12 November 2013

A Collection of Silver-Gilt Mounted Porcelains


The glorious Howzer Cup, a masterpiece of craftsmanship, consists of a Chinese brush pot, ca. 1630-50, mounted in England, ca. 1660-70, probably by the Swiss goldsmith Wolfgang Howzer. I especially love the hounds on the lid and handles. Image courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Today, with the help of the venerable V & A Museum Collection, I have assembled for you a collection of beautiful Chinese and Japanese porcelains, all featuring silver gilt mounts. Just imagine how exotic these porcelains would have seemed to 16th century Europeans. Asian porcelain pieces decorated with underglaze blue began to arrive in England in the 1560s, amid great speculation as to the nature of the mysterious material. Some people speculated that it was a precious stone, or perhaps made from crushed sea shells. Understandably, the owners of such high-status objects went to great trouble to enhance the value of their porcelains even more by commissioning elaborate silver-gilt mounts for them. I suppose when we take great care in framing an important painting, we continue this tradition in some small way. 
A Japanese Imari cup, mounted in France ca. 1720. This is the watercolor illustration I did for September, from our 2013 desk calendar. From the Victoria and Albert Museum Collection.

Asian porcelains were also enormously popular in France. When Siamese ambassadors visited Versailles in 1686, King Louis XVI himself received the delegation, and fueled a fever for all things Asian, bringing porcelains like the Japanese Imari piece above to the height of fashion. 
A Chinese ewer, ca. 1560-86 with later English silver-gilt mounts.
Image courtesy the V & A Museum.

Asian porcelain was so sought after in Europe, that objects of lesser quality, like the one above, were treated to the same gilt-mounting treatment as finer pieces. Porcelains like this ewer were made in large quantities in the southern city of Jingdezhen for local use and export alike. In 1557, according to the V & A, the Portuguese began to deal in porcelain in Macau, and although the vast majority of pieces went to Lisbon, the English pirates did what they could to increase the flow of these objects to England. The ewer may be rustic, but it still has a certain charm, don't you think?




The Trenchard bowl, Chinese porcelain
painted in underglaze blue, with English silver-gilt mounts.
Image courtesy the V & A Museum.


The Trenchard bowl, shown above, was featured in our 2011 calendar, and has an interesting history. From the V & A: "By tradition this bowl was a gift from Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy (1478-1506) and his wife Joanna 'the Mad' to Sir Thomas Trenchard of Wolverton, Dorset, in gratitude for his hospitality after their ship was wrecked off Weymouth in 1506. In fact, we can tell from the date of the mounts and of the porcelain that it reached England much later, during Elizabeth I's reign (1558-1603), probably as part of a load of porcelain seized from a Spanish ship." 

A Chinese porcelain cup, ca. 1573-85, with later English mounts, marked 1585.
Image courtesy the V & A Museum.


Having trained as a metalsmith, I'm amazed by the ingenious buckle-like mechanisms used to attach these fanciful metal armatures to the delicate porcelains. Like the exotic natural crystals, coconut shells and sea shells that were similarly "enhanced", these pieces of porcelain would certainly have made impressive additions to cabinets of curiosities. Wouldn't it have been wonderful to have been there to see them?! 

21 October 2013

A Visit to Alan Lloyd's Beautiful Shop


The entrance to Alan Lloyd's fantastic shop in Kendal

Hello Hello! Well, it's been a few weeks since my last post, and I have exciting news to report. The bindery is humming with interesting work, and our 2014 desk calendars are flying off to their new homes even faster than last year's. Amid all this, we decided it was high time to update our website for our wonderful clientele. And so, with great effort from our talented designer, Parvum Opus, has been completely redesigned. It's had great reviews so far-- we invite you to take a peek and let us know what you think! 


One of the many treasure-laden shelves in Alan's shop.

A pair of charming travelling inkwells. 

I've also had the great pleasure of making a wonderful new long-distance friend, Mr. Alan Lloyd, who, for the last 25+ years, has owned and operated this gem of a shop in Kendal, England. It's the sort of shop that I adore: tiny and characterful, and absolutely bursting at the seams with gorgeous pens, inkwells, inkstands, pen wipes and more. 

Another pair of travelling inkwells, this time in the
whimsical form of hats and umbrellas:
the inkwell is in the hat, and the pen is in the umbrella handle.

A boar bristle pen nib wipe in an appropriate form.

