The first thing that springs to most people’s minds when we think of eggs and jewellery together, are Fabergé Eggs. However, these imperial Russian jewels were created relatively recently during the 19th century. The concept of opulently decorated eggs has been around much longer.
Inscribed Persian egg / Image credit British Museum.
The egg motif has rich associations with pagan religions. A sacred symbol of springtime and life, it is present in art and sculpture throughout history. To fully understand the significance of eggs in jewellery, we first need to look at why we celebrate Easter.
Porcelaine eggs at the Museum of the Decorated Eggs in Romania
Early Easter traditions
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.
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.
An 1884 depiction of goddess Ostara by German artist Johannes Gehrts
Goddess Ostara’s association with 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.
Ishtar and her jewellery
Another fascinating ancient Easter myth, believed to date back to about 2,100BC, is the story of goddess Ishtar. It is, in fact, one of the oldest written texts ever found.
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.
Goddess Ishtar of Babylon / Image credit Wikipedia.org
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.
Ancient Babylonian gold bead necklace at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, USA
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 millenia. 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.
Ukranian pysanky – decorated eggs / Image credit Wikipedia
Pysanky 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 dyeing 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.
A red Easter egg decorated with a cross / Greek Orthodox Monastery, Bolton, Canada
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.
Eastern Orthodox Easter postcard
Victorian Easter eggs
The fate of the Easter egg changed dramatically 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 postcard from around 1900
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 “Peter the Great Egg” created by Fabergé for Czar Nicholas II
The story goes that the first ever Fabergé egg was inspired by an even earlier Easter egg jewel.
Apparently Czar Alexander III’s wife, Maria Fedorovna, often talked about a beautiful, bejewelled Easter egg that had belonged to her aunt, Princess Vilhelmine 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.
Kelch Rocaille Fabergé Egg
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. 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.
House of Fabergé Rose Trellis Egg
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.
The Imperial Coronation Fabergé Egg and its surprise, a tiny gold charriot
Modern Easter egg jewellery
Most of us could not afford the luxury of owning one of Fabergé’s imperial eggs.
There is good news, however. Following in the footsteps of Fabergé, many talented jewellers have turned their hand to making beautiful, inspired egg pieces.
Next time you’re thinking of someone special at Easter, they might welcome one of these beautiful gold and diamond versions instead of a chocolate egg!
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