Thursday, February 19, 2015

19th Century Technique: Piqué

Here I go again! I'm in the middle of several blog posts about different topics...and then BAM! I really want to learn about piqué. I dream of the stuff. Seriously. So without too much of an introduction (because I am seriously running out of winter break time to write this...), here is what I found!

Dating back to the 18th century, piqué work was introduced to England by Hugenot refugees (Victorian Jewlery). It became popular in the early 19th century, but really took off from 1850 to 1870. Pieces were hand made before the process became industrialized, and the mass production in the 1870s led to a lack of quality. The style fell out of favor after that. 

I personally had no idea how piqué works. This took a bit of research, since I believe that in order to understand the jewelry I need to know a bit about the process.

Here is where I get sad. Piqué is just a technique, so it can be found on many materials, including gutta percha and ivory. But the overwhelmingly used material was the shell of the hawksbill turtle. The production of such jewelry nearly led to the extinction of the entire species, so in 1970 the trade of turtle shell was abolished worldwide under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. These little guys are now a critically endangered species, with only about 15,000 nesting females left in the world. You can actually adopt a turtle here

But for the jewelry that already exists in antique trade...motifs include stars, dots, stripes, flowers, and diamonds; I have found these be typical of the Etruscan revival of the 19th century. The naturalistic themes are common in jewelry of this time period. 

Photographic Documentation
This moment rather reminds me of the great snake incident of 2014. And by that, I mean that one blog post when I strained my eyes looking for snakes in original images. Based on the surviving originals, the details are so fine that it would be hard to tell if pique was used. Also, the tortoiseshell will appear black in the image. So really I might be giving up too early, but if someone has a cdv or daguerreotype with obvious pique jewelry, please send it my way. My eyes thank you!

Textual Documentation
I actually found no mention of the word "piqué" in the context of jewelry. Instead I found references to "gold inlay" and more mentions of tortoise than I can count. 

Godey's Lady's Book, Peculiarities of English Advertising, May 1855
The following appeared in a provincial paper in Ireland, a few years since: "Missing from Killarney, Jane O'Fogarty; she had in her arms two babies and a Guernsey cow— all black, with red hair and tortoise -shell combs behind her ears and large spots all down her back, which squints awfully." Here, indeed, is inextricable confusion between the cow and the delinquent.

Godey's Lady's Book, Tortoise-Shell, 1858
THINK of the following, ladies, when you are handling your tortoise -shell combs:-
What is called time tortoise -shell is not, as is generally supposed, the bony covering or shield of the turtle, but only the scales which cover it. These are thirteen in number; eight of them flat and five a little curved. Of the flat ones four are large, being sometimes a foot long and seven inches broad, semi-transparent, elegantly variegated with white, red, yellow, and dark brown clouds, which are fully brought out when the shell is prepared and polished. The laminae, as I have said, constitute the external coating of the solid or bony part of the shell, and a large turtle affords about eight pounds of them, the plates varying from an eighth to a quarter of an inch in thickness. The fishers do not kill the turtles; did they do so, they would in a few years exterminate them. When a turtle is caught, they fasten him, and cover his back with dry leaves or grass, to which they set fire. The heat causes the plates to separate at their joints; a large knife is then carefully inserted horizontally beneath them, and the laminae lifted from the back, care being taken not to injure the shell by too much heat, nor to force it off until the heat has fully prepared it for separation. Many turtles die under this cruel operation, but instances are numerous in which they have been caught a second time, with the outer coating reproduced; but, in these cases, instead of thirteen pieces, it is a single piece.

Frank Leslie's Weekly, Manufacture of Combs, March 1858

It is said that the greatest comb manufactory in the world is in Aberdeen, Scotland. There are thirty-six furnaces for preparing horns andtortoise -shell for the combs, and no less than one hundred and twenty iron screw presses are continually going in stamping them. Steam power is employed to cut the combs. The coarse combs are stamped or cut out—two being cut in one piece at a time. The fine dressing combs, and all small tooth combs, are cut by fine circular saws, some so fine as to cut forty teeth in the space of one inch, and they revolve five thousand times in one minute. There are some two thousand varieties of combs made, and the aggregate number produced of all these different sorts of combs is about 9,000,000 annually; a quantity that, if laid together lengthways, would extend about seven hundred miles. The annual consumption of ox horns is about 730,000, and the annual consumption of hoofs amounts to 4,000,000; the consumption oftortoise shell and buffalo horn, although not so large, is correspondingly valuable. A hoof undergoes eleven distinct operations before it becomes a finished comb.