Alan’s shop features beautiful new pens, limited edition pens and vintage pens along with their appropriate inks and accessories. It also houses a fantastic collection of antique inkwells, pens and pen wipes that Alan has acquired over the years. These are incredibly rare and almost impossible to find now, so it’s wonderful to be able to see these pieces up close and hear about their histories from the erudite Alan.


In the corner of another display: 
circular pen nib wipes in  a feminine style.

18th Century treen pen wipes:
the laces on these tiny boots would have provided the wiping surface.

These inkwells and pen wipes, often from the nineteenth century, evoke romantic musings about their original owners. In a time when most people could neither read nor write, we can only wonder along with Alan, whose desks they adorned, and what sorts of letters came from those desks.

 
A 19th century red ceramic inkwell

Alan shared a story that resonated with me: he said that as a 10-year old boy, he was in the habit of carrying 3 pens in his jacket pocket. Of course, most young boys have no real use for 3 pens—it was obviously just something about them that he enjoyed. I think anyone who counts him/herself among the family of collectors can recall a similar early passion for objects… For me, it was books, pens and Japanese paper- no surprises there...


One of the many beautiful antique pens in Alan's shop

A pair bird-shaped inkwells in another corner of the shop

My dear husband travels to Kendal frequently on business, and had the privilege and pleasure of both discovering Alan's shop and meeting Alan in person. He took all of the pictures you see here on his last visit. I look forward to joining him on one of his trips to Kendal soon: I’m sure I’ll find some way to occupy my time while he works…

18 September 2013

An Antique Tortoiseshell Tea Caddy


A late18th century green tortoiseshell tea caddy, painted for our desk calendar.
 
Where have the weeks gone?! I must beg your forgiveness once again for the long delay in posting here-- we have been wonderfully busy here at the bindery, and have hardly been able to keep up with all of the wonderful bespoke projects that have come our way! I send warm greetings to all of our wonderful clientele and blogging friends-- it's so nice to be back.
 
Today, I thought I'd continue using our calendar motifs as a point of departure and share this painting of a beautiful octagonal green tortoiseshell tea caddy. This is an object whose materials and fine craftsmanship define it as particularly of its time and place. It's English, dating from the late 18th century when tea was an expensive and highly prized commodity in Europe. In England especially, the18th and 19th centuries saw the confluence of a mature craft tradition, new availability of exotic materials from around the world, and a growing consumer culture ready to collect the exquisite objects being produced. It was a perfect combination of artists, materials and audience that inspired what I consider to be some of the most beautiful objects in decorative arts history.  
A George III Tea Caddy, courtesy Nick Brock Antiques.

In my research, I came across an illuminating article from Mallett Antiques in New York on the history of the use of tortoiseshell as a material in the decorative arts. Interestingly, the article includes some fascinating information about the material itself:
 
"[The Hawksbill tortoise's] shell is an interesting material because it is a living substance, made of keratin. It is an insoluble protein composed of 55% carbon, 20% oxygen, 16% nitrogen, 6% hydrogen, and 2% sulphur. The shell thickens with age of the turtle, and can get to 8 mm for the Hawksbill turtle. Its density is of 1.29 and its hardness on Mohs scale is 2.5. The reason why it is the Hawksbill turtle that was mainly used in France in the 17th and 18th centuries is because of its very thick shell and rich colours."
 
A green tortoiseshell tea caddy similar to the one I painted, with a beautiful pink velvet lining
from Richard Gardner Antiques.

"Moreover, another very interesting property for furniture makers is the discovery that the shell has the characteristic of being able to auto-graft itself. The discovery in the 19th century of the possibility of auto-grafting enabled a higher volume of work, and considerably extended the applications. Turtle-shell could be welded, turned, sculpted, shaped and this enabled craftsmen to create work of lace-like dexterity." In fact, when heated, the tortoiseshell will expand and "fuse"  itself to a delicate silver inlay as in the box below.

  A  good example of how the "auto-grafting" tortoiseshell could be used in combination with silver:
a small round silver and tortoiseshell trinket box, the top with silver appliqué work,
by William Comyns & Sons, London, ca. 1909. Image courtesy Richard Gardner Antiques.

Continuing from the Mallett article: "The green turtle tortoiseshell (chelonia mydas), is much thinner and little coloured for the adult turtle, offers less interests and has much more difficulty to auto graft itself. Though the preferred choice was to work with hawksbill tortoises, the 19th century under Napoleon III’s reign, saw a massive use of green turtle tortoiseshell to make veneer, mainly because of its low price and easy supply compared to hawksbill."

