A Faberge Inspired Mechanical Jewelry Egg

Early in 1984 Jack called to see if I’d be interested in creating an anniversary gift to celebrate twenty-five years of marriage with Ryoko. The question was posed “What can be created that Parallels the unique and creative skills that he enjoyed from the chess set which I had completed for him in 1981”? Jack has a great talent for challenging a person to go beyond the limits one would normally self-impose.

A conversation about what form the gift would take got around to distinguishing Benchmark pieces we’d seen in the past. Recently I had the privilege of being in the research offices of the L.A. County Art Museum while they were setting up the largest exhibit of Fabrege eggs ever displayed at that time. Now to me, this was the epitome of the jewelers art.

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These pieces are richly enameled, bejeweled and grandly detailed. I was both overwhelmed and forever influenced. Of course, the greatest treat of all was the concealed surprise each egg contained. Jack and I discussed the possibility of using this form and of course the biggest question was, could I do it? I said Yes – but certainly didn’t have a clue how, or even what the eventual creation may look like.

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I started by ingesting everything I could find in Fabrege’s work. It was fascinating. He wasn’t the originator of the Easter Egg concept, that pre-dated him by many centuries, his first egg was actually a re-production of one done in Germany one hundred years earlier. Fabrege was very adept at surrounding himself with the best craftsman Russia had to offer. (At different times he had as many as eight hundred different craftsmen in his employ.) He was a Showman but beneath all this there was a wonderfully imaginative designer.

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Being blessed with the Romanoff family for Patrons may have helped a bit as well. What I started looking for was a “sense” of what these eggs were than how they impressed the eyes. The vast majority of Fabrege’s pieces commemorated some place, art or person that was pertinent to the lives of the Czar and his family. So there I am, committed to doing an egg. This egg had to be similar to the Fabrege style yet unique to how I would express my talents. On most of Fabrege’s pieces the method of accessing the surprise was simply lifting the top off of the egg, therefore exposing the captured moment.

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I wanted to go beyond that. The basic theme was Jack’s desire to acknowledge his family. I had to create a visual sensation to express his wonderful twenty-five year marriage which resulted in four special children.

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Now that a direction was picked, a design had to be drawn up. I chose to create an egg form that was a little more contemporary in shape – very round at the base and more peaked at the end. The shell was to be created in Sterling Silver. While no metal was to be exposed on the final piece, silver is the appropriate material for the twenty-fifth anniversary. First a “buck” had to be formed and this was done in aluminum two millimeters undersized to the finished dimension. Over this form the two halves of the eggshell were formed. The process used here is called spinning. A sheet of sterling is attached to end of the buck while the form is spinning on a lathe, pressure & heat are applied to the sheet which then compresses over the buck. Once this process is completed, the shell is annealed. This is the process of re-aligning the molecular structure of the metal after being stretched and compressed.

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The metal is alternately heated and cooled until any warpage or tension is eliminated. After this process the surface is worked with successively finer abrasives until it is ready to polish. Now the two halves of the shell are set aside and creative energy is put into the outside embellishments.

When it came to designing the details go over the egg shell, I wanted a more contemporary form. At the same time I wanted a recognizable classic theme. I chose a simple scroll form, similar to the acanthas leaf pattern but without the details. This was curved in wax, and then cast in eighteen karat yellow gold. This would contrast well with the now chosen, deep red color the egg shell would ultimately take on. Now a design was needed for the center seam between the upper and lower halves. A Luarel Branch pattern was selected. Rendered in Sterling Silver, bound in eighteen karat yellow gold wraps in an X pattern and terminated alternately with Ruby and Black Jade cabacheon stones, this center band was divided into six segments. The purpose was to be far more than simple decoration.

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Below this egg is separated from its base by a Sterling Silver pedestal with eighteen karat accents. The structure is hollow and precision turned on a lathe with a hand cut pattern in the center. Under this pedestal sits a masterfully cut base of Black Wyoming Jade. This material was extremely hard to locate. Most Black Jade is dyed to create an even coloring throughout the material. It is also rarely found in large sizes. Through the efforts of Suzanne O’Hara, an extremely talented stone cutter, the undyed material was found. The cutting process generally is done by holding the stone to be shaped against a spinning disc charged with a diamond abrasive compound. Due to the design of this base and the accuracy I demanded, a machine had to be created to spin the Jade against fixed cutting tools. Much the way metal would be turned on a lathe. Once the finished profile was created, Suzanne polished the Jade to perfection. Black Jade takes on a finished luster that can best be described as creamy, rather than the hard glass like finish of Black Onyx.

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Separating the two pieces of Jade are multiple graduated rings of Sterling Silver, accented by three bows of eighteen karat green old, pave set with small Russian cut diamonds. The bottom of the base is elevated by four eighteen karat yellow gold feet, carved in a simplified scroll pattern. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the friendship of one Christian Eric Thundstrom. Chris’s mechanical ingenuity was certainly tested to its fullest when I presented him with my design for the surprise. While most of Fabrege’s pieces pictured surprises that were for the most part static, the piece we’d created was very active. It was created to blossom, so to speak.