Godey's Lady's Book, Chitchat Upon Fashions for November, 1862
The new style for dressing the hair is a short rolled bandeau, which is generally waved. Upon this there is arranged a second bandeau turned back a La Imperatrice, and the two are separated by small side combs, which are now all the rage. Plaits and puffs are also arranged with these combs, which are made in endless variety, and give an air of piquant coquetterie to the head. When worn in the daytime, these small combs are made of light tortoise shell, either with a row of small pearls, also in shell, very closely ranged together, or cut out in clubs, points, or hearts. For the evening they are made of dead gold, either quite plain or studded with pearl, coral, steel, gilt, or even precious stones, according to the toilet with which they are worn. Sometimes the Greek design is worked in black enamel upon the dead gold. The comb at the back should correspond exactly with the side combs. Ivory combs are still worn, also shell with ivory ball tops. Among the prettiest shell are some with ball tops studded with tiny gilt stars.

Godey's Lady's Book, Chitchat Upon Fashions for February, 1863
Tortoise shell is being worked in much more elaborate designs than formerly. The bow combs are very tasteful, and we see whole sets, consisting of combs, dress and sleeve-buttons, pins, earrings, and buckles to match, made of shell, onyx, marquisite, and enamel. The rage at present is for initials, and we see a delicate Grecian border in gilt or shell, with a large gilt initial in the centre; the same design is in marquisite (a fine steel) on onyx. The sleeve-buttons are all made as in Fig. 1 of our Fashion-plate, one large button, with the two small fastenings underneath. Initial buttons are made to order in ivory or colored bone; but the other styles are, we believe, all imported. The more expensive sets have the initials in diamonds; others have a black initial on a dead gold ground. We have seen a number of sets tastefully enamelled on copper, and set round with the tiniest of steel brilliants, which have the effect of diamonds.

Godey's Lady's Book, Chitchat Upon Fashions for February, 1864
A novelty has just appeared in the way of combs. They are of tortoise -shell, highly ornamented with raised devices of various kinds, some having luxurious bunches of grapes and foliage, or sprays of ivy, with its berries. Another new comb is a kind of long geld clasp, ornamented in great variety of style, and exceedingly pretty, for the present styles of coiffure.

While not every reference to tortoise shell mentioned piqué, based on my other evidence, much of it could have been worked with gold inlay. I did not include other quotes, in which I discovered that eyeglasses, book covers, tables, and even musical instruments were made of the shell. No wonder we almost pushed them to extinction!

Surviving Originals
My first experience with piqué was on Pinterest. I marveled at the pretty little designs, the intricate style that doesn't exist today. After gathering the research for this post, it is safe to say that I am an addict!

In my textual documentation, I found so much evidence that combs were commonly used with piqué. Why does it seem that more jewelry survived, rather than combs? My assumption is that they were chipped or broken over time, while the jewelry would have been stashed in a box. Please let me know if you have any other conclusions! In any case, it is all absolutely gorgeous.

My Reproductions
So piqué work on tortoise shell rose to popularity during the 19th century, and I have seen zero representations (okay, maybe an antique comb here or there). My reader should know me by now! I like to make the previously marginalized front and center, and would love more variety in jewelry for reenactors. We shouldn't all be wearing the same thing! I got to work right away, trading the endangered tortoise shell for onyx, jet, or glass. Here is the fruit of my labor:

These are all worked with 18k gold pen, covered with a light adhesive to seal the gold. The comb is plastic, but it is so *close* that I was willing to make that exchange. Just the three pieces took several weeks, as the gold is testy and even my steady hands created errors. They are all available in my shop too! You can "peek" online at The Victorian Needle

Between the research, blog writing, and actual creation of the jewelry, I can say now that I am officially over piqué...just kidding! I want to make myself an entire set before this summer! 

Ah, my never-ending prowl through the 19th century!


1 comment:

  1. I have some jewelry from Yemen that looks very similar to this, but it has silver accents in black coral!



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