Treasures: Lost and Found

Faberge is back in the news; once again there’s been a re-division of the limited spoils via the world’s salerooms and auctions. And – did you see? –  a spectacular dental plate of gold and platinum has turned up in a grave near St Petersburg? Only some 40 of the Imperial Easter Eggs survive; I found my old Catalogue of the huge 1977 London Faberge exhibition the other day and was surprised to tot up how many I have seen over the years. The Eggs were less well-known when I was young. I think it was the Nicholas and Alexandra craze of 40 years ago that first put the word about; and then when Bing Crosby died on a Spanish golf course it came out that he was a great collector. I could write my own I Spy book of Faberge (Big Chief I-Spy, Wigwam-by-the-Water, remember?). I get 40 points for seeing the old St Petersburg shop – now, needless to say, a Macdonalds; and I’ve seen the almost absurdly symbolic but chillingly uncanny Twilight Egg.

The Twilight Egg for the twilight of the gods! It makes you shiver. As Russia began her fatal participation in the Great War Carl Faberge continued to supply his Easter trophies to the Imperial ladies. In a rather mad kind of way, and with no dimunition of expense, they were adapted to the austere spirit of the time: the Birchwood Egg, the  Red Cross Egg and the sinister polished steel of the Munitions Egg – the bomb-like Easter kiss of 1916. The Twilight Egg never reached the Empress: by then the Revolution had broken out and the Imperial Family were under house arrest at Tsarskoye Selo. What curious premonitions inspired this toy of lapis lazuli, diamonds and moonstones? What thoughts of Rasputin’s last prophecy before he went under the ice, his fearful vision of the end of the Romanovs and Russia drowning in blood? The photograph of his battered murdered face was the first thing the Tsarina Alexandra saw when she awoke: it hung at the foot of her bed. The Empress was accustomed to shower the Faberge workshop with ideas and suggestions; deeply pious though obsessed with the occult, numerology and portents Alexandra’s agitations and fears are captured in this shell of midnight blue. All Faberge’s Eggs contained within a “Surprise” – an ingenious precious novelty, as in a superior cracker. The Suprise is lost from the Twilight; the Surprise was to be the slaughter house at Ekaterinburg.

For 30 years Faberge solved the gift problem for the royal families of Russia and of England. A branch of the store opened in London; Edward VII and Queen Alexandra commissioned jewel portraits of their animals and plants at Sandringham. One of the most fascinating pieces in the Royal Collection is an midnight blue enamel cigarette case inlaid with a great diamond serpent biting its own tail, the symbol of unbroken love. Edward VII’s mistress, Alice Keppel, commissioned it for her chain-smoking bronchitic royal lover; when he died Queen Alexandra offered it to Alice as a keepsake. Twenty years later, Queen Mary received it back from Mrs Keppel whose great grand daughter is now married to the Prince of Wales. Another touch of the Twilight Egg here; eerie Faberge magic.

So when I saw the white and gold snake caskets of Kilian’s Garden of Good and Evil collection I thought of all these back stories and I was captivated. The luxurious Kilian ethos has enticing echoes of Faberge; one of his motifs is the key, that uber-symbol of sex and secrecy, the locking and disclosure of the mysteries of this and other worlds. Kilian’s tiny keys to his seductively gleaming lacquer boxes (the boxes of a new Pandora) remind us of the velvet shells that protected the Tsar’s eggs; the key that Alice finds on a glass table to open Wonderland; and of the key to Marlene’s eternal enigma. The surname, Dietrich, means in German a skeleton key in German – the device against which no lock is proof.

Kilian‘s “Straight To Heaven” – where St Peter waits with the golden Keys of the Kingdom and St Zita finds those you have mislaid – is a lyrical shimmering streak of flaming rum and psychotropic nutmeg which fires you up like a rocket, reminding me of those neo-Gilray cartoons of 1997 depicting Diana and Mother Theresa whizzing like shooting stars to Paradise. Kilian loves the scent and symbolism of soft fruits – apricots (female beauty), peach and especially plum (perpetual youth) which appears – candied and crystallised and darkly oozing in Liaisons Dangereuses and In The City of Sin. The fruits of the Garden of Eden: my English teacher, when holding forth on Paradise Lost always held that Eve was more likely betrayed less by an apple than by a peach  – the key note of Kilian’s cool green celadon  “Flower of Immortality” –  the Chinese emblem of eternal life and fidelity. For in tandem with these high ideals the sweet golden flesh of the fruit, its intoxicating juices and delicious odours are deeply sensual and carnal: an irresistible invitation to voluptuous reverie and amorous intercourse, the exchange of a spiritual heaven for a more robustly physical one. “Here’s the key to my heart/ Don’t lose it/ Use it” as Alice Faye used to sing.

