Spartan diadems, planetary rings and a naked lady in a matchbox
Also, a snake with people teeth.
This type of banded, arched and bejeweled tiara is known as a “Spartan diadem.” The style’s origins go back to ancient Greece, and the word “diadem” itself derives from the Greek diadein, which means “to bind around.” Its neoclassical form — which evolved from Napoleon Bonaparte’s revival of the laurel wreath crown — was wholeheartedly adopted by the French Napoleonic court, and Empresses Joséphine and Eugénie (wife of Napoleon III) can both be seen wearing them in portraits. The band shape of the diadem was particularly complementary to the upswept hairstyles of the day, so the style quickly made its way to an international audience, gaining mentions in various periodicals of the early 1800s.
This particular diadem may have actually belonged to Empress Eugénie. It’s now in the collection of London jewelers Bentley & Skinner, but in 2015 it was sold by Bonhams, and they mention the possible Eugénie connection in their lot description. It seems there’s another portrait of the Empress in which she’s wearing a very similar coral and gold diadem, and she also was known to sell her own jewelry to maintain her lifestyle — but as there’s no clear history or record of sale, Bonhams admits we can’t be sure if she owned it or not. Bentley & Skinner make no mention of Eugénie in their description.
The diadem itself is circa 1840, and was made in Naples. The piece features seven large concave discs set into a flat band of gold, with each disc cradling a cabochon-cut coral. Eight smaller cabochons set in floral-shaped bezels are placed between the larger stones and surrounded by Etruscan-style gold wirework designs. Overall, it’s a beautiful example of the archaeological revival style that began in the 18th century with the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, and was revisited again throughout the 19th century as designers tried to replicate the intricate workmanship of the Etruscans.
Seriously, few things delight me more than depictions of creatures with people teeth. This pre-Revolutionary circa 1880 Russian snake bracelet has an articulated golden body, with an ornately enameled head set with a 1-carat pear-shaped diamond and ruby eyes. Definitely go look at the other photos of it, because it really is beautiful! But one look at those choppers and all I can think of is that time Grover tackled Kermit and made him wear a set of teeth for a public service announcement.
I highly recommend the skit, if you haven’t seen it. Yesh.
In 1857, the British Admiralty commissioned a medal to honor all those hardy souls involved with Arctic expeditions between the years of 1815 and 1855. Expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage — a commercial trading route through the Arctic — were regularly being undertaken in those years, but the mid-1800s in particular saw a large increase as many expeditions were commissioned to look for Captain John Franklin and his two ships, the Terror and the Erebus, which had sailed off in search of the Passage in 1845 and never returned.
The medals were awarded by Queen Victoria, and her profile is seen on the front of the piece. The reverse features a three-masted ship surrounded by icebergs, with a sledge party in the foreground and the words “For Arctic Discoveries” and “1815-1855” at top and bottom.
The name of the recipient was engraved along the edge of the medal, and this particular medal was awarded to Joseph Organ, who had served as Ice Quartermaster — which I believe is essentially a helmsman who is trained to detect and steer the ship through pack ice to open water — on three different expedition ships: The Enterprise in 1848-49, led by Commander James Clark Ross (who was an absolute smokeshow, by the way); the Resolute expedition of 1850-51, which discovered traces of the Franklin expedition’s first winter camp; and the Assistance, which sailed in 1852 in search of Franklin along with four other ships, including the Resolute again.
Incoming tangent alert! Lol. In 1854, the Assistance expedition’s commander, Sir Edward Belcher, made the decision to abandon the ships after two winters in the ice. His men were NOT happy about it because they felt their ships and stores were more than sound enough to last another season, but they had no say in the matter. They all returned “safe but disgusted” to England, and 16 months later, the Resolute was found adrift by an American whaler. The whaler’s captain steered it home to Connecticut, and as a gesture of “national courtesy,” Congress bought it from the whalers for $40k, fixed it up and returned it to England, where Queen Victoria and her family toured the ship and expressed their thanks and delight at its condition.
The Resolute was eventually retired in 1879 and broken down, and the British government ordered three desks made from its timber. One of those desks was given to U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes in thanks for the earlier rescue and return of the ship, and the desk — which is usually referred to as “the Resolute desk” — still sits in the Oval Office. The less said about the current day the better, but here’s a photo of the desk in happier times, with Socks holding down the fort.
