A slightly plump lady with dark peppercorn-eyes, self-knitted clothes and a soft accent that no one knew was from Russia — all paired with being a well-liked, kind, happy and inspiring teacher. That is how Maj-Britt Paro remembers Fabergé designer Alma Pihl in her new book.
Paro was for five years a pupil in a school for local Swedish speaking children at pulp and paper industry communities and surrounding areas in Kymi/Kymmene in eastern Finland near the Russian border. For twenty-four years, between 1927 and 1951, this small community is where a woman who people knew as Alma Klee taught drawing and calligraphy, inspiring her pupils to create free from their fantasy and calling for “more schwung”. It was not until long after her death that they would learn the story that has now been told to the world and made Alma Pihl Klee remembered as one of Fabergé’s most celebrated designers.
Alma Theresia Pihl was born on 15 November 1888 in Moscow, Russia. Her maternal grandfather was August Holmström, master goldsmith and jeweller for Fabergé until his death, and her father started out as his apprentice. After losing her husband and father of her five children, Alma and four brothers, their mother moved with the family to S:t Petersburg.
After graduating school with top marks, Alma started an internship in the Holmström workshop, which her maternal uncle had taken over, and was then hired as their archivist. With the job to make and file drawings of all objects made in the workshop and the amount of metals and gems used for them, Alma could also use her artistic side for the job. One day her uncle spotted sketches Alma had made on breaks from her archive work and it was decided that she would get a chance to use those shown skills.
Alma’s firs task, in 1911, was to sketch suggestions for little gifts that oil magnate Emanuel Nobel wanted to hide in napkins of female guests at his entertaining dinners. The result was the ice-crystal and snowflake design, inspired by the frost flowers of winter, that Nobel purchased the patent rights to use, and the design came to be used on many kinds of little pieces of jewellery for Nobel over the years.
The world famous Fabergé eggs were from 1885 presented as gifts from Emperor Alexander III to Empress Maria Feodorovna and later by Emperor Nicholas II to Empress Alexandra and Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna and had become a strong tradition when, in 1913, Alma Pihl was asked to design one.
The result of Alma’s design work was the Winter Egg, the most expensive of all Fabergé eggs, and it celebrates the return of spring and light. The egg was given by Emperor Nicholas II to his mother Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna; today the egg is in Qatari ownership and might be exhibited in the future. In 1914, Alma was asked to design another egg and author Paro suggests that the inspiration came from the cross-stitch embroidery work her mother-in-law made. The result was the Mosaic Egg presented to Empress Alexandra; it is today found in the collection of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and has been exhibited to the public.
Alma’s work for Fabergé lasted for around ten years and included the 18th birthday gifts for Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana as well as many different designs for various pieces of jewellery and customers around the world. This can all be read about in various jewellery books, see for example Tillander-Godenhielm and A. Kenneth Snowman.
When the Russian revolution happened in 1917, life as they knew it in S:t Petersburg ended. In 1912 Alma had married Nikolaj Klee who later came to work for Ab Kymmene Oy (today part of UPM-Kymmene Oy) as the head of the company’s main Russian sales office in S:t Petersburg. Nikolaj had been a tennis partner of Alma’s brothers during their comfortable datja life where families socialised. As the life they knew ended, the company was shut down and the couple’s home searched. It took until 1921 for the family to flee Russia for Finland and that summer they settled in Kymmmene to establish a new, different life.
Nikolaj got a job at his company’s head office and Alma became a school teacher and after a few years they moved into a villa with a garden. When they retired in 1951 Alma and Nikolaj moved to Helsinki with Lydia, a niece of Alma who had grown up with them. Nikolaj died in 1960, Alma in 1976 and Lydia in 1990.
Alma’s life story was unravelled by Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm when she worked with the 120th jubilee exhibition and catalogue of A. Tillander in 1980, the family jewellery company that had employed two of Alma’s brothers when they came to Finland. Author Paro describes this and some side-stories to the great story of Alma Pihl Klee’s life and artistry, one of them being the two sketchbooks rescued and smuggled out from the Holmström workshop when by a young worker whose son sold them to Wartski and later resulted in the book “Fabergé: Lost and Found” by A. Kenneth Snowman in 1993.
Paro also describes her own, Tillander-Godenhielm’s and Anu Seppälä’s respective contact with Alma’s Russian relatives who met Alma many times and today cares for her inheritance. Old pupils of Alma have also met, collected written memories and raised memorial plaquettes at the family home in Kuusankoski (neighboring Kymmene, to which they moved) which Paro describes along with Alma’s and Nikolaj’s archived self-told stories of what they lost in Russia and the celebrations of their silver weddings in 1937.
This book, whose title can translate to “Aunt Alma’s secret: Fabergé artist Alma Pihl” in English, is a small and quite humble being that contains a big story. Next to Ulla Tillander-Godenhielm’s unravelling of Alma’s and other Finnish jewellery designers and jewellers’ stories and making their work known to the world and preserved for the future; Paro has helped by collecting and preserving the story of one designer and her family. As one of many Finnish families who struggled to make a new life for themselves in their old homeland when the life they knew in Russia was taken away, the Pihl Klee’s succeeded in doing what others couldn’t. Although they lived anonymous lives, Alma’s name is today known around the world and her design work stands in a class of few.
Full title: “Tant Almas hemlighet: Fabergékonstnären Alma Pihl” (Swedish)
Author(s): Maj-Britt Paro
Publisher: Tore och Herdis Modeens stiftelse
Publishing date: 2013