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International Women's Day 2021

On International Women’s Day, it seems apt to celebrate a woman responsible for some of the most iconic jewels and objet d’art known to us. Alma Pihl, perhaps not a household name, was born in 1888 into a family of jewellers and goldsmiths. She entered the house of Fabergé in 1909 and was tasked with documenting the pieces created in the workshops for the firm’s archive. Her exquisite life size renditions of the jewels noted the gemstones used as well as the price. Naturally skilled, she started to design pieces in her own time which caught the eye of the head workmaster and accordingly Fabergé himself. She was promoted and became the first woman designer for the firm of Fabergé.

Dr Emmanuel Nobel, the oil magnate, commissioned Fabergé to create 40 small jewels which were to be hidden in the folds of napkins that would be used by his dinner guests and were intended to surprise and delight them but not be such extravagant gifts as to be seen as bribes. Alma Pihl rose to the occasion, using the frost on the window of the design room as inspiration and designed a series of ‘snowflake jewels’. Nobel was thrilled and commissioned many more pieces in this vein, including an Easter Egg, all of which were groundwork for one of the most spectacular Imperial pieces ever produced by the house of Fabergé – The Winter Egg. Gifted by Nicholas II to his mother, the dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in 1913, Alma Pihl’s design was a triumph, allowing the craftspeople to demonstrate their virtuosity in stone carving, stone setting and surely transported anyone who saw it into the depths of a Russian winter.

Such was the reception to the 1913 Imperial Egg, Pihl was tasked the following year with creating the Egg which would be presented by the Tsar to the Tsarina, Alexandra. Now in the Royal collection, The Mosaic Egg is one of my personal favourites. Technically brilliant, unbelievably difficult to have achieved (even by the most skilled artisans) and aesthetically stunning, it is a tour de force of design and creativity.

I think the most striking point of all is to remember the time in which this took place. The early 20th century was a time when many women were excluded from the workplace, and if they were in a working environment their skills ignored and a career progression impossible. A woman bucking that trend can only be inspirational.

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