A rare red tortoiseshell, ivory and silver tea caddy, ca. 1790.
Image courtesy Hampton Antiques.

Of course, the amazing properties of tortoiseshell as a material were nearly disastrous for the beautiful tortoises, and, as much as I admire the beauty and craftsmanship of these tea caddies and boxes, I'm happy that the age of tortoiseshell as a craft material is in the past. After all, no man-made object can compete with the beauty of nature.

Image courtesy Center for Biological Diversity

17 August 2013

Walpole's Sugar Bowl

 
 I painted this illustration of a Sèvres 1758 sugar basin for the Parvum Opus 2013 desk calendar.
Reading about it's owner, Horace Walpole has been such fun.
Image Copyright Parvum Opus.

What began as a simple bit of research into the history of a small 18th century French sugar basin has instead led me to an entertaining discovery. It would have been enough to talk about the venerable history of the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, and of the exquisite bird paintings of Étienne Evans. In this particular case, however, provenance wins out, because this little sugar basin was purchased by none other than Horace Walpole on a trip to Paris in 1765-6.

The companion jug from the Victoria and Albert Museum collection.

Before we get carried away, a bit about the sugar basin itself. From the Victoria and Albert Museum, where this piece lives now, we learn that “This sugar bowl and its companion jug are from a tea service with a matching tray. Such sets are known as 'cabarets' in Britain, where they were usually for one or two people, and as déjeuners in France, where they were sometimes equipped with four cups. Eighteenth-century accounts of tea drinking in France indicate that the tea was made very strong in a small pot, and then diluted with hot water before being drunk. Tea was drunk with hot or cold milk and sweetened with white sugar. It is unlikely, however, that these pieces were ever used by Horace Walpole, their first owner, for anything other than display.


Horace Walpole, by John Giles Eccardt, ca. 1755
Image courtesy Wikipedia.


Horatio Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford was born on 24 September, 1717. He was the son of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and a cousin of Admiral Lord Nelson. Although he was an art historian and Whig politician, he is widely remembered for Strawberry Hill, his neo Gothic creation in Twickenham.

Strawberry Hill as it appeared after the 2012 restoration.
Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The structure of the house was inspired by Gothic masterpieces including Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral, and like those inspirational buildings, Strawberry Hill evolved over a long period-- thirty years in this case.

Joseph Constantine Stadler, after Joseph Farington, Strawberry Hill (South Front),
1793, aquatint with hand coloring, The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Most fascinating for me are Walpole’s extensive collections, which filled and defined the interior of Strawberry Hill. The interiors were said to be “settings of Gothic ‘gloomth’ for Walpole’s collection.” (Calloway, Stephen, Snodin, Michael, and Wainwright, Clive, Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill, Orleans House Gallery, Richmond upon Thames, 1980.) Gloomth—what a fantastically descriptive term! Walpole’s collections of art, antiquarian objects and curiosities were well known to his contemporaries and detailed in his publication, A Description of the Villa of Mr. Horace Walpole at Strawberry Hill.

John Carter, View from the Hall at Strawberry Hill, 1788, pen and ink, and watercolour on laid paper, from Horace Walpole’s extra-illustrated copy of A Description of the Villa…at Strawberry-Hill (Strawberry Hill, 1784). The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.
* The blue-tinted area signifies a piece of art further described on the Library's database.

According the the V&A: “On [his 1765 trip to Paris] he spent more than £400 on porcelain and confessed that he bought china faster than he could pay for it. Walpole purchased these pieces some years after they were made, so he probably bought them from the stock of a Paris dealer, rather than as new pieces from the [Sèvres] factory. Continental porcelain could not be legally imported to Britain until 1775 unless it was declared to be for private use and not for sale.”

John Carter, Great North Bed-Chamber, n.d., watercolour and ink, from Horace Walpole,
A Description of the Villa…at Strawberry-Hill (Strawberry Hill, 1784).
This is the room in which the 
Sèvres breakfast set was displayed.
The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. 

* The blue-tinted area signifies a piece of art further described on the Library's database.

My search into the history of this small sugar basin led me to a wonderful discovery: The Lewis Walpole Library of Yale University. There, interested parties can explore a database which includes not only details about Walpole’s entire collection of art and objects, but also detailed descriptions and images of each room in Strawberry Hill. 

John Carter, ‘Holbien Chamber,” c.1788, watercolor with wash-line mount, from Horace Walpole,
A Description of the Villa…at Strawberry-Hill (Strawberry Hill, 1784).
The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. 

