Theo Faberge

Engineer turned master craftsman


Theo Fabergé, engineer and jeweller: born London 26 September 1922; married 1953 Maureen Kearney (one daughter); died St Leonard's on Sea, East Sussex 20 August 2007.

At the age of 47, Theo Woodall, a precision engineer, discovered that he was Theo Fabergé, grandson of Carl Fabergé, the famed jeweller who created the exquisite eggs for the Tsars of Russia.

Born in London in 1922, he was the love child of Dorise Cladish and Nicholas Fabergé, youngest son of Carl Fabergé. Soon after his birth, Theo was delivered into the safe hands of his mother's sister and her husband, to be brought up if he was their own son. This family secret lasted far into adult life; it was not until a great-aunt suggested that he obtain a copy of his birth certificate that Theo discovered his true identity. His "aunt" became his mother and his "mother" his aunt.

The discovery, not surprisingly, had a great impact on Fabergé's life and he slowly changed direction. He had started his career as an apprentice engineer in the aircraft industry. After serving in the Second World War, he had become an instrument-maker for Wallace Heaton, then the royal photographers. Later, he managed a small electro-mechanical firm and subsequently became the works manager for a cinematographic factory. In 1967 he established his own business making electro-mechanical equipment.

But not long after his discovery that he was a Fabergé, he began learning about silversmithing and ornamental turning. In 1974, he sold his successful engineering business, as he had become tired of mass production, and began to make his living from what he enjoyed doing best: designing and making objets d'art. He also restored antique furniture, clocks – indeed all sorts of antiques, from snuff shoes to tortoiseshell and brass-marquetry work on large Boulle furniture.

He excelled at ornamental turning and entered an ivory casket he had made to commemorate the Queen's Silver Jubilee the year before in the 1978 annual competition of the Worshipful Company of Turners. He was awarded the Lady Gertrude Crawford Medal, which is the highest award for ornamental turning. He was also granted the company's ultimate honour for a turner – he was elected a Freeman Prizeman. This honour had not been bestowed for 22 years; the medal had not been awarded for nine.

The first major exposure of Fabergé's work was in 1979 at the "Loot" and "Super-Loot" exhibitions staged by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths at Goldsmith's Hall in the City of London. This was also the year that he made his first egg. He had always vowed that he would not use the form for which his grandfather was renowned. However, he finally agreed to make one for a small boy and it was not long before he was making eggs for others.

In 1984 Theo Fabergé signed a contract to design exclusively for the St Petersburg Collection Limited. Until his health deteriorated, he travelled extensively for the company. A week before his death he became a founder member of the Fabergé Heritage Council. This is part of the reunification of the Fabergé family with the brand bearing its name. The recently formed Cayman Island-based Fabergé Limited acquired the brand from Unilever at the beginning of this year.

A very modest man, Theo Fabergé was a superb craftsman and extremely likeable. He was passionate about wood and was never happier than when he was working at his 19th-century Holtzapffel lathe, which he had lovingly restored over a number of years. His workshop was an Aladdin's cave of prototypes, detailed models, works in progress, exotic woods, and tools. Whenever anyone admired a piece of his work, he was quietly dismissive. He may as well have said, "It is a mere nothing". However, he would speak enthusiastically about a piece of wood, pointing out its graining and texture as he lovingly caressed it. In speaking of his beloved lathe he would mention its capabilities as one would describe an infant prodigy that had to be nurtured for it to reveal its full potential.

Upon his 80th birthday, to mark his work as a master craftsman, the Worshipful Company of Turners of London granted the Company's Honorary Liverydom to Fabergé. This indeed was a great honour, as it had not been granted for many decades.

John P. Andrew

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