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.