* The blue-tinted area signifies pieces of art further described on the Library's database.

From the Library’s home page: “Dispersed since the famous house sale in 1842, Walpole’s collection was one of the most significant in eighteenth-century Britain, numbering several thousand items. This database encompasses the entire range of art and artifacts from Walpole’s collections, including all items whose location is currently known and those as yet untraced but known through a variety of historical records.” How wonderful that this project has been undertaken—it’s a truly impressive archive, and one I’m sure you’ll enjoy. Equally wonderful has been the circuitous path that led me from a French sugar bowl, to the biography of Walpole, to a splendid treasure trove of art and antiquarian objects.

16 August 2013

And the Winner is...


Congratulations Gina!

Your name was drawn out of the hat, and so it will be my great pleasure to make a bespoke folio for you. What fun-- I'm looking forward to it!

Thank you all for participating in our little birthday drawing. I'm looking forward to another year of engaging conversations.

06 August 2013

Happy Birthday Parvum Opus Blog!



A Notepad Folio shown with Italian paper interior and covers.
For detailed information on Parvum Opus folios, please click here.

How time flies! 

It's been exactly one year since we published our first post here on the Parvum Opus Blog. To celebrate, we're taking a cue from some of our favorite bloggers and invite you to participate in a drawing for one of our bespoke notepad folios (5" x 8" size) in the materials of your choice. To enter, simply add a comment on this post--one entry per person, please. You will be assigned a number, and we'll then draw the winning number out of a hat.  The winner will be announced next week. Good luck!


Writing this blog had been a delightful experience, and I thank you all for your erudite and sparkling conversation. I look forward to many more inspiring exchanges in the coming year!

28 July 2013

Treasured Books No. 3: Michel de Montaigne

A detail of an anonymous portrait of Michel de Montaigne,
courtesy The Guardian and Bridgeman Art Library

There are some authors who come to be constant companions, whose words enter our minds as easily as conversations with a dear friend. This summer, despite a larger than usual stack of stimulating reading, I've found myself drawn back into Montaigne's Essays. Michel de Montaigne has been called by many the father of the familiar essay, and with an umbrella of influence that includes Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Virginia Woolf and Anne Fadiman, it's no wonder. 

An anonymous 17th century portrait of Montaigne,
courtesy the University of Chicago's Montaigne Studies Forum

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, was born near Bordeaux in the Chateau de Montaigne on February 28, 1533. His father was a wealthy humanist merchant who, unusually for the time,  meticulously planned his son's education, even arranging for him to have the advantage of Latin as his first language. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Given the huge breadth of his readings, Montaigne could have been ranked among the most erudite humanists of the XVIth century. But in the Essays, his aim is above all to exercise his own judgment properly. Readers who might want to convict him of ignorance would find nothing to hold against him, he said, for he was exerting his natural capacities, not borrowed ones. He thought that too much knowledge could prove a burden, preferring to exert his ‘natural judgment’ to displaying his erudition." 


The Chateau de Montaigne, in Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne, in the Dordogne, France.
The castle dates to the 14th century and was Montaigne's family home.
Image courtesy Wikipedia

Indeed, Montaigne is known for being extremely quotable. When I first read the Essays, being an incurable note-taker, I found myself practically re-writing the entire text! Here, I've used what I consider to be tremendous will-power to limit myself to a few gems to give you the flavor of Montaigne's voice:

"He who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live."
--Essays, Book I, Ch. 19, That To Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die

"Accustom him to everything, that he may not be a Sir Paris, a carpet-knight, but a sinewy, hardy, and vigorous young man."
--Essays, Book I, Ch. 25, On the Education of Children

"I speak the truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little more, as I grow older."
--Essays, Book II, Ch. 2, Of Repentance

"If anyone is charmed by his own knowledge, whilst he looks only on those below him, let him but turn his eye upward toward past ages and his pride will be abated, when he shall find so many thousand wits that trample him under foot." 
-- Essays, Book II, Ch. 6, Use Makes Perfect


"The middle sort of historians (of which the most part are) spoil all; they will chew our meat for us."
--Essays, Book II, Ch. 10, Of Books


An anonymous portrait of Montaigne, ca. 1590
Image, courtesy the Montaigne Studies Forum

