex,’ she explains. ‘Under the stairs was Dad’s workshop. By day he’d go off to work, but every evening he’d be standing at his bench with the lamp on making beautiful things. A chess set, a table, musical instruments…’
‘It was and it wasn’t a big deal,’ she says of the Fabergé bombshell that would — eventually — alter the course of her life. ‘I’d always been down to earth. I felt very ordinary growing up.’
‘It must have been just after or around the time my father found out that my parents split up. My mother was married as Woodall and I didn’t want my name to be different.’ It was only in her early 20s that Sarah changed her name ‘to set the record straight’.
By then, Russia’s first international superbrand had lost all connection with the family famous for jewels. In 1917, during the Russian revolution, the brand was nationalised under the new Soviet Union. When the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsarist regime and wiped out most of the noble class, they seized many thousands of Fabergé pieces belonging to the Russian royal family, the Romanovs, who were imprisoned and then murdered.
Peter Carl fled on the last diplomatic train out of St Petersburg in 1918 — his wife and eldest son, Eugene, escaping to Finland by sleigh and on foot — but he died two years later in Lausanne, Switzerland, a broken man.
In 1918 the London shop closed. Two of the Fabergé brothers opened a shop in Paris repairing Fabergé items and making jewellery. Then, in 1937, an American businessman Sam Ruben named his perfume Fabergé — without the family’s permission. Following an expensive lawsuit, the Fabergé brothers lost the right to use the family name.
The Romanovs, pictured, were fans of the Faberge eggs which were made by Sarah’s family
Yet Sarah’s father’s discovery of his true ancestry was a lightbulb moment that altered the course of his life. ‘Dad led a life in two halves,’ says Sarah. ‘Finding out about his heritage answered many questions, including why he always was driven to be so creative.’
There had always been clues. ‘While everyone was listening to The Beatles, my father would take me to Tchaikovsky concerts.’ Father and daughter shared a love of art and music. Sarah remembers a trip to St Petersburg, then still known as Leningrad, as a young teenager. They visited the Hermitage. ‘Dad bought me a little cupboard and told me: “That’s your museum”. I used to collect things for it from junk shops.’
She puts her thin frame down to her father, who was ‘wiry’. Does she look like him? ‘Yes.’ One of the only black and white photographs she has of her grandfather, Nicholas Fabergé, sketching in a field, could easily be her father.
But it wasn’t until 2007 that Gemfields, a mining company, bought the Fabergé name and set out to reunite the Fabergé family and involve them once again in the creation of high-end jewellery.
Sarah is now the Director of Special Projects for faberge. She is pictured with her father Theo and son Josh several years ago
They approached Sarah and her cousin, Tatiana Fabergé, to come onboard — initially in an ambassadorial role. Today she is Director of Special Projects. Her job involves the kind of high-flying lifestyle most 60-year-olds can only dream about, full of parties and fabulous trips to palaces. ‘I am very lucky. Last year I found myself at a gala event in a palace in Belgium. I was having pre-dinner drinks and listening to opera, which I love, and it was one of those moments that sent shivers down my spine.’
She now visits Russia regularly. When not presenting awards often as an ambassador and expert on Fabergé, you will find her in the Pushkin or Armoury museum looking at original eggs for ideas.
But when the brand first approached Sarah to come on-board, she was hesitant. ‘Just imagine, I was 50 at the time, working part-time in management training mainly for the civil service.’
On the day of our fashion shoot in London, Sarah rocks up in a leather jacket, skinny jeans, ankle boots and a black gothic blouse. But she is happy to be pinned into evening wear.
Twirling in a ballgown as if to the manor born, she confesses to a love of dance and being a keen Strictly fan. Having started life not ‘living a Fabergé lifestyle’ is something she believes has grounded her and means she understands people from all walks of life. Sarah’s ordinariness — if you could call looking like a Tolstoy heroine ordinary — is charming.
A Faberge Easter egg, pictured, made by Theo Faberge is displayed in the grandiose Peterhof palace in the St. Petersburg’s suburb
Yanking on the stubborn clasp of a £130,000 necklace studded with 453 diamonds and 39 Akoya pearls, she cries out, ‘We need some WD-40 here!’ To which the two blonde Fabergé PRs and the burly security guard looking after the half-million-pound collection of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies Sarah is modelling laugh nervously.
She adds: ‘If someone had told me I’d be doing this at 60, I’d have laughed, but I consider myself very lucky.’
Sarah will only be truly content when people love what Fabergé are doing today as much as they did in past. And she seems to be onto something. Latest figures show that last year Fabergé saw a rise in sales from £1.3 million to £3.92 million.
‘I was introduced to a customer in Harrods recently who told me how her late father, who had just passed away, had left her money to buy herself a piece of jewellery in his memory. Having watched Antiques Roadshow together, she chose a little diamond egg pendant. I was proud, because now she has a beautiful heirloom.
‘Fabergé is not really my story any more. It belongs to everyone.’
Fabergé is available at Harrods and by appointment. faberge.com