Named from the Old French word "estuier," meaning "to keep or hold," an étui is a very versatile item. Small, easily concealed étuis such as this would have been used to pass correspondence, usually between lovers, and were sealed with wax to ensure discretion. These delicate ornamental cases could be made of any material, from precious metals like gold or silver, to exotic materials such as tortoise shell enamel or shagreen. Though many were used for more clandestine reasons, some also served the more practical purpose of holding small items such as scissors, thimbles, bodkins and needles, makeup pencils and even a doctor's lancet.
As a convenient vehicle for holding an array of small items, the étui has held multiple uses throughout history. In 13th century Italy, etuis pieces were crafted of wood and wrapped in stiffened, chased leather, often called cuir bouilli. A carrying strap completed the object for easy transportation. It is believed that these earlier etuis were made to carry writing tools, as similar cases are depicted in paintings of scholar’s studios. These multi-purposed items quickly became a discreet way to display status.
Aristocratic and court culture in eighteenth-century France demanded all things luxurious. Simply put, one’s entire life would be comprised of fine materials, goods, and ways of life. Étuis, consequently, took on an entirely new, clandestine function. Court-goers and nobility discreetly pass notes to one another concealed within an étui. Frequently, an étui carrying a secret correspondence would be sealed with wax to ensure the utmost privacy. Other young woman would keep their sewing needs, scissors, thimbles, and even small hair combs tucked inside these diminutive works of art.
The 18th century was also the time in which the workmanship of the étui reached its zenith. The vehicle by which an artisan could display his technical prowess, The workmanship of each étui became as important as the function the object served. 18K gold in hues of yellow, white, rose and even green was the primary medium of choice. In France, the Louis XVI and Louis XV-styles proliferated and elaborate, ornate Neoclassical motifs were masterfully chased and etched over every surface of the étui. Often breathtaking hand-painted enamel genre scenes, precious jewels and even rare minerals would be employed to complete an étui’s design. Truly, the only limit was the craftsman’s imagination.
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