Gosh. This French writing case dates to the second half of the 18th century, and is another example of the beautiful neoclassical craftsmanship of the time. Made of engraved gold with translucent enamel, it features two central starburst medallions surrounded by mother of pearl. One side (unshown) features a diamond-accented monogram, and the reverse depicts a sweet little scene of a dog and a dove alongside an altar or column. The scene symbolizes love and friendship, and the inscription on the hinged lid of the case says Souvenir d’Amitié, or Souvenir of Friendship. Further decoration frames the case, with round white enamel beads alternating with golden stars set inside circles and overlaid on translucent royal blue enamel.
Inside the case is an ivory tablet, a pencil and a pair of gold and steel scissors. Helluva gift, amirite?
Georgian society in Britain was very interested in astrology and the planets, and that interest extended into jewelry. Certain gemstones were associated with the planets, and it was thought that wearing them could have a positive astrological effect on your life. (That belief still exists today, and if you do a search for gemstones & planets you can venture down lots of Vedic astrology rabbit holes.)
This circa 1800 planetary ring features a variety of foil-backed gemstones and pastes set in gold and silver. The stones symbolize certain planets: Pearl represents the moon, coral is Mars, sapphire Saturn, green paste Mercury, orange paste the sun, and garnets represent the North Node (i.e. the point where the moon moves into the northern ecliptic hemisphere, and another astrological doozy of a rabbit hole).
The dealer, Rowan and Rowan, sold another planetary ring a while back that featured a more ornate design and an even wider range of gemstones.
Circa 1900, this deceptively plain French vesta case has a secret naked lady inside. A vesta case is basically a metal matchbox (the name is a nod to Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth), and TONS of them were made in the late 1800s and early 1900s because matches at the time were a bit unstable and nobody wanted to spontaneously set themselves on fire. Because pretty much everyone was using them all over the world, an incredible range of designs were created. There were options for everyone, rich or poor, with metals ranging from high carat gold to tin, and novelty versions produced for advertising purposes or just for fun. Take a few clicks through the huge collection at the Cooper Hewitt Museum (over 4000 pieces!) and you’ll see what I mean.
This particular case is sterling silver and has a hinge at the bottom that allows one side to swing down and reveal a cheerful enameled landlady in nothing but her stockings and heels who I think — and bear with me; I took Italian — is advertising a “small room to rent at the front”? Ooh err, missus!
The February 28 “Jewels + Unreserved” sale at Rago includes this articulated sterling and enamel fish necklace made by silversmith Margot van Voorhies Carr — a.k.a Margot De Taxco. Margot’s story is a part of Mexican silver history: Back in the early part of the 1900s, an American by the name of William Spratling (way more on him here) encouraged and championed the native silver artisans of a small Mexican town called Taxco. A silversmith himself, he created a workshop called Las Delicias, in which native designers could apprentice and learn all sides of the silver business, both administrative and artistic.
Those designers then moved on and created their own businesses. Many soon found their own fame, and some of the best-known were the four Castillo brothers, or “Los Castillo.” That’s where Margot comes into the story: She visited Taxco in 1937, and eventually married Don Antonio Castillo, who encouraged her to start creating her own designs in silver. Her marriage to Don Antonio didn’t last, but her business did, and her designs gained devoted fans, including Hollywood celebrities like Lana Turner. Her work had many inﬂuences, ranging from Art Deco to Asian and Mayan styles, and she was particularly skilled in the use of enamel, as you can see in this piece. It’s stamped with her hallmark and carries an estimate of $600-800.
Just wanted to point out this lovely little Victorian engraved 15k gold locket in the shape of a book, with a tremendously haunted photo inside.
That’s it for today. I hope everybody’s well! Sorry it’s been ages. Since I last spoke with you, Substack has enabled commenting for everyone (it used to only be for paid subscribers, which I don’t have), so I’m going to open it up for this post and see what happens. Feel free to comment — inarticulate screaming and fellow James Clark Ross thirst is totally fine — or, as always, you can reply to this email and find me on Twitter at @rococopacetic. Love you guys! Take care of yourselves and drink lots of fluids. xxx
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I am a notorious Franklin Expedition junkie and I have to tell you that I CACKLED at the description of James Clark Ross as "an absolute smokeshow". IIRC they really did call him the handsomest man in the Royal Navy. And that portrait. So freakin' extra, with the bearskin and the north star and everything.
I never ever want this to feel like a chore to you because I find it such a delight!