Tea caddy

DATE: ca.1880 (made)
PLACE: England (made)
MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUES: Engraved mother-of-pearl veneers, wooden carcass

As tea became widely accessible in the 19th century, demand increased for highly decorative tea caddies which would be displayed on the tea table to demonstrate wealth and taste. This hexagonal tea caddy has large mother-of-pearl panels applied onto a wooden carcass and is engraved with a seashell and a sweeping leaf-like cartouche into which is inscribed the initials of the owner.

Also known as nacre, mother-of-pearl forms on the inner layer of mollusc shells, especially pearl oysters and abalones, in tropical waters which determine the colour of the resulting pearl. With no two pieces of mother-of-pearl appearing the same, the material creates unique pieces. Pearl became a popular decorative material during the Victorian era due to the Renaissance revival and the Arts and Crafts movement which generated an interest in pearl and was seen to symbolise purity and prosperity. Used worldwide in decorative objects, mother-of-pearl was predominantly used for buttons since the 17th century in Europe before being used for more substantial items such as tea caddies, snuff boxes and in jewellery. The interest in mother-of-pearl peaked to such an extent that thousands of tons of the material were harvested and transported around the world each year by the 19th century to cater to demand.