WB.154     1800–1857 • Enamelled gold, emeralds and diamonds • pendant

The mermaid is cast in gold and her body is set with 24 emeralds. Made as a fake before 1857, she was altered to make her more plausible as a Renaissance jewel before she was acquired by the Rothschilds.

Curator's Description

Pendant jewel; gold; set with cabochon emeralds and rose diamonds; form of mermaid wearing mantle on chest and holding comb in right hand; lower part chased in bold relief, enamelled and set with emeralds; hinged lid in middle; jewel suspended by double chain formed of quatrefoils, escutcheon at top from which hangs an oval pearl.

This object was previously owned by Londesborough, and collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

5 cm wide, 13 cm high, 2.5 cm deep, and it weighs 103g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

See below for previous Tait catalogue entry from 1986. This object is now thought to be 19th century and possibly French.

Origin: Uncertain; previously attributed to a 16th-century workshop in Germany, Italy or Spain, but probably of more recent origin.

Provenance: Collection of Lord Londesborough (before 1857).

Commentary: One other example, identical in all salient respects, is recorded: it is the Melvin Gutman Collection mermaid pendant jewel (see Parker Lesley 1968, pp. 110-11, no. 39, illus. of front and reverse; sold in New York at Parke-Bernet Galleries Inc., 24 April 1969, lot 101, and now in a private collection).

The Gutman example is clearly cast from the same mould and differs only in minor details that are secondary to the production of the jewel itself. Consequently, the two jewels have the same mermaid busts, including the extraordinary drapery details, both front and back. The lower part of the arms, below the elbow, are placed at slightly different angles, and on the Gutman version the mermaid now holds a pendant pearl in her right hand and makes a meaningless gesture with her raised left hand, while a gold bracelet with a pendant pearl has been added to the wrist in a thoroughly unconvincing and clumsy fashion.

The head of the Gutman mermaid is essentially the same, though the six gemstones are said to be cabochon garnets and the hair is chased so that it appears a little longer. Again, the gemstone between her bare breasts is “a very dark cabochon-cut garnet in a carved quatrefoil mount” (Parker Lesley 1968, p. 110). Below it there is a similar area filled with “a large elliptical cabochon of highly polished, mottled red, grey, black and white jasper in a simple bevelled frame surrounded by opaque white enamel” (Parker Lesley 1968, p. 110). It is arguable whether this stone is a later substitution, as suggested in the 1969 Parke-Bernet sale catalogue entry; indeed, Parker Lesley conjectured that it “doubtless served a therapeutic purpose”, and he goes on to quote the traditional beliefs in its efficacy against the colic and its use in checking fluxes and haemorrhages “common in Italy among the peasantry within the present century according to Belluci”.

The two projecting 'wing-fins' on either side of the Gutman jewel are enamelled in translucent red and green; they are said to be “attached to the body by tenons through the seam of the two halves of the cast”. If they were removed, it is probable that two small rectangular slots or apertures would be visible, just as on the Waddesdon jewel. There seems little doubt that 'wing-fins' of some kind were originally intended on the Waddesdon version, but it should be noted that they did not exist in 1857 when the jewel was in Lord Londesborough's Collection and was carefully described and illustrated (Fairholt 1857, pl. XXXVIII, fig. 2).

On the reverse both versions have the same cruciform arrangement of five gemstones, although garnets have been used on the Gutman example; the surrounding area of enamelled fruit and flowers in relief is repeated on the Gutman jewel, and the tail with its six oval gemstones is exactly the same, except for the use of cloudy rose quartz and garnets in place of emeralds. However, on the Gutman jewel the terminal in the form of a cornucopia is identical, except for the centre which is not surmounted by a gemstone.

Finally, the Gutman double suspension chain and 'cartouche' are not the same design, although the general effect is similar and the chains are attached to the shoulders of the mermaid in exactly the same way. However, garnets are used - four on the double chain and a larger cabochon garnet in the front of the 'cartouche'. The double chain is shorter, having two fewer gem-set links.

In conclusion, the Gutman version is basically the same model but less expensively finished, both in its use of inferior gemstones and in its workmanship on the suspension chains and 'cartouche'. Because the Gutman jewel has no recorded history earlier than its loan to an exhibition at the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, in 1948, it offers no further clues concerning the age and origin of the Waddesdon mermaid. Because Lord Londesborough's jewel (acquired before 1857) passed to Baron Ferdinand Rothschild and has since been kept in the British Museum, it is virtually impossible that an exact cast of it could have been made since the middle of the nineteenth century. The Gutman version must, therefore, have been in existence when Lord Londesborough acquired his example. Consequently, a workshop prior to the middle of the nineteenth century produced these two, essentially identical, jewels. The question, so difficult to answer with complete certainty, is when and where did this workshop operate?

