RESTORING FABERGE’S OLD-WORLD IMAGE
Byline: Pete Born
NEW YORK — In an industry where marketers often gripe about a dearth of classy names for licensing, Unilever has wrestled with a different problem.
It owns one of the oldest trademarks in the luxury goods industry — Faberge. But over the decades since the Russian crown jeweler Peter Carl Faberge died in 1920, the image has faded and the public’s grasp of Faberge’s work has slipped.
“People don’t know what [Faberge stands for], but they know it’s a great name,” noted Patrick J. Choel, president and chief operating officer of Chesebrough-Pond’s USA and the Faberge division, both owned by Unilever. “What we are trying to do is rebuild a high image for Faberge.”
This effort includes not only a large egg-shaped crystal container for the fragrance — costing $3,000 — but a Faberge museum exhibit that will open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Feb. 13, then travel to San Francisco; Richmond, Va.; New Orleans, and Cleveland.
To give the advertising the right tone, the company is in the final stages of negotiations with the Princess Grace Foundation USA to use photographs of Grace Kelly, according to David Horner, a veteran cosmetics industry executive who is consulting on the project. Choel presented a “Faberge Award” for the first time as part of the foundation’s annual ceremonies at a dinner Oct. 29 in New York.
All this is aimed at setting the stage for eventually introducing a broader-based commercial Faberge scent. “There is a potential to bring out a product that is more affordable,” noted Chol. “We can keep making eggs for a while, but two or three years down the road we should be establishing a broader business.”
Asked about possible distribution, Choel said the retail channel has not been decided. But he added, “I think it will go through the department stores before it goes beyond.” The Faberge name has been marketed in this country in the mass market with the Brut men’s brands.
“Faberge hasn’t done a women’s fragrance in 25 years,” Horner said. “We want to redefine where we can take this company. This will tell us what to do,” he said of the egg launch.
Choel has experience elevating the Faberge image, for he was in charge of the brand in France as head of Unilever’s subsidiary there. A Faberge museum show was mounted in St. Petersburg in 1993 and subsequently traveled to Paris and London.
The new fragrance, simply called Faberge, will be sold only at Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, beginning in February. The primary product is a lead crystal egg, featuring a dark blue top that has been hand-decorated with gold. Inside is another crystal bottle, holding two ounces of the fragrance — a spicy floral developed by Givaudan-Roure.
That item will retail for $3,000, and the company hopes to sell 1,000 units during the year. Also in the line will be another crystal item — a freestanding egg-shaped bottle with a handpainted stopper — holding two ounces of fragrance. That will be more affordably priced at $750 a bottle, and 5,000 units will be produced.
Horner said that the company is also planning to add another item, tentatively priced at $500, for Christmas.
Choel noted that the concept behind the traditional ornamental Russian egg is to contain a surprise inside. The egg, an age-old symbol of the renewal of life, became a favorite gift object of the Russian tsars as early as the 18th century, according to Archduke Geza von Hapsburg, a 20-year authority on Faberge, who curated the 1993 European show and will act as guest curator at the Metropolitan exhibit.
Peter Carl Faberge, who had taken over his father’s jewelry business in St. Petersburg, came to prominence in 1884, when he became the court jeweler of the Russian imperial family. The next year, he crafted his first imperial Easter egg, which Tsar Alexander III gave to his wife. For Alexander III and his successor, Nicholas II, Faberge ultimately produced 56 eggs.
A total of 44 still exists in the world, mostly in the hands of American museums and collectors. The largest concentration — 12 eggs — is in the Forbes collection. Malcolm Forbes was determined to amass a larger number than the Soviet government, which has 10 eggs in the Kremlin Armory Museum in Moscow, von Hapsburg noted.
What made the eggs valuable is their intricate design. One of the Forbes eggs, dubbed the “Coronation Egg” and made in 1897, contains a replica of a coach inside. “Some of the eggs took up to two years to make,” von Hapsburg said. Although the objects were manufactured with precious metals and stones, the current resale prices — over $3 million — far exceed the cost of raw materials. “The intrinsic value is not significant,” von Hapsburg said. “If you melted one of them down, it might be worth a few thousand dollars. You are paying for the artistry, design and execution.”
New York bottle designer Robert du Grenier and Horner focused on the “Tsarevich Egg” of 1912 in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts as the inspiration for their new Faberge interpretation. The item is being produced by French glass maker Saint Louis, a division of Hermes.
Horner said that when the fragrance is featured in the Neiman Marcus catalog, beginning Feb. 15, it will contain a special offer. For $100,000, Horner said, a buyer will be flown to Paris to consult with the Saint Louis experts on the design of an egg.
John Stabenau, vice president at Neiman Marcus in Dallas, said the product fits the Neiman’s profile, and he appeared confident the store could sell all its stock. The $3,000 egg will appeal to glass collectors, he speculated, and the $750 item will attract fragrance buyers.
He described the egg as a creative impulse that is needed now, and added: “You have to try new things.”