Extravagant Objects

Jewelry and Objets d’Art from the Masterson Collection

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Photograph of the East Facade of RienziThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Rienzi, the MFAH house museum for European decorative arts, is the former home of Houston philanthropists Carroll Sterling Masterson and Harris Masterson III. Opened to the public in 1999, Rienzi houses a substantial collection of European decorative arts, paintings, furnishings, porcelain, and metalwork. The Masterson collection also features a dazzling array of objets d’art and jewelry that reflect the couple’s eclectic tastes. The forms and functions of these objects, and their rich and often elaborate decoration, illustrate the changes in both social customs and artistic development over three centuries: the 18th, 19th, and 20th. 

Counter Box Counter Box (Late 18th century) by EnglishThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

For centuries, jewelry and objets d’art—luxurious objects made of precious and exotic materials—have been sought by royals, aristocrats, and the affluent to demonstrate status, wealth, power, and taste. From small, personal, functional objects to bejeweled adornments and extravagant sculptures meant simply to delight the eye, these creations reflect the artistic vision and innovations of their time. Commercial and colonial expansion in the 18th century brought new materials, such as porcelain, ivory, and tortoiseshell, to European markets. The transmission of ideas—and the migration of craftsmen, artists, and patrons during the period—profoundly affected the design of the wide range of luxury objects created in European centers.

Belt Buckle (1899-1903) by Workmaster Michael PerchinThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

In the 19th century, jewelers such as Peter Carl Fabergé continued to develop innovative techniques to decorate these objects, drawing inspiration from the natural world and the whimsies of courtly life. Then in the 20th century, artists including American jeweler David Webb, who was inspired by the artistic traditions of the earlier centuries, used precious materials in unusual ways to create extravagant objects for a modern clientele.

Pipe Tamper Pipe Tamper (c. 1800) by EnglishThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Extravagant Wares

Ivory has been prized throughout the ages in both the East and West. The smooth, easily worked surface is ideal for carving. Personal accessories made of ivory began to appear in the late 16th century in response to the newest fashions and trends. In the 17th century, a smoker came up with the pipe tamper, or stopper, a tool for pressing down lit tobacco in the pipe's bowl. Pipe smoking was a common pastime of both men and women, and pipe tampers were produced in a variety of motifs, such as a woman's leg, kissing lovers, and a woman’s finger, as seen here.

Pipe TamperThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The bottom of the pipe tamper also doubles as a seal.

Etui Etui (c. 1760) by Meissen Porcelain ManufactoryThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

This small storage case, or étui, was intended to hold a variety of items that could include scissors, thimbles, bodkins, needles, or even grooming accessories. Compact and portable, such cases offered a convenient and fashionable way for individuals to carry personal items in a pocket or hung from a chatelaine belt. In the 18th century, porcelain factories were very inventive in designing étuis, and the precious small cases appeared variously as figures, vegetables, flower posies, columns, and even humorous subjects such as a woman’s leg. This particular shape, which was popular in items made for both men and women, can also be found as a pipe stopper and a perfume vinaigrette.

EtuiThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Meant only for the eyes of its owner, a risqué love scene is hidden within the interior lid of the étui.

Etui Etui (c. 1750) by Unknown FrenchThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

This luxurious 18th-century gold étui was obviously a token of the heart. It takes the form of a quiver of arrows of love.

This étui bears the romantic motto “Une Seule Me Blessé” (“Only One Wounds Me”). The sweet message is illustrated on the gold case through beautifully enameled love birds and flowers.

Almanac and fitted case (1791) by EnglishThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Almanacs owe their origin to the enduring belief in astrology. Historically, portable pocket-sized almanacs contained a table of the year’s astronomical events as well as a calendar of days, weeks, and months. By the 18th century, pocket almanacs served primarily as calendars with reference material, such as weather and harvests, which provided the owner with a convenient pocket diary and calendar.