I haven’t been so captivated by a perfume range for a long time as I am by the smooth and silky Kilian line. Polished, vivid and easy to wear the fragrances are also mysterious and adventurous. Fewer in number than the Imperial Eggs, they are the products of a similar genius and devotion to artistic luxury, perfection for its own sake. Every one a gem and like Faberge’s treasures, they are destined to delight future generations beyond our own. But judge for yourselves: why not pop round?

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The loveliness of Queen Alexandra

Queen Alexandra the Princess of Wales

I belong to that generation who in infancy heard a great deal about Alexandra of Denmark from people who still remembered her huge blue eyes, her bewitching smile and incomparable charm which miraculously project even today from cinema newsreels of 100 years ago. Some of us might go so far as to observe that Prince William’s looks are inherited as much from his paternal gt gt gt grandmother as from his mother. Alexandra rivals even the late Princess of Wales and Elizabeth the Queen Mother in the British royal popularity ratings on account of the conventions of her day setting her slightly apart from her subjects: there was no hugging, weeping, betting or gin and Dubonnet to encourage a woman-to-woman mateyness. Alexandra was ethereal, elusive, remote and revered; yet she projected such warmth, sympathy and grace coupled with flirtatious caprice and vibrant feminity as to make her adored though untouchable.

She dressed to please herself, pinning Orders and crown jewels on at random wherever they suited her best, regardless of protocol. Her fans and accessories were ordered from Carl Faberge; she was famously slim and diet-conscious in a very porky age. But how did the divine Alexandra smell? Alexandra Rose Day, founded in her old age commemorated her love of that flower and Floris supplied both her and her husband’s mistress, Mrs Keppel with their Red Rose. Long discontinued, this was a magnificently petally, velvety, deep soft rose which had as great an influence on rose scents in its time as Malle’s Une Rose in the 21st century. Ladies of Alexandra’s day were considered to be flower-like in their delicacy, their sensibility and fragility – they should be scented like blossoms, avoiding the coarse actressy voluptuousness of musk, civet and amber. A faint odour of flowers should emanate from their clothes, laid up in fresh lavender, rather from their bodies: colognes and toilet waters were still applied to handkerchiefs rather than to the skin or the hair, a practice still considered “fast” – a useful and telling word long since obsolete, alas.

Queen Alexandra would have been well aware of Grossmith’s best-selling perfumes, recently revived this century in their old splendour – Phul Nana, Shem El Nessim and Hasu no Hana. Her daughter-in-law (the future Queen Mary) wore Grossmith’s Bridal Bouquet to her own wedding – an occasion on which it was noted that Alexandra looked lovelier than the bride. Houbigant, Guerlain and Piver would have been familiar names to her. She lived long enough to smell Chanel No 5 and the baroque splendours of Caron even if she was too much of a Victorian to have worn them. But after the rose, the flower most traditionally associated with Alexandra is the violet – in the style of her day she pinned huge corsages of them to her clothes, carried bouquets of them in public and incorporated velvet and silk violets in her toques – the convention of royal ladies not obscuring their faces by wide brimmed head gear being already well established. Besides, as her mother-in-law Queen Victoria waspishly observed, “Darling Alix has the tiniest head I have ever seen” so that Alexandra was well aware of the flattering appearance of small, high turbans. She moved in a mist of Parma violet cologne, sheer silks and lace,the perfection of Edwardian womanhood.

Her rooms at Sandringham and Buckingham palace were crammed with roses, violets and azaleas. Faberge also recreated her favourite plants in crystal, gold and precious stones. Her favourite floral scents would have scented her gloves and rice powder for the face. I wonder whether this well-known fascination of the nation’s favourite old lady (she died at 80 in 1925) for these fragrances led to them for so long after her death to be considered old-fashioned and demode. And then quite suddenly, around ten years ago, the tide turned again and rose and violet perfumes came back, firstly via the niche perfumers and then amongst the commercial houses. One of the most opulent and most artful is Lipstick Rose, in the Malle collection – here Ralf Schwieger triumphantly updates the accord, introducing a violet-rose perfume with fruity aldehydic notes of immense vibrancy and panache, but still displaying a retro powderiness and floral poignancy that is the quintessence of Alexandra.

Image from Wikipedia