Tea caddy

DATE: ca.1835 (made)
PLACE: England (made)
MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES: Wood with tortoiseshell veneers, etched mother-of-pearl panels with inlaid abalone

This tea caddy is decorated with veneers of tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl. Tortoiseshell derived from certain species of marine turtle was a popular and prized material for making and decorating objects throughout Europe, from the 16th to the early 20th centuries. The outer, pigmented layers of Hawksbill turtle shells were preferred for their large size and attractive, mottled patterns, and could be softened in boiling water and olive oil to the desired shape. This tea caddy is in a form known as ‘arc en arbalète’, a term used to describe furniture with a profile resembling a crossbow, from which the name derives. Arranged in a diamond pattern, the mother-of-pearl veneers are etched with blossoms and foliage and inlaid with cut pieces of abalone. Mother-of-pearl and abalone were often used in combination to decorate card cases and pill boxes in the first half of the 19th century.