This luxurious ivory almanac chronicles important dates from the year 1791, printed on a retractable length of silk.

Combination Apple Corer and Pocket Knife (1824) by Joseph WillmoreThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Apple corers first appeared in the 1680s and were usually formed from a long cylinder of silver. By the 1750s, small portable apple corers were introduced. The practical design, in which the blade unscrews and fits neatly into the handle, became a popular picnic accessory. Some examples even featured an attached knife, such as the one seen here that was made in Birmingham, England. A center for silver manufacture, Birmingham produced large volumes of small personal items known as “toys.” The maker of this toy was Joseph Willmore, a prolific Birmingham silversmith in the early 19th century, who specialized in apple corers.

Picture Frame with Miniature of King Carol of Romania Picture Frame with Miniature of King Carol of Romania (before 1908) by Johannes ZehngrafThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Johannes Zehngraf was a well-known Danish miniaturist whose portraits were commissioned by European aristocrats and royalty. Known for his impressive photorealistic paintings, he worked with some of the most significant craftsmen of his age, including Peter Carl Fabergé. Zehngraf painted the miniatures for the famous “Lily of the Valley” Fabergé egg. This miniature is set in an elaborate jeweled frame made of exotic nephrite, the artist’s preferred hardstone. In the portrait, Zehngraf depicts King Carol I of Romania in full military regalia.

Caviar Dish (1908 - 1917) by Peter Carl FabergéThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The workshop of Peter Carl Fabergé produced articles of both fancy and utility. Made of precious materials, they emphasized craftsmanship rather than mere display.

Gum Pot (1899–1908) by Head Workmaster Henrik WigströmThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

With his legendary Workmasters, Peter Carl Fabergé created a completely new collection of elegant functional objects such as this gum pot, or stamp moistener, as well as clocks, walking sticks, perfume bottles, and lorgnettes (glasses on handles).

Clock (c. 1899 - 1908) by Head Workmaster Henrik WigströmThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

This elegant Fabergé clock was made at the turn of the 20th century and highlights the supreme craftsmanship of the firm. Peter Carl Fabergé saw himself as an artist/jeweler and believed that the value of the object lay in the craftsmanship and the inspiration of its design.

This Fabergé clock is made of white jade and enhanced by a frame of nephrite, inlaid with emeralds and diamonds.

Carnet De Bal Carnet De Bal (c. 1840–60) by EuropeanThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Extravagant Pastimes

A “carnet de bal,” or dance card, was used by a woman to record the names of gentlemen with whom she intended to dance at formal balls. Dance cards originated in the 18th century and gained popularity in the 19th century. Initially taking the form of fans, with the name of the partner discreetly inscribed on the back, they later became small notebooks or cards.

Carnet De BalThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

For those who could afford it, manufacturers created lavish versions of dance cards made of materials such as silver, ivory, mother-of-pearl, or gold and set with precious gems.

Counter Box (Late 18th century) by EnglishThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

In the 18th century, games were played at all levels of society and served as a way of advertising a healthy surplus of disposable income. Among aristocrats, gaming was an indication of status, rank, wealth, and class. Card playing was a necessary accomplishment for those hoping to take their place in polite society. People used gaming counters, or gaming tokens, over and over again for a wide range of games. Counter boxes would have been a luxurious and fashionable accessory for a card player of either sex.

Spyglass Spyglass (19th century) by EuropeanThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Spyglasses, or monoculars, were initially used by sailors and pirates for navigation while at sea. But from the mid-18th century, spyglasses gained popularity as tools to discreetly spy on others, particularly at the theater. Often made of exotic materials such as gold and ivory, spyglasses varied in size and were often concealed in other objects, such as perfume bottles, necklace charms, and fans.

