IN 1884, RUSSIAN JEWELER PETER Carl Fabergé was summoned by Czar Alexander III and given an imperial short order: Make me an egg. Easter was coming, and the czar, hoping to please his homesick Danish wife, the Czarina Marie, wanted to give her something fancier than the traditional' Russian gift of a hen's egg. One more thing: Fabergé's creation must have a surprise inside. No problem, said the supremely confident jeweler, who nonetheless refused to reveal his plans, even to the czar. "Your majesty," he reportedly said, "will be content."

He was. The first Imperial egg—an enameled gold shell that contained a tiny hen with ruby eyes—combined the genius of Fabergé, the extravagance of the Romanovs and the spirit of Cracker Jack to create a unique art form. The eggs became a tradition, purchased every year by the imperial family for more than three decades. "Fabergé had the most unbelievably inventive spirit," says Géza von Habsburg, one of the world's foremost Fabergé experts and curator of an exhibit of 400 Fabergé works—including 15 of the 44 surviving Imperial Easter eggs—now at New-York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art and bound, over the next year, for San Francisco, Richmond, Va., New Orleans and Cleveland. "He was like a choreographer, firing the creativity of the people who worked for him. With them he crafted just the most extraordinary things ever made."

Born to jeweler Gustav Fabergé and his Danish wife, Charlotte, 149 years ago, Carl studied with a master goldsmith in Frankfurt before taking over his father's modest St. Petersburg store at age 24. The firm vied with other suppliers for lucrative orders from the imperial family—the Fabergés got an edge by offering free repairs—until Carl's wildly original designs caught the eye of the empress, who bought a pair of his cicada-shaped cufflinks in 1882. When he was named court goldsmith in 1885, Fabergé's fame spread from Europe to the Orient.

For a merchant of fantasy, he was a man of simple tastes. In 1872, Fabergé married Augusta Jakobs, daughter of an overseer at the Imperial Furniture Workshop. With Augusta and their four sons—all of whom joined the family firm—Fabergé lived quietly in an apartment above the store.

The Russian Revolution abruptly eliminated his customer base in 1917. Czar Nicholas II and his family were executed by Bolsheviks the following year, but Fabergé escaped from Russia by acting as a British courier. His wife and sons also fled. Carl and Augusta settled in Switzerland, where he died in 1920.

Among the artifacts currently on view—carved pigs from the collection of Joan and Melissa Rivers, elegant Edwardian cigarette cases and flowers made of semiprecious stones—the eggs show off Fabergé at his most extravagant. For those who see them, Easter eggs may never look the same again.