08 May 2013

Antique Étuis

A gentleman's étui, made in England ca. 1700.
Tortoise shell with silver mounts in the form of a knife box, and including a
salts flacon, knife, ivory tablet, toothpick, pencil, and a combination snuff spoon
and ear wax spoon. Image courtesy 1stdibs.com.

You might have guessed by now that I am endlessly fascinated by beautiful antiques, especially those that fall under the heading of objects of vertu, and personal objects. These intimately scaled masterworks tell a story, not only of the talented artists and craftspeople who created them, but of the culture, priorities, and daily lives of the people who used them. Among the most exquisite of this class of objects is the étui,-nécessaire, a type of small case containing miniature implements used to complete a variety of everyday tasks. 

An agate and gold etui set with diamonds and an emerald, English, ca. 1710.
Includes scissors, bodkin, fruit knife and combination pen and pencil.
From the Victoria and Albert Museum Collections.

For more than 300 years preceding WWI, the étui in evolving forms was commonly used throughout Europe and later in North America. Tools for women might include scissors, needles, pencils, ivory writing leaves and small knives. The étui could be designed to be displayed on a desk, or carried in a pocket or purse. 

A desktop necessaire, of agate and gold, English, 1766.
Includes 5 bottles, pencil, ivory tablet, scissors, mirror, comb, brush, toothpick, tongue scraper, bodkin,
ear wax spoon, and a combination file and tweezers.
From the V&A Collections.

It  was also common for a lady to wear her étui suspended from a chatelaine, a decorative belt hook worn at the waist. Her snuff box and watch would be suspended from separate chains on the chatelaine.  Men carried étuis, but for them, the slightly larger case might include a watch, keys and a seal. For both men and women, these miniature tool kits are usually made with precious materials, are richly ornamented and often whimsical, as befitting such personal pieces. 

A shagreen etui with steel tools, 18th C French.
Includes a compass, corkscrew, spoon, tweezers, scissors, and an ivory aide memoir.
Image courtesy of David Stanley Auctions.

I suppose one could argue that today's technologically elegant smart phones with all of their built-in tools are the modern version of the old étui. Just like their antique predecessors, these modern tools tell a story about our culture's priorities and our daily lives. Although I enjoy my iPhone as much as the next person, I'm not sure that I am as charmed by the new story as much as the old!

A tiny étui encased in a walnut with silver metal fittings.
Includes scissors, thimble, needle, pin case, and stiletto.
Image courtesy of Richard Gardner Antiques.


  1. Hello Erika, These objects are fascinating because of the way they employ their exquisite craftsmanship at a level so intimate and personal. They embody a spirit that says even away from home, luxurious touches and conveniences cannot be dispensed with.

    I could imagine a modern etui for myself, containing a tiny screwdriver, pliers, pen, magnifier, and magnet, to take on collecting forays.
    --Road to Parnassus

    1. Dear Jim,
      Thank you for your message-- I'm so glad that you enjoyed seeing these! I'm with you-- a tiny tool kit similar to the shagreen one would just about do the trick! It's sort of like a handcrafted Swiss Army knife, don't you think? I especially like the idea of a magnet on a telescoping handle-- very useful!
      Warm regards,

  2. Dear Erika,

    While I'm so happy to have central heat and air, and good plumbing, too, I feel as though I really would have enjoyed living at a time when such etuis were in fashion (provided of course that I was of a class that carried etuis!).

    I suppose the bigger purses have been the death of such things, let alone tote bags, and that's a shame.

    Without a doubt, my favorite is the shagreen etui, though I'd make room for a tongue scraper (you know, to liven up table conversations).

    Best wishes,

    P.S. Erika, your postings are always so elegant — you set the bar high.

    1. Dear Mark,
      Thank you for your kind words. I'm with you-- I love the fact that we live in the age of plumbing, penicillin, etc., but there is something so wonderful about these tools. Isn't it interesting how these pieces are elegant and refined yet visceral and earthy (even a bit gross) at the same time? It's as if our predecessors had a more elevated understanding of their own physicality, whereas we tend to ignore it... Fascinating.
      Warm rgards,

  3. Dear Erika - for me, I think I will take the agate and gold étui set with diamonds and an emerald - it is pretty and has some useful little items. I will leave the tongue scrappers and ear wax spoons for others.
    I am not sure what a stiletto is - if you have time perhaps you could enlighten me?
    The étui encased in a walnut is a novel concept and beautifully made.

    1. Dear Rosemary,
      Thank you for your comment-- I can easily imagine that agate etui in my pocket as well-- such beautiful materials and craftsmanship! I find it so interesting to see all of the tools of daily life that our ancestors used-- the tongue scrapers and ear wax spoons sound so alien to us now, don't they? Several etuis that I found include stilettos, which are small dagger-like blades or tools: the most painful of our shoes are named for them-- how appropriate! I'm glad you enjoyed seeing these.
      Warm regards,