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Market Scene : Ananov Puts the Sparkle Back in Russian Jewelry : Is he the new Faberge? Some say so. His high-risk style wins over customers at home and abroad.

March 08, 1994|CAREY GOLDBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Even if you are not about to shell out $4,000 for a gem-encrusted Easter egg, it can do your heart good to enter the deep-carpeted hush of Andrei Ananov's sanctuary here.

Outside, the crumbling palaces and shabby, potholed streets of this former czarist capital can elicit despair that it will ever recapture its old glory.

But inside, among his candelabra and baroque gilt furniture, Russia's premier jeweler shows that, if only in tiny and exorbitant ways, it can be done.

In his five-year rise from clandestine craftsman risking a prison sentence for illegal work with precious metals, Ananov has been acclaimed at least pretender to the title of Russia's new Peter Carl Faberge, the legendary jeweler to the czars.

"This demonstrates what Russians are capable of," Ananov said of his luxurious shop in the Hotel Europe. "It's all real, although it's not easy. You just have to really want to make it happen."

A practiced raconteur, Ananov, 48, makes a riveting tale out of just how he made it happen--how he went from concealing his creations to displaying them in Paris and overseeing a workshop of 80 craftspeople.

It was the KGB he used to have to worry about most, back in the old Soviet days when the government had a legal monopoly on jewelry making, as it did on most everything else. Ananov, a longtime theater director and actor, made jewelry as a lucrative hobby, keeping his sideline secret.

In the end, however, someone squealed, and a squad of KGB agents arrived at his house for a search.

The jeweler knew that if they found the bag of diamonds in his desk and bits of gold about the house, he would spend several years in prison. So he tricked the agents into believing that the jewels were hidden in the tank of a toilet, which could be opened only with a screwdriver.

And the screwdriver just happened to be kept in the desk where Ananov had secreted his bag of diamonds. So when the KGB man requested the tool, Ananov had a chance to shift the diamonds to his already searched pockets.

Later, in the presence of the KGB men, he asked his wife to make him soup so that he would not go to his interrogation hungry, and then he slipped into the soup some gold that he had hidden in his mouth. When the jeweler was led out of the house, he was clean as a whistle.

In 1988, Ananov decided to take the risk of showing a collection of his illegal jewelry to state officials in order to get permission to go above-board--a gambit that worked.

As he describes it, he laid out the pieces before a top bureaucrat and appealed to his national pride, declaring that the country could be producing such gorgeous work instead of typically clunky Soviet jewelry. If the gambit had failed, he was prepared for trial. But that was not necessary, and with the blessing of the government, he jumped early onto the wave of private firms created in the perestroika years.

By 1991, he was exhibiting abroad and signed a deal with Faberge, the French cosmetics company, now owned by Unilever, that had bought the family name from Peter Carl Faberge's descendants. Ananov agreed to sell some of his output through the French company under the label "Faberge par Ananov."

But apparent success does not necessarily mean stability.

These days, Ananov said, he still feels "like a tightrope walker without a balancing pole," most recently because the Moscow government has hit him with a bill for more than $50,000 in taxes owed on employee wages for 1993.

He must also worry, like most of Russia's new entrepreneurs, about falling victim to the greedy clutches of organized crime. He claims racketeers have left him alone so far, perhaps because he has steered clear of underworld dealers who offer him contraband "handfuls of emeralds."

Ananov has no guarantees. He sometimes fears that he could end up reliving the tragedy of Peter Carl Faberge, who reportedly was given just 10 minutes to clear out by the Bolsheviks who nationalized his workshop in 1918. Faberge ended his days in exile.

But despite his worries, Ananov revels in what he does, in his self-defined role as the man who is bringing the spirit of Faberge back to Russia. His works are not copies of Faberge pieces, but many of the methods are the same, using a style and daring that Ananov sees as uniquely Russian.

"Russians are into scale and risk," said Ananov, who once was a race-car driver. "In Paris, they used to say that if a Russian came into the Ritz restaurant, he'd spend so much they wouldn't have to work for a week afterward."

Russian risk-taking, he said, leads to special beauty when, for example, a jeweler fires enamel at a higher-than-normal temperature, one that could ruin the piece or, perhaps, produce the most lovely enamels.

Faberge's enamels were considered the finest in the world.

"No one else can do this," said jeweler Andrei Shevchenko, toiling in Ananov's workshop over a golden egg that flips open into three pieces. "Only we can."

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