Fabergé Eggs are probably the first thing that comes to mind when we think of eggs and jewellery together. However, opulently decorated gold, diamond and gemstone eggs have been around much, much longer than these Imperial Russian jewels. To understand where Easter egg jewellery comes from, we have to first understand the pagan meaning of Easter itself.
Eggs and early Easter traditions
The egg has always been the sacred symbol of springtime and life. It is a motif that is present in art and sculpture throughout history, having rich associations with pagan religions.
Originally, for early European civilizations, Easter was a festival of fertility and rebirth.
It was held around the time of the vernal equinox, signalling the arrival of spring when nature awakens after the winter.
In fact, the English word “Easter” comes from Oestre, the name of the ancient Saxon goddess of spring and womanhood.
She, in turn, was based on the German deity of fertility and the dawn, Ostara.
The Germanic Goddess Ostara and eggs
Eggs were an invaluable and vital food resource to ancient cultures.
Rich with life-giving nutrients, their smooth, oval shape was considered one of nature’s miracles.
The egg was therefore worshipped as Ostara’s symbol of abundance and fertility by early Germanic tribes.
Goddess Ishtar and her jewellery
Another fascinating ancient Easter myth, believed to date back to even further around 2100 BC, is the story of the goddess Ishtar. It is, in fact, one of the oldest written texts ever found by archaeologists.
The story tells how Ishtar descended into the Underworld in search of her lover, Tammuz. The realm of death was ruled by Ishtar’s twin sister, Eresh-kigel, the goddess of infertility and death.
As Ishtar entered the land of the dead, everything on earth became barren and began to die. The guards at the gates leading into the Underworld first refused to let Ishtar in, unless she humbled herself.
At the first gate, Ishtar was made to remove her crown. At the second gate, she had to take off her earrings, followed by her necklace at the next one. So it went on, until at the last gate she had removed all her finery.
Finally, Ishtar was able to get in and convince her sister to let her return to the realm of the living with Tammuz.
When Ishtar came back up onto earth with him, life returned everywhere.
In ancient Babylon, this myth was the basis for the annual springtime celebration known as the Day of Joy.
It was also one of the earliest festivals known to precede the holiday that we call Easter today.
Decorated Easter eggs
The tradition of decorated Easter eggs dates back millennia. The custom is particularly old in Ukraine, where it is believed to go back to the prehistoric Tryptilian culture.
In Ukraine, the decorated egg is called a pysanka. There, egg painting has the same symbolic significance of spring and new life that is associated with Easter elsewhere in Europe.
Today egg decorating in Ukraine is considered a real art form.
A pysanka can be created from many different materials. Chicken eggs are often used, but clay, wood or stone eggs are also popular.
Many different techniques are used, but hand painting and dying are the most common. Hot wax is often poured over the egg before it’s decorated in order to give it a beautiful sheen.
A ban on Easter eggs
For a while during the Middle Ages, the Easter egg almost disappeared. This was because the Church wanted to replace pagan cult objects with Christian ideas of resurrection and rebirth.
However, people were stubborn and held onto their old beliefs in secret.
The giving of dyed eggs as Easter gifts, old women predicting the sex of babies by breaking an egg on a pregnant woman’s belly, and other similar customs prevailed hidden from the Church.
In fact, the modern Easter egg hunt is believed to be based on people hiding Easter egg gifts from priests during the Middle Ages.
Eventually, the Church had to adapt, however, and accepted the egg as a symbol of Easter. This may be the reason why the Eastern Orthodox Church has its own Easter egg legend.
According to the story, Mary Magdalene brought cooked eggs to Jesus’s tomb to share with the other women. When she saw Jesus had risen from the grave, the eggs in her basket turned red.
Victorian Easter eggs
The fate of the Easter egg changed dramatically for the good, during the late 19th century.
Queen Victoria’s enlightened era brought it back in the form of beautiful egg-shaped trinkets, gifts and toys.
Sometimes cardboard and fabric eggs filled with chocolates were given to children for Easter.
There were also more luxurious versions. These could be made with satin and lace, and they often contained expensive presents like jewellery.
Painted porcelain eggs from Japan and China were also popular Victorian Easter gifts.
Easter card by ItsLassieTime via Wikimedia Commons
Royal Easter Eggs
Before we get to the famous Fabergé eggs of 19th Century Russia, there are a few other, lesser-known royal Easter egg jewels to be found in history.
In England, in 1290, King Edward commissioned 450 hen eggs to be covered with gold foil to give them as Easter gifts to the members of the court.
In the 17th Century, Louis XIV, known as ‘The Sun King’ of France, started a trend of opulently decorated ostrich eggs. These were obtained from the Versailles zoo and given to members of his court as special gifts from the King. However, the ostriches in the zoo did not lay real eggs, and this led the court jewellers and craftsmen to be summoned to make substitute eggs from ivory and porcelain.
In the 18th Century, his successor, King Louis XV, commissioned the court goldsmith to create a large decorated egg containing a mini figurine of Cupid for his mistress, Madame du Barry.
Finally, the Fabergé egg…
Now, we finally get to the Fabergé egg.
These opulent, handcrafted egg-shaped jewels were created by the royal jeweller, Carl Fabergé, in the 19th century.
He made the first ones for Russia’s Czars Alexander III and Nicholas II; they were intended as luxurious Easter gifts for the Czars’ wives and mothers.
These early pieces are often referred to as the “Imperial Eggs”.
The story goes that the first-ever Fabergé egg was inspired by an even earlier Easter egg jewel.
Easter was then, as it is now, the biggest Russian Orthodox holiday. While the holiday itself is about celebrating the re-birth of Christ, it is a time when Russian families come together over festive food and drink – and gift traditional Easter eggs.
The story goes that apparently Czar Alexander III’s wife, Maria Fedorovna, often talked about a beautiful, bejewelled Easter egg that had belonged to her aunt, Princess Wilhelmine Marie of Denmark.
Empress Maria told her husband how she had admired it as a child.
This is said to have given the Czar the inspiration to commission the first Fabergé egg as a surprise Easter gift for the Empress.
This really took the idea of Easter egg gifts to another level!
Known as the Hen Egg, the first Fabergé egg is made from yellow gold. Its white enamel shell opens to reveal a yellow gold “yolk”.
The yolk also opens, and inside is a gold hen.
But wait… there’s more!
The gold hen also opens up and is rumoured to have contained a tiny diamond replica of the Czar’s imperial crown and a ruby pendant.
Sadly, these last two items have been lost.
After the Russian Revolution, the Fabergé family was forced to flee Russia. Since then, the Fabergé trademark has been sold and has exchanged hands many times.
To date, the House of Fabergé has produced around 50 eggs, although only 43 are known to survive.
Many of them can be seen on display in Museums around the world.
Eggs and jewellery, a winning combination
We hope you enjoyed our Easter article regarding egg jewellery.
As you can see, since time immemorial, humans have wanted to decorate eggs. That is why these two seemingly unconnected concepts, eggs and jewellery, were brought together.
With Easter being the time of rebirth, fertility, wealth and health in almost all cultures around the world, it is not surprising that so many traditions of gifting elaborately gilded and bejewelled Easter eggs have sprung up.
What do you think? What would you choose? An Easter egg made out of chocolate… or one decorated with gemstones and gold?