A History of Piqué
Piqué work was a decorative art form which was largely developed and practiced during a relatively confined period of time in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In essence it involves the creation of inlaid designs on a tortoiseshell, wherein gold or silver pins are pressed into the shell to create an ornate pattern. This had become a relatively common way of decorating fashioned tortoiseshells during the seventeenth century in Europe, particularly in France, to create ornate combs, snuffboxes and other small ornamental pieces for use by the monarchy and nobility.
Typically the shells involved were derived from the Hawksbill tortoise, which were common across the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans during the period in question. Alternatively piqué work was used to decorate ivory or other materials. The overall idea was to arrange the gold and silver pins in such a fashion that they both appeared as contiguous pieces and would create a dance of light and shade when viewed from different angles. Designs included basic geometric or floral shapes or efforts to represent more complex imagery, such as scenes from ancient Greek and Roman mythology, through the placing of the pins in the shells.
Historically the practice of piqué seems to have entered widespread usage in France during the seventeenth century, particularly at the court of the king of France, Louis XIV, who reigned from 1643 to 1715, and amongst the Ancien Régime nobility of the country. It was highly prized by the elite there, but it entered much more mainstream usage following its importation to Britain by Protestant religious refugees from France, known as the Huguenots, in the late seventeenth century. In particular, the use of piqué as a decorative form reached its height in the workshops of Matthew Boulton. Born in Birmingham in 1728, Boulton was a significant manufacturer and businessman of the early Industrial Revolution in England. Much of his trade revolved around the production of toys and early manufactured products as England was beginning to become the first country where small consumer products were mass produced. Around 1770 he began mass production of piqué goods out of tortoiseshells. Thus, an inventory of his workshop’s goods from 1772 lists such things as snuff-boxes and button-boxes being made out of tortoiseshells and inlaid with silver and gold. As a result, the piqué technique, which had been a relatively rarefied method of decorating household objects in seventeenth century France, became a more commonly seen decorative form in late eighteenth Britain amongst the nobility and growing middle class.
Yet in the end Boulton’s popularisation of the method helped sow its obsolescence. By the nineteenth century the piqué method was being widely used to mass produce decorated tortoiseshells in British factories. This contributed to the gradual endangerment of the Hawksbill tortoise in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. As other methods of decorating ornaments became available in tandem, the art of piqué decoration largely went out of fashion.
Gunilda regularly offers Piqué Canes to the market and currently we have a stunning Silver inlaid Piqué Dress Cane made from Karelian Birch Circa 1890. Please see below for more details:
E. Robinson, ‘Eighteenth-Century Commerce and Fashion: Matthew Boulton’s Marketing Techniques’, in The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1963), pp. 39-60.
Jennifer Tann, ‘Boulton, Matthew’, in Brian Harrison and H. C. G. Matthew (eds.), The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 60 Vols. (Oxford, 2004).
Artemis Yagou, ‘Novel and Desirable Technology: Pocket Watches for the Ottoman Market (late 18th – mid 19th c.)’, in Journal of the International Committee for the History of Technology, Vol. 24 (2018/19), pp. 78-107.
Gunilda brings a beautiful piece to the market from Russia.
Click on the item below for more details:
Giuseppe Sarao Naples, circa 1735-1745,
Tortoiseshell with gold and mother-of-pearl, polylobed oval dish with chinoiserie motifs.
Provenance: Baron Henri de Rothschild (1872-1947). © Galerie J. Kugel
Tortoiseshell and piqué work Box by Wilhelm Krüger German
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 533