Purse Purse (c. 1965) by David WebbThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

As a designer in the 20th century, David Webb was deeply influenced by the jewelry styles of the past and by historical jewelry techniques. He studied the 18th-century jewelry of eastern India as well as the mixtures of gemstones, minerals, and metals found in the work of 19th-century Russian master Peter Carl Fabergé. Webb referenced Fabergé’s unusual combinations in pieces like this seashell evening purse designed for Carroll Sterling Masterson in the 1960s. The simple seashell, mounted with diamonds and lined with 18K gold, is also studded with cabochon rubies and sapphires. The whimsy and luxury of the piece recalls the spirit of Fabergé’s work for the Imperial family. 

PurseThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

David Webb's use of a real seashell, a popular midcentury form, manages to be a vivid expression of 1960s style.

ParureThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Extravagant Jewelry

This majestic emerald necklace, part of a much larger set, has a wide-ranging story told only through visual clues. The necklace features stones likely mined in South America for the Spaniards or Portuguese. These emeralds would have moved east across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans through new global trade routes connecting settlements in Colombia and Brazil to Seville and Lisbon.

Though most of the South American emeralds went to Spain and Portugal, some of these gems traveled even further, to Goa on the Indian subcontinent, which was ruled by the Portuguese.

The style and workmanship of this necklace show Iberian and Indian influences. The presence of French hallmarks, probably from the last jewelers to work on the piece, adds another layer to these remarkable, well-traveled jewels.

Photograph of Carroll Sterling Masterson in the entrance hall at Rienzi ("1958") by GittingsThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

PendantThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Throughout history, the pearl has been one of the most highly prized and sought-after gems. During the 19th century, the baroque pearl, with its irregular shape, figured prominently in designs made in the opulent Renaissance Revival style.

Pendant Pendant (19th century) by UnknownThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

In the 19th century, jewelers created fantastic pieces that featured baroque pearls and were additionally embellished with enamel in historic techniques.

Pin (c. 1965) by David WebbThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Fascination with the baroque pearl continued into the 20th century. Modern jewelers such as David Webb, who took inspiration from historic metalworkers, combined the pearl with enamel and colored stones to create bold designs. The frog was one of Webb’s most popular animal motifs.

Bracelet Bracelet (1938-39) by Oscar Heyman & Bros., Inc.The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

In the mid-1930s, Hollywood was the glamour capital of the world, and star sapphires took center stage as the jewel of choice for the most celebrated royalty of the silver screen. Large, opulent cabochons, or rounded stones, designed in the geometric Art Deco style, adorned countless film legends, such as Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard. This star sapphire bracelet was made by the firm of Oscar Heyman & Brothers, famous for its innovative jewelry design and master craftsmanship.

BraceletThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

As a young man, designer Oscar Heyman apprenticed in Russia, where he produced works for the renowned House of Fabergé. After moving to America in 1909, he went to work for Pierre Cartier. Heyman would then establish his own firm in 1912. Known as the jeweler’s jeweler, Oscar Heyman & Brothers created masterpieces that were retailed by high-end establishments, including Cartier and Tiffany & Co. This magnificent 216-carat bracelet is believed to have been created for the firm of Udall & Ballou and shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Snuffbox (c. 1755) by Mennecy Porcelain ManufactoryThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Extravagant Boxes

In the 18th century, it was customary to give small gifts on important occasions. Small precious objects known as “toys” in England and “galanterie” in France were given as tokens between lovers; in recognition of loyalty and honorable deeds; or simply as objects of whimsy reflecting the spirit of 18th-century court society. The fragile and exotic nature of porcelain underlined its luxury and made porcelain ideal for these precious objects.

Snuff Box (c. 1740) by Unknown GermanThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Snuff, a blend of herbs, finely ground tobacco, and aromatic powders, became immensely popular in the 18th century and was credited with curing a wide variety of ailments—from hysterics to rheumatism, cancer, and gout. Taking a pinch of snuff developed into a graceful art, and snuff boxes became the ultimate symbol of elegance. One arbiter of French style advised the man of taste to carry a different box for each day of the year: lightweight boxes for summer and heavier ones for winter.

