Today nesting dolls (a.k.a Babushka dolls or "matryoshka" dolls) available in the market are of very different qualities. It can initially be difficult to differentiate between the quality dolls and the fake ones made elsewhere. Indeed this problem is not unique to Russian gifts or nesting dolls, and because of the availability of fake dolls in the market, many individuals are leery of purchasing anything when they are not sure of the origin or authenticity. Many people find it hard to differentiate between a real Russian doll and fakes; however, with a little bit of practice and knowledge of what to look for, this task becomes quite easy. Real handmade dolls can be differentiated by their place of production (city or town), by the painting style, and by the artists that paint the intricate designs. To make it easier to identify real nesting dolls and even identify the style and town in which they were painted, I'm providing a short by simple guide to help you find these best quality dolls.
Where Real Nesting Dolls are Sold
In Russian cities such as Moscow or Saint Petersburg, nearly all of the nesting dolls sold in souvenir shops are of exceptional quality; however they also have exceptional prices. They are made from the best quality wood and raw materials (e.g. defect-free Lime wood, higher quality paints and gold trim). Larger seven, ten and fifteen piece nesting dolls are usually painted by trained professional master craftsmen. On the contrary, dolls sold by street vendors may be high quality and a great value, individual shoppers will need to have a discerning eye to identify the small defects and other problems that are common. Street vendors that sell these items usually purchase slightly defective nesting dolls wholesale from souvenir shops or directly from the artists themselves. If you seek a great deal, street vendors are the place to look but you should be should take your time, look at all of the nesting doll pieces, and ask for higher quality items - the sellers will be happy to help the smart shoppers.
Differences in Finishing and Polishing
The higher quality babushkas are made utilizing defect-free "blank" or unpainted nesting dolls. Some small defects in the wood are easily fixed by polishing or covering very minor divots and dents with starch glue to create a smooth surface. This is normal in Russia; however, these types of fixes to the wood are never seen in imitation nesting dolls made outside of Russia. The smooth surface is very important - good Russian artisans demand this so that they can apply paints evenly and include precision detailed painting. Russian nesting dolls that are very inexpensive will still often times have some defects - it is simply not economically feasible for artisans to try to achieve perfection in a five piece nesting doll and then sell this for 300 rubles on the street ($6.00 USD). If you come across a large expensive nesting doll with dents and defects, it is likely that it is very old or that it is not an authentic matryoshka doll.
Type of Wood
The wood used for making Russian nesting dolls is taken from the Lime trees grown in Western Russia and throughout Siberia. Lime trees are famous worldwide for the soft but durable wood they produce, which is nearly perfect for wood-working and wood-carving. Interesting enough, many different Russian woodcutters specialize in crafting and cutting blank (unpainted) dolls, but usually they never take up painting these dolls. The woodcutters simply cut, sand and prepare blanks for artisans throughout Russia. They select the Lime wood trees based on quality, lack of defects, and the age. Fake dolls made outside Russia will often be plastic imitations, or utilize cheap pine wood or other low quality raw materials. The differences in wood type are easy to see once you handle the dolls.
Opening and Closing
Quality Russian nesting dolls usually open and close with some amount of effort - pushing and twisting the two pieces of the largest doll. The largest dolls may squeak slightly as you open them - this is normal with Lime wood and one of the ways to identify the dolls. Most of the fake dolls will crack or break easily due to children opening and closing the dolls, and simply playing with them. Dolls made of Lime wood tend to be more durable and long-lasting. Very high quality Russian nesting dolls made of Lime wood can last hundreds of years and retain the high quality painting and clear lacquer finish.
Painting Style and Designs
Making of quality dolls involves painstaking labor and hours of hard work. A single ten or fifteen piece nesting doll can take several months to finish. The artisan or the artist may take several additional weeks to complete the exquisite gold trim and lacquer finish on these one of a kind nesting dolls. Intricate designs and detailed painting is what separates these handmade dolls from its other counterparts made in China. Additionally, Russian matryoshkas often feature styles that are modeled after Russian style lacquer boxes which feature exceptionally detailed painting styles and small miniature landscapes. Russian dolls are also painted utilizing bright and bold colors versus those painted elsewhere. Fakes usually stand out for their low quality painting and poor quality colors. Authentic matryoshka dolls will have contrasting, bold color combinations of red, blue and yellow in the dress of the dolls, which gives them a bright and cheerful look and makes them stand-out from the crowd.
If you're looking to buy the best quality of a nesting doll, you can choose dolls made by experienced and skilled craftsmen in one of the four villages famed for making them. Nesting dolls from the famous Russian artisan cities of "Fedoskino", "Palekh", "Kholui", and "Mstera" are very popular and unique. This is because artist from the above towns usually study in specialized artisan colleges. They are professionally trained painters and craftspeople recognized by Russian art guilds and other organizations. These towns are the locations well-known for the art of making babushka dolls or matryoshka. Often times great quality matryoshka will be signed by the artist and the artist will also indicate the city where they live. This is a hallmark of real Russian nesting dolls.
In conclusion, real Russian matryoshka dolls always feature high quality raw materials such as Lime wood egg-based tempera paints, Russian style color schemes and Russian-themed landscapes or colors. High quality dolls will almost always feature intricate painting, gold trim, and very high quality clear lacquer finish to protest the dolls for centuries. Finally, it is also common for larger and more expensive matryoshka to be signed by the artist or artisan.