By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
All Fabergé objects are emblems of a vanished world, but the cigarette cases made by the great Russian luxury firm also represent a vanishing custom. “It was positively eccentric not to smoke in 1900,” says Geoffrey Munn, managing director of Wartski, a London dealer that specializes in Fabergé. Virtually every member of Russia’s Romanov dynasty smoked. The captain of Nicholas II’s yacht recalled that when the tsar stayed on the vessel, his morning dressing routine included choosing a cigarette case from a group laid out for him. Ever the perfectionist, Carl Fabergé lavished as much effort on the engineering of his cases as he did on their decoration. Though they sparkle with gold and jewels, they feel light, and they open and close without clicking, snapping or creaking. “If they make any noise at all,” Munn says, “it’s a luxurious one.”
Demand for cigarette cases kept Fabergé’s artisans busy. According to the 1998 book The Fabergé Case, Jalmari Haikonen, an engraver employed by Fabergé in St. Petersburg from 1915–18, noted seeing as many as 40 lined up, awaiting his attention. “A cigarette case was something you wanted a beautiful example of,” says Mark Schaffer, a principal at A La Vieille Russie in New York. “Some were simpler, and some were elaborate, but they utilized all the techniques for which Fabergé was famous.”
Among the 30-odd Fabergé objects in the recently rediscovered cache that belonged to the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna and that Sotheby’s will auction in London on Nov. 30, is a Neoclassical-style gold case that Empress Alexandra gave to Maria and her husband, the Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, for their 25th wedding anniversary in 1899. When turned upside down the diamond-set Roman numerals “XXV” on its lid turn into the letters “M” and “V,” the couple’s initials. Sotheby’s presale estimate for the 3.9-inch-long case is £50,000–70,000 ($82,000–115,000), and the 100-lot sale, which primarily consists of cases and cufflinks, is expected to reach £1 million ($1.6 million).
Cases that predate 1911 feature an amenity that might befuddle modern smokers: a tinder cord. Before the invention of the lighter, smokers were at the mercy of matches, which couldn’t always sustain a flame long enough to satisfy every companion who proffered cigarettes. To avoid this calamity, a smoker grasped the handle of the cord, pulled out a length and lit it with a match. Once he had met his needs and those of his friends, he tugged the knotted end of the cord to draw the burning part back inside the case, extinguishing it.
Munn and Schaffer agree that strictures against smoking have reduced collector interest in Fabergé cigarette cases. Though aficionados pounce on magnificently ornamented examples, such as the anniversary case, the plainer ones in gold and silver, which were the entry-level luxury goods of their day, lost their popularity as smoking declined. Collectors have tried repurposing cases—Schaffer knows of some who have filled them with business cards, and Munn recalls others who have converted them into compacts—but most owners are more interested in their form than in their function. “They won’t take modern cigarettes, anyway,” Munn says. “Cigarettes of the time were longer.”
Fabergé cases sometimes held not only cigarettes but sentiments. A gold lady’s case produced before 1896 contains an inscription, written in French, which should have flattered its unknown recipient: “I would like to be a cigarette; to live for an instant on your lips, and then go out.”
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