Scallop-shaped Snuffbox, Jean Ducrollay, Paris, 1744
This unique gold and enamel snuffbox is the only known example to combine the two design features of a scallop shell and peacock feathers.
Made as an airtight container for powdered tobacco, known as Snuff, this would have been one of many owned by the duc d’Aumont. He was the first gentleman of the Bedchamber to King Louis XVI and well known as a connoisseur of art and this box was valued at 360 livres at his death, but the actual price it went for at auction after d’Aumont’s death was more than double this valuation. This shows that though the fashion for this shape of box had passed, this was a much admired box at the time. To put this price into context, 300 livres was an unskilled labourer’s pay for the year.
Snuff taking was a very fashionable pastime in France during the 18th century. A pinch up each nostril was taken by both men and women and was considered to cure headaches and all manner of ills. However, it was also a luxury pastime – tobacco was an exotic ingredient and therefore expensive. It allowed noblemen and women to show their wealth through their gold box collections, but also helped to
form alliances by sharing snuff. As a box containing snuff was handed round to guests there was a very strict etiquette about how to use it. It would have been passed around in the left hand, and when open displays the beautiful lid and peacock feathers to the receiver.
The peacock feathers on this box are made with painted enamel. Each colour was hand painted on, and because all the colours had different chemical compounds they all had to be fired at different temperatures. This meant they had to be applied in order of the colour that required the highest temperature downwards. The enameller for this piece is unknown, but he must have been very good and experienced in order to get every single feather almost exactly the same.
The box itself was created by Jean Ducrollay, one of the most famous goldsmiths of his time. It was made by moulding strips of hammered gold around a block of wood called lignam vitae shaped like the interior of the box. Once the shape is formed, the edges were soldered together and the base soldered to the body. The hinge too was an immaculate piece of engineering, which allows the box o be opened and close smoothly without spilling any of the precious powder within.
In order to become a goldsmith at this time, it was obligatory to undergo extensive training. Ducrollay was apprenticed to his uncle in 1722 and became a master in 1734. He had a workshop with two other makers: Ouzille, and Drais. Together they worked and kept a scrap book of designs now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, not only as a source of inspiration for their designs but also to show prospective customers the kind of snuffboxes they could own. Sadly, there is no existing design for this box,
but there is a picture of a peacock, although the colours in the feathers don’t quite match our box. However, it certainly shows that they were experimenting with designs and form, and it may well have inspired the design of this beautiful box.
August 6 and 20 at 1pm with Carmen Holdsworth-Delgado
Charles Truman, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Gold Boxes, London, 2013