Many Finns lived and worked in St. Petersburg: in 1881, about the same number of Finns lived in the city of Turku. In terms of the Finnish population, Petersburg could well be called the third largest city in the Grand Duchy of Finland.
St. Petersburg has attracted Finnish jewelers and novice craftsmen since the 18th century. In 1840, about 500 jewelers of Finnish origin worked in St. Petersburg. This is twice as much as in all the cities of the Grand Duchy of Finland combined.
In those years, the Finns usually did not plan to move to St. Petersburg permanently – they were interested in earning money and the opportunity to acquire a profession. The length of stay in the city was largely determined by chance.
The student became an apprentice and later a master. Many Finnish craftsmen who came to St. Petersburg worked for others.
Some Finns had their own business, sometimes a workshop and a store. The jeweler Tillander was one of them. The firm, founded in 1860 by Alexander Tillander Sr., worked, among other things, on Nevsky Prospekt.
The youngest son of the torpair Gustaf Tillander went to St. Petersburg at the age of 11 and was apprenticed to the jeweler Holstenius. Thus began Tillander’s career, which resulted in a successful business.
The most famous name in the history of jewelry is Carl Faberge. Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920) worked with 24 jewelers representing their workshops.
Among them were 14 Finns. Faberge considered them talented, reliable and honest. Finnish masters came to St. Petersburg because of the difficult living conditions, most of them from the eastern part of the principality to work with some master. At home, they hardly had the opportunity to get an education.
Masters August Holmström and Hiskias Pöntinen worked for Carl’s father, Peter Gustav Fabergé, in the early days of the firm. Holmström worked as a jeweler in the Faberge workshop for 46 years.
Young Carl became head of the firm in the early 1870s. He is said to have emphasized that the value of a work is determined by the concept, inspiration and high level of execution – and not by the cost of the material used.
In 1900, the company moved to a building with red granite columns on the “golden street” of St. Petersburg – Bolshaya Morskaya.
Cases were needed for jewelry, which were made by cabinetmakers and drapers specializing in them. Every respected jeweler had their own case design. Many Finns have become experts in case making, including Simon Käki.
In addition to St. Petersburg, the Faberge firm had branches in Moscow, Kyiv, Odessa and London. Masters put the brand of the company on products that corresponded to high quality.
There was a large jewelry market in Imperial Russia. For example, beautifully decorated cigarette cases were in vogue. In addition to the Russian imperial court, Faberge was also a supplier to the royal courts of Sweden and Norway. Of course, Faberge also produced inexpensive items for less affluent clients.
The wonderfully illustrated book by Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm tells, among other things, about such Finnish Fabergé jewelers as Holmsröm, Mikkelson and Armfelt, Kollin, Väkevyä ( Väkevä), Nevalainen and Niukkanen.
Two women are also mentioned: the daughter of the artist-jeweler August Holmström, Alina (Alina) and the talented daughter of Knut Oscar Pihl, Alma Teresia, who created the famous “Winter” egg. She began her creative career by sketching for the archives and ended up getting permission to stay with the firm because she “badly cooked.”
When choosing new masters, preference was given to relatives and countrymen. Finnish families communicated closely, representatives of different families even entered into marriages.
The First World War was a difficult time for jewelers: specialists were drafted into the army, workshops received military orders.
The revolution changed everything completely: the jewelers lost the ground under their feet. The Faberge firm was closed in 1918, Faberge himself left the country with the assistance of the British ambassador.
Fortunately, information about high-class jewelers and their work has been preserved – largely thanks to Ulla Tillander-Gudenjelm, who studied in detail the life and work of jewelers of that time. Decorations and art objects ended up in museums, some were taken out by emigrants, but some disappeared without a trace.
Most of the Finnish jewelers returned to their homeland and continued their business there. Tillander’s firm moved to Helsinki, where it still operates. Only the middle-aged founder of the company remained in St. Petersburg, where he soon died.
Carl Faberge died in 1920 in Switzerland. He had four sons. Sons Eugene (Eugéne) and Alexander (Alexander) founded a company called “Faberge” in Paris.
Carl Faberge’s son Agathon (1876–1951) moved with his son Oleg (1923–1993) to Finland. Having crossed over to Finland with the help of fishermen across the ice in 1927, the family managed to take decent savings with them. Alma Piel, the author of the Winter Egg, taught art in Kouvola and did not tell anyone about her past.
Tillander’s firm made 69 Easter eggs, 50 by order of the imperial court, two eggs were never delivered. Eggs were also ordered by the Russian Kelch family and ten other customers. Seven eggs are missing.
The largest private collection today is owned by a Russian billionaire. Ten eggs are in the Moscow Kremlin and several in the St. Petersburg Shuvalov Palace. The Faberge firm also produced many more modest Easter eggs, such as necklaces.