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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Monogrammed mother of pearl gaming counters c1785

These exquisite gaming counters make me want to run off and play roulette until the wee hours of the morning.
Not only are they a delight to the eye, they are full of history.
I feel privileged to own these little beauties and while I don't know who their original ower was, the history of gaming counters is quite fascinating.
Carved Mother-of-Pearl gaming counters seem to date back around 250 years for the european market. They were hand-engraved in China in sets of three or more shapes denoting different denominations and used as gaming chips. The most common shapes are a shuttle (leaf) shape, round, oval and both longer and shorter oblongs (rectangles). I've also seen some used as thread winders which have Dogs of Fo cut into each end. And there are other less common shapes such as delightful cartouches.
Counters were commissioned by the well-to-do including nobility and royalty as well as wealthy tradespeople.
Many were produced during the Ch'ing Dynasty, the last dynasty of Imperial China.
A variety of games were played with the counters including Quadrille, Ombre, Loo, Faro (Pharoah) and Whist.
Usually engraved on one side with family crests if you had one or monograms, the other side might depict some aspect of Chinese life, be patterened all over with a 'diaper' pattern or even a numerical amount. Some were more intricately carved than others, and some with thicker shell.
Popular designs also included chinese pagodas, people, flowers, doves, fish and other animals. Carp fish represent the common people, while animals indicate character traits. The peony, a spring flower, represents blossoming youth.
Those in the photograph were made c1785 (the Charlotte border is dated to that time) and fall into the reign of philosopher/ruler Ch'ien Lung.
See my older post below on popular pastimes.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Personal possessions of Marie-Antoinette

It's sad to think that so little survives of Marie-Antoinette's personal possessions.
A shoe, some pearls and possibly a made-over dress.
I went searching to see what the mob missed out on. Here's a list of what I found on the web.
To see her shoe - go to
Her pearls and many pearls of information about her are at
The made-over dress is on many sites including at
A dress fragment at
Musee Carnavalet, Paris (Carnavalet Museum) has locks of her hair and that of her husband.
The 1938 movie starring Norma Shearer featured costumes which were based as closely as possible to dresses still in existence. Wikipedia mentions a dress in private hands referred to as the 'rocket dress' featuring starbursts. I'll try to find out more.
If you know of any other items I would love to hear about them.

Popular pastimes

Nothing much has changed. Gambling was hugely popular in the 18th century, all sorts of games of chance. Gentlemen's clubs has betting books and everyone, I mean everyone, my dear, gambled.
Whist, deep bassett, faro, horse racing, bouts of fisticuffs. I need to do some more research on all of these games. They were forever appearing in Georgette Heyer novels.
I don't remember where I first saw mother of pearl gaming counters, I just knew I'd fallen in love. And finally thanks to eBay I now have some. Not a full set you understand, just a few. Beautifully fine, carved in China and with a monogram. M H. Did they belong to a man or a woman? They were carved around 1785 or so, with a typical Queen Charlotte border. Mmmm let's call the owner Mary-Anne Hartley!
In the main they conform to some standard shapes - leaf shaped (shuttles to the knowledgable), ovals, oblongs (short and long rectangles), and rounds. There are others of course, sublime little pieces of rococco design. Some are deeply carved and pierced around the edges, some have heraldic devices, flowers and some Chinese scenes.
The carving on my counters is not deep but it is exquisitely beautiful. How divine to have sent your chosen design off on a boat to China (often a family bookplate would have been sent) and then nearly a year later a parcel would arrive, your full set of counters carved to your specifications - all remarkably, almost identicial. I would love to know more about the craftsmen in China. What they used, how to did such fine work and all truly handmade. Counter after counter. I'm not sure but I believe a full set was around 140 counters of varying shapes. How they were used I don't exactly know but I suspect they have morphed into the current poker chip.
There is a scene in the Sophie Coppola movie Marie Antoinette where they are betting using counters but they didn't look carved. More like today's backgammon counters.
A photos of these sublime little pieces of art is just around
the corner.

You can see some of Queen Charlotte's own counters at The Royal Collection - - just type 'gaming counters' into the search engine.

Possession of a lady it said in the auction listing

That term always intrigues me. Who is she? Why is she selling the item? Was it a gift from her godmother, a lover, a child? Is she English, French, Venetian?
 And if she was of the 18th century then I am hooked. Why I don't know. Perhaps it's such a different world to mine, perhaps it's the fashions, the shoes, the contrasts. Perhaps it was reading too many romances as a girl. Perhaps I am just a rococco soul.
 The is a work in progress, an experiment. A plaything. Like the playthings of the rich of the 18th century.