The intention was to have the egg shell open in three segments at the top, while exposing a flower vase (eighteen karat yellow gold) holding the appropriate flowers of the month for each of the family members birthdays. This vase of flowers was not merely exposed by opening the egg, but raised to a position of prominence as the shell was unfolding. Added to this was the emergence of six miniature oil paintings of the family members contained in the Laurel Branch detail at the Meridian of the egg. All this was exposed with one push of a jeweled lever at the base of the black jade. The mechanism Chris and I created is one of the hidden marvels of this piece. It is totally concealed in the bottom half of the egg shell. Of course a process like the creation of the mechanics were it not broken down into components.

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So things were tackled one step at a time. Chris refers to this as the Empirical School of Engineering and Design. We started with opening the three panels that compose the top of the egg. When looking for the appropriate hinge style, we concluded that there could be but a single hinge per panel. As the leaves opened only one point stayed in constant relationship with the bottom of the egg. We then had to create a hinge that was twice as strong given that we were making one element work where normally two would be used. We now had the ability to manually swing the leaves open. However since this was to be an automatic operation, Chris came up with the idea of driving small pushrods up through the center of the egg to three small bell cranks which then transferred the action horizontally to push the egg panels open. Since the flowers artfully carved in wax by Mia Ottestad and now cast in eighteen karat green gold were such a prime component of the surprise element,

Chris designed a rack and pinion gear set to raise the pedestal that supported the flowers and vase. This mechanism in turn had to be linked to the previously created pushrods, so as the egg shell unfolded, the flower vase would raise up twelve millimeters to become the central theme. By creating a piece with active mechanics, I felt we had now achieved something beyond simply mimicking Fabrege’s style. I asked Chris if he could open the side panels with the miniature family portraits with the same mechanism but… slightly delayed. A surprise within a surprise. Chris’s imagination, knowing no boundaries, envisioned a large, radially cut gear with two mating surfaces, and a series of triangular gears attached to each of the picture frames. This complex piece of machining works flawlessly. Again, all of this was tied into the previous mechanism to allow actuation by a simple push of the jeweled lever.

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I became acutely aware of a missing element. We needed an artist capable of capturing the personality of the family. Fortunately, I’ve had a long-standing friendship with one of the country’s finest artists, Phil Roberts. Phil, while teaching anatomy at Otis Parson’s Art Institute, has also enjoyed a successful career in sculpture and portraiture among the movie industry. Using photographs of the family, Phil constructed miniature oil paintings on 22 karat gold discs. These paintings are a mere 13.5 millimeters in diameter. The fabricated disc was then underpainted with a brown sienna value study followed by the delicate application of skin tones. Each finished disc is then sealed under a varnish to forever protect the life and color of these images. Given the nature of this egg, celebrating the family Hack and Ryoko had created, Phil’s miniatures artfully captured this moment in time in the finest quality of classic portraiture.

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Chris is blessed with another talent. His wife, Kathleen works side by side with Chris in their mainstay business which is the restoration of Antique Music Mechanisms. Her primary focus is the restoration and re-detailing of the wood cases, also repainting the scenes and panels that embellish them. We put her to work on the flowers of course. Choosing enamels, both opaque and translucent, Kathleen captured the color and subtlety of the originals beautifully. I have a profound satisfaction in seeing and watching the finished creation operate. I sometimes wonder what Peter Carl Fabrege would say about this modern day team of artisans, walking his footsteps. To give all this some kind of “time perspective” Jack and Ryoko’s anniversary egg project took just under one year to complete. There are over 1800 individual components that were fabricated, and there is not a single nut, bolt or component that was not handmade. To say that we were challenged is an understatement. It has been the project of a lifetime.

Starting the rack and pinion to raise the flower vase.

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A sense of the scope of the parts, these are the gears that run off the “Sun” gear and open the picture frames.

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This shot shows the rack and pinion to raise the vase and the sun gear to open the picture frames.

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This is the cage structure that stabilizes the moving parts.

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This is the cage structure that stabilizes the moving parts. Here we have the top plate with the cantilever hinges (18K) installed along with the engraving of family names and birthdates. The nose of the rack is peeking through.

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The posts are, when cut to size, raise the arms of the cantilever hinges, opening the leaves of the top of the egg.

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Here are four views of the primary mechanism at it’s working state. This is addressing the rotating out of the picture frames and showing the location of the rack and pinion gears to raise the vase and simultaneously, the outer leaves of the egg.

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The egg bottom containing the mechanism is test fitted to the black Jade base.

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The fitting process took about 3 months, here are a couple views while testing. This whole project was finished in exactly a year, it would be the last of its kind to be done in that short a time frame.

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Written by Jim Grahl

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