When Carl Fabergé took over the running of the business in 1882, its output increased so rapidly that he (and his brother Agathon) could not fulfil all the commissions themselves. They therefore decided to establish independent workshops. A Fabergé workmaster was a craftsman who owned his own workshop and created art objects for Fabergé. There were two elements of quality control. Firstly the workmasters were committed to work exclusively for the House of Fabergé. Secondly Fabergé would accept not art objects until those objects had been approved by Carl or by his personal representative.
Spaniel head, Kollin, 1896
Let me mention just three of these workmasters. Gabriel Niukkanen was a Finnish craftsman who had his own independent workshop in St Petersburg during the 1870s and didn’t become a workmaster for Fabergé until 1885. He specialised in small silver and gold art objects.
Erik August Kollin (1836-1901) was born in Finland, where he qualified before travelling across the border into Russia in 1868. By 1870 he had opened his own workshop in St Petersburg. Kollin joined the Peter Carl Fabergé empire and by 1872 was put in charge of all Fabergé workshops, so he must have been hugely talented. He was Fabergé's first chief jeweller, mostly using gold and silver. The initials EK will be found on each artefact, alongside the Fabergé hallmark. Kollin’s most famous work include art objects made for the German Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck, which were passed on to her daughter Queen Mary and her British son-in-law, King George V.
Anders Nevalainen was a third goldworker born and apprenticed in Finland in 1858. Nevalainen had moved to St Petersburg by 1874 and was a master goldsmith in 1885. A master first working in the jewellery workshop of August Holmström, Nevalainen soon became as head of workshop under exclusive contract with Fabergé. Look for his initials A.N, used with the Fabergé mark.
Sword shaped, Niukkanen, 1886
Fellows Auction House had two special Fabergé paper knives. Examine a parcel-gilt, enamel and nephrite paper knife, 21.5cm long. The handle terminal was modelled as a spaniel's head with red gem eyes, above a short cylindrical column in lime green guilloché enamel. It led to a foliate mounted nephrite jade blade, post 1896 mark for Erik August Kollin of St Petersburg. The estimate for this lot was £5,000-£8,000.
Another Fabergé paper knife from Fellows was 23cm long. The slightly later date and large size did not detract from the parcel-gilt, enamel and nephrite material which had the handle terminal modelled as a swan's head with red gem eyes. It ended a cylindrical column in royal blue guilloché enamel, mounted with cabochon garnets and classical motif giltwork. And it led to a scrolling foliate mounted nephrite jade blade. The workmaster's mark was for Henrik Wigström and the estimate for this lot was £8,000-£12,000 (USA$12,600-19,000).
Swan’s head, Wigstrom, c1900
The most beautiful paper knife, dated after 1886, was made from nephrite, gold, rose diamonds and cabochon sapphires. This paper knife was produced in the workshop of the workmaster Gabriel Niukkanen, St Petersburg and was 15 cm long. But note the more complex shape. The translucent nephrite blade was created in the form of a sword; the openwork gold pommel was set with rose-cut diamonds and cabochon rubies, with a gold suspension loop. Auctioned by Christie’s in New York, the estimate was USA$10,000-15,000.
A different nephrite jade paper knife had silver decoration, with a garnet and diamond in the snake head. The Fabergé mark showed a date after 1896 and before 1910, but there was no maker’s mark. Fabergé made a lot of decorative art objects as accessories for desks and the estimate here was USA $10,000-20,000.
Snake’s head, no maker’s mark, 1896-1910
Christie’s had a gold-mounted nephrite paper knife by Fabergé, with the workmaster's mark of Michael Perchin, St Petersburg 1896-1903. The elongated flattened nephrite blade with a striated cage work handle with leaf-chased border. Altogether it was 14.9 cm long. As Kollin was replaced by Michael Perchin in 1886, Kollin’s hallmark should be limited to the era 1872-86. Perchin’s hallmark would be limited to any time after 1886.
Cage work handle, Perchin, 1896-1903
Examine the longest (17 cm long) and most modern (1908-1917) of the paper knives that I could find. Along side the Fabergé mark was the workmaster's mark of Anders Nevalainen St Petersburg. The flattened nephrite blade really did resemble a knife. The tapering gold handle was enamelled in translucent white over a guilloché ground, within gold stylised foliate borders. It terminated with a reeded finial.
I can only imagine how splendid one of these paper knives would have looked on a large, polished desk top, alongside a nephrite and silver desk seal, or perhaps a nephrite and silver desk clock.
Knife shape, Nevalainen, 1908-1917