My 4-volume set of the Essays was published in 1880 in Boston by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. Bound in green tooled leather, with not-very special end papers, these octavos are perfect for me: neither too precious to take along in the car or plane, nor too ordinary to spend hundreds of hours with. The pages, 133 years old now, have the lovely texture of the text imprinted into the paper, and I find myself reading as much with my fingers as my eyes, a sort of aesthetic braille.
They have a charming detail: the frontispiece of each volume includes Montaigne's seal, a set of balance scales with his motto: 'Que sais-je"-- "What do I know?" His library, into which he "retired" to write his essays, is a beautiful space. Montaigne inscribed the following above the fireplace:


IN THE YEAR OF CHRIST 1571 Michael Montaigne, aged 38, on his birthday, the day preceding the Calends of March, already long wearied of the servitude of the law-courts, and of public offices, has retired, with faculties still entire, to the arms of the learned virgins, there to pass in all quiet and security, such length of days as remain to him, of his already more than half-spent years, if so the fates permit him to finish this abode and these sweet ancestral retreats consecrated to his freedom and tranquility and leisure.

Montaigne's tower library, the only surviving 16th century section of the Chateau.
Image courtesy St. Georges.


The ceiling in Montaigne's library, with inscribed beams. For a translation of the
maxims inscribed, click here.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Montaigne's voice has traveled from this inspiring library, down through the centuries with no loss of humor, potency or relevance. These are the perfect books to pick up and enjoy as the mood strikes, as the essays can be taken individually. But beware-- Montaigne is so likable,  so entertaining, that you might find yourself, like me, lost in conversation with him while the rest of your reading stack grows unchecked.

03 July 2013

The Bayeux Tapestry

 A detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, with the Norman cavalry ready for battle.
Courtesy, Web Gallery of Art

I've long been fascinated by historical needlework and am an avid practitioner: after all, there is no better way to understand and appreciate an artistic process than to physically do it. There is also something very satisfying in having physical proof of a winter's evenings spent stitching by the fire. As I work, my mind often wanders, and I imagine the long line of people who for thousands of years have sat near a light, needle and thread in hand. Here we have a rare cultural relic, a process which has changed very little-- the linen, needles, silks and wools may be machine made now, but the techniques are the same. The stitches I learned from a beloved teacher are the descendants of those recorded as early as the 5th century BC in China, where they were developed as mending and reinforcing stitches for garments. 

A detail of a needlework project I did a few cold winters ago for my husband. 
Many of the stitches are identical to those in the Bayeux Tapestry.
Image copyright, Parvum Opus.



Scene 43a, depicting the Normans' battle preparations: HIC FECERUN[T] PRANDIUM.
"Here they made breakfast." Courtesy Wikipedia.

You're surely familiar with the Bayeux Tapestry, but I hope you'll enjoy revisiting it as its one of those objects that never fails to amaze. A brief bit of history, from Wikipedia: The Bayeux tapestry "is an embroidered cloth- not an actual tapestry- nearly 70 meters (230 ft) long, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings."


Scene 54, HIC ODO EP[ISCOPU]S BACULU[M] TENENS CONFORTAT PUEROS:
"Here, Bishop Odo, holding a club, gives strength to the boys."
Courtesy Wikipedia.


"According to Sylvette Lemagnen, conservator of the tapestry, The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the supreme achievements of the Norman Romanesque... Its survival almost intact over nine centuries is little short of miraculous... Its exceptional length, the harmony and freshness of its colors, its exquisite workmanship, and the genius of its guiding spirit combine to make it endlessly fascinating."


William, Duke of Normandy
Image courtesy BBC



In this scene, Harold is struck in the eye by an arrow and dies. 
HIC HAROLD REX INTERFECTUS EST, "Here King Harold is slain."
Courtesy Wikipedia.


The tapestry includes about fifty scenes embroidered on linen with Latin tituli or captions. 
No one knows for sure who commissioned or fabricated it, but it's possible that William's half-brother, Bishop Odo had it made in England sometime in the 1070s. After a long and complicated journey, the tapestry has found a permanent home in the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, France.

A view of a section of the Bayeux Tapestry inside the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.
From the UNESCO homepage, courtesy of the French State.


One of my favorite scenes in the tapestry depicts Halley's comet, which appeared in March of 1066.  The comet was considered to be a bad omen for Harold, who would die in the battle of Hastings later that year. In 1066, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Eilmer of Malmesbury wrote of Halley's comet: " You've come, have you? You've come, you source of tears to many mothers, you evil. I hate you! It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country. I hate you!"  

