In March this year I was at TEFAF, an art, antiques and design fair in Maastricht. I was wandering around when I saw this antiques shop from New York called A La Vieille Russie. They specialise in Russian artefacts and always have unusual objects on display. And there, sitting on top of a pile of real potatoes, was a potato carved from pinkie-brown agate. It turned out to be by Fabergé, and I fell in love with it.
Peter Carl Fabergé, of course, is famous for his eggs. Alexander III, the tsar of Russia, first commissioned him to make one for the Empress Maria in 1885 as an Easter present, by which time he was already restoring jewellery for the Russian royal family. But his clients were people who decorated their horses with emeralds and had diamonds the size of marbles. In other words, they were used to ornate design. In order to satisfy their desire for novelty he resorted to whimsy, creating pieces in the form of fruit and vegetables.
As far as I know, this is his only potato. It’s not clear when it was made – it is signed with his name, but not dated – but it’s probably from the 1890s, when he began to produce table objects, including an incredible snail made out of jade and enamel which is in the Fabergé museum in St Petersburg. Recently I went to the museum on the hunt for more information about the potato, and I spoke to the curators there. They laughed at me and said they didn’t know what I was talking about. They even wondered how I knew about the potato in the first place – it’s not registered. But of course they don’t have everything. Its story remains a mystery.
The potato is a fine example of Fabergé’s simplicity. It’s humble and lavish at the same time. I mean, what kind of artist makes a potato this beautiful, with a gold-mounted hinged cover and a fleur-de-lis clasp? His first eggs had the same calmness of design. Only later did they become elaborate. The one that impresses me most, his Hen Egg, is in the museum. The outside is opaque white enamel and looks just like the real thing. When you open it a beautifully crafted bird is perched inside next to a ball of golden yolk.
The way he incorporated nature and animals into his work has inspired me to create my own collections of creatures at Chopard. I have designed everything from gem-encrusted king prawns to a peacock cuff whose blue and green tail twists down the arm. A highlight was making 150 unique animal pieces for our 150th anniversary, celebrated at the Frick in New York in 2010.
The architecture of his work also resonates with me. We often work with enamel using ancient techniques, which include carving a piece of jewellery as if it were a sculpture, and often combine unusual materials like aluminium and titanium with gold and precious stones. It was with techniques like this that Fabergé managed to turn a simple potato into a piece of art.