This exquisite box features delicately rendered mermaids and dolphins.

Snuff Box (1797) by Joseph Wolfgang SchmidtThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Snuff boxes carved from a single stone, with the rims mounted in silver or gold, were especially common on the European continent in the 18th century.

Cigarette Case Cigarette Case (c. 1900) by Workmaster Carl BlankThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

At the turn of the 20th century, Russia was the sole European nation in which polite members of both sexes smoked in public. Manners and social habits tended to follow those of Russian rulers closely, and Tsar Nicholas II was a habitual smoker, seldom without cigarettes or paraphernalia. The House of Hahn, founded by Karl Hahn, opened its doors in 1880 in St. Petersburg and was a significant competitor of the House of Fabergé. Like Peter Carl Fabergé himself, Hahn was extremely interested in the revival of 18th-century enameling techniques, and Hahn’s guilloche grounds were equally exquisite in quality. This extravagant jeweled cigarette case is an example of the excellent enameling Hahn’s celebrated Workmaster Carl Blank produced.

In the demanding technique of guilloche enameling, a base of either gold or silver is engraved with a geometric pattern, which remains visible through transparent enamel layers. The enamel is applied in five or six coats, each fired separately. The end result: a subtle shimmering iridescence reminiscent of moire silk.

Snuffbox or Pillbox Snuffbox or Pillbox (20th century) by J. WeisagerThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Designers in the 20th century continued the tradition of embellishing their boxes with precious jewels and stones.

Model of a Venus Fly Trap (1983) by John Siddeley, 3rd Baron KenilworthThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Extravagant Creations

The fashion for objets d’art continued into the late 20th century as wealthy patrons still sought to decorate their interiors with curious objects made of exotic materials. Designers such as Lord Kenilworth and David Webb continued to use beautiful hardstones combined with gold and precious gems to create unusual sculptural designs.

Why would anyone need an amethyst, gold, and diamond–encrusted “Venus Fly Trap” with spring-hinged leaves? Because sometimes the point of an objet d’art is simply to delight the eye.

Upon closer inspection of this “Venus Fly Trap,” you can see a bee that has been ensnared within the extravagant blades.

Figure of a Leopard (1966) by David WebbThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Acclaimed society jeweler David Webb had no formal training in his chosen craft. Born in North Carolina in 1925, by age 11 he was designing for his uncle’s workshop. Webb’s subsequent, swift rise in the jewelry world was attributed to his bold use of color and dimension, and his meticulous attention to detail. As seen in Rienzi’s dazzling “Figure of a Leopard,” the big jungle cats he created were justifiably deemed a success. In these, Webb, like many designers of the 1960s, was admittedly looking to older styles, in particular the French Art Deco designs of Cartier. The work of Jeanne Toussaint, the creator of Cartier’s signature “Panthère” in the 1920s, was a great influence on Webb, who once called her “the inspiration of us all.”

Figure of a Rhinoceros Figure of a Rhinoceros (1966) by David WebbThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

In the 20th century, artists and jewelers continued to use ivory to create sculptures both functional and unique.

Figure of a RhinocerosThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

This elaborate rhinoceros, mounted with turquoise and sapphires, is also a clock.

Figure of a Fish (c. 1965) by David WebbThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

In this fantastical creation, a fish carved out of opal is ensnared in gold seaweed, mounted atop emerald encrusted coral.

BroochThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

An imaginative creation in itself, this beautiful turquoise brooch is set among gems and pearls.

Brooch Brooch (c. 1973) by J. WeisagerThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Designer J. Weisager went one step further and provided this brooch with its very own pagoda, making the end result both functional and sculptural.

Credits: Story

● Misty Flores, assistant curator, Rienzi
● Christine Gervais, director, Rienzi; curator, decorative arts

● Matt Lawson, digital assets administrator
● Marty Stein, photographic and imaging services manager

● Thomas R. DuBrock, senior collection photographer

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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