Scene 32 from the tapestry, with the tituli: "ISTI MIRANT[UR] STELLA[M]",
or "the people marvel at the star". The comet is visible at the top right.
Image courtesy Wikipedia.

If you have the opportunity, I heartily recommend a visit to the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.  It's nearly impossible to get a feel for the scale and texture of the actual piece which is truly magnificent in person. Until then, I do hope you'll enjoy the following video, which cleverly animates a section of the tapestry, and perhaps, even pick up a needle and thread and continue the conversation with the talented embroiderers who created this beautiful piece almost a thousand years ago.






20 June 2013

Elias Geyer's Navy: Fantastical Sea Shell and Silver Drinking Vessels of the 16th and 17th Centuries

Poseidon astride a seahorse, nautilus with jeweled silver gilt mounts,
Elias Geyer, Leipzig, ca. 1590
Copyright Parvum Opus

First, please allow me to beg forgiveness for my extended absence and warmly welcome you back to the Parvum Opus blog! It has been a whirlwind of a spring, with an over-full schedule of fascinating work at the bindery, and a chain of happy family events. I've missed our wonderful conversations and am so happy to return to a more normal schedule now. I can't wait to see what my favorite bloggers have been up to over these past few weeks... 

We are, shockingly, half way through the month of June, and I haven't yet shared the interesting  history of the gilt-mounted nautilus shell that I chose to paint for our calendar this month. The piece shown above was created by Elias Geyer in Leipzig around 1590. A well respected metalsmith at the time, he imagined and fabricated a flotilla of fantastical creatures like sea horses and unicorns with heads and upper bodies executed in jeweled and gilt silver, and hindparts made from exquisitely large turban snail shells. 

A pair of Geyer's sea horse drinking vessels: the cup opens via a hinge at the edge where the sea horse
body and shell meet. Courtesy of the Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest.
Copyright ArsDecorativa.

An Elias Geyer drinking vessel in the form of a basilisk, ca. 1600.
From the collection of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

In the course of researching this very interesting class of objects, I came across an acquisition proposal written by Dr. Eike D. Schmidt of the Minneapolis Institute of arts. Here is his description of the cultural conditions that produced such fanciful works: 

"From the end of the 16th century, Nautilus shells from the Indo-Pacific Ocean were imported into Europe on a regular basis, where they were admired for their exotic origins and geometric perfection. The fact that their interior chambers follow a logarithmic spiral was interpreted in early modern thought as evidence for the theory that nature from its greatest manifestations (macrocosm) to its smallest details (microcosm) follows a thorough plan. They were seen as proof of the convergence of the bodily and spiritual worlds... and often ultimately of the existence of God. Whereas a few nautilus shells were made into liturgical objects (incense burners), the vast majority were mounted as secular drinking vessels by, generally, outfitting them with mounts of silver, gilt silver and gold figures alluding to the Sea or the element of water (as the nautilus’s original habitat). Silver-mounted nautilus shells were among the most characteristic products of the famous gold- and silversmithing workshops of Augsburg and Nuremberg in Southern Germany and were sought after by collectors all over Europe."


Another Geyer drinking vessel, this time in the form of a griffin bearing a halberd.
From the collection of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

Dr. Schmidt  continues: "Nautilus cups were (and continue to be) among the most prestigious trophy objects within silver collections, and as such they were frequently represented in still life
paintings, such as those by Willem Claesz. Heda (Dutch, 1594 – c. 1670). But they are
particularly representative of the objects collected in the Renaissance ‘cabinets of curiosities,’ a type of collection, which is an important forerunner of the modern museum as an institution. Striving to put together the rarest and most exotic, wondrous products of nature with the most astonishing accomplishments of human inventiveness and dexterity, that is of naturalia and artificialia as they were called at the time, princes and the richest merchants of the 16th and 17th centuries put together the first large collections of zoological, botanical, and mineralogical specimens blended with the most exquisite works of art. These “cabinets of curiosities” were also known as Kunst- und Wunderkammern (“chambers of art and wonder”). They first emerged in the territory of the Holy Roman Empire and in central Europe, before spreading throughout the remainder of the continent. By combining natura and artificium in a single work, Nautilus cups can be seen as pars pro toto ["a part (taken) for the whole"] embodiments of the very concept of collecting that informed the “cabinets of curiosities” at large."

If you'd like to read more about these works, I've included a link to a 2005 New York Times article, "When fantastical trumps function", by Souren Melikian.

Still Life with Nautilus, attributed to Willem Claesz Heda.
Courtesy of Wikipedia.