The attribution “German, 16th century” and “in the style of Erasmus Hornick” (Read 1902) was reiterated in Evans 1953 (rev. edn 1970), where it was described (p. 26, fig. 82a) as “Probably German, c. 1580”. However, as early as 1883 Plon had illustrated and described this jewel as Italian or Spanish, sixteenth-century workmanship, and in Dalton 1927 it was cautiously published as “German or Spanish, sixteenth century”.

In Parker Lesley 1968 a late sixteenth-century Spanish attribution was argued for both the Gutman and the Waddesdon versions, and when both versions were illustrated side by side in Muller 1972 (p. 80, figs 118 and 119), they were accepted without question as “XVI century” - an opinion repeated in Hackenbroch 1979.

In favour of the Spanish attribution Priscilla Muller pointed to the evidence of two drawings in the Barcelona Llibres de Passanties, both of which depict a mermaid pendant jewel; each holds a mirror in one hand and a comb in the other. One drawing (folio 277) is dated 1586 and shows the double suspension chain attached to loops on the outer edges of the shoulders in a similar fashion; the other drawing (folio 313), dated 1591, shows the suspension loops attached to the tail and the head. However, neither drawing shows the fruit and flower motif around the central area of the body, nor is it to be found in any other drawing or any extant jewel of the mermaid type. The cornucopia-like terminal to the upturned tail is not to be found in either drawing, nor is it paralleled in any other recorded jewel, although it could be explained as a misunderstanding of the indistinct 'tufts' or tail-terminals in the two 1586 Barcelona drawings of merman pendant jewels on folios 283 and 286 (see Muller 1972, figs 126 and 127). Significantly, the bucklers, or shields, held by these merman pendants have a form and strap-work design that are close to the 'cartouche' of the Waddesdon jewel. The mermaid pendants in the drawings with their ordinary fish tails, mirrors and combs present no iconographic problems, but the Gutman and Waddesdon jewels are inexplicably depicted as a kind of combined cornucopia (or Earthly Fruitfulness and Abundance), which is not so far recorded.

Equally exceptional is the hinged cover over the oval cavity in the abdomen area of the mermaid on the Waddesdon example. The interior of the cavity is not transformed into a lined compartment that could be used; it is left rough with the undisguised backs of the gemstones and their settings clearly visible. Furthermore, the two slots or rectangular apertures for the 'wing-fins' on either side have not been blocked up.

Finally, the Waddesdon mermaid jewel and its double suspension chain, 'cartouche' and central pendant are all made en suite. The translucent dark blue enamel of the drapery on the bust of the mermaid and on the hinged cover is identical with that on the 'cartouche' and the crescent-shaped borders to the rose-cut diamond links.

This particular translucent dark blue enamel is unusually close to the quality and clarity of much enamelled decoration found during the Regency period in England and the Bourbon Restoration in France, though this feature does not in itself provide sufficient evidence for a later dating. Scientific research and examination of Renaissance and later enamelling have not been carried out on an adequately large scale to enable any conclusions to be drawn at this stage.

The presence of rose-cut diamonds on the links of the suspension chains is yet a further exceptional feature, and although diamonds with a rose-cut can be found in late sixteenth-century jewellery of high quality, it is not normal to find their use restricted to the chains and 'cartouche'. Furthermore, the illustration of the jewel in Fairholt 1857 (pl. XXXVIII, fig. 2) makes it clear that the mirror held by the mermaid was also set with two rose-cut diamonds, the larger one oval and the smaller being round. The design of the hand-mirror is in keeping with the design of the comb and of the suspension-chain links but is very obviously not acceptable as a Renaissance form. It is not known when the hand-mirror was removed, but it may be presumed that it occurred before the jewel entered Baron Ferdinand's collection, for its disproportionately large and post-Renaissance appearance would have made the jewel's appearance less acceptable. Similarly, the removal of the pair of 'wing-fins' has undoubtedly improved the general appearance of the jewel, bringing it closer to the sixteenth-century prototypes in the Barcelona drawings, none of which has such a feature. It is certainly no argument to quote as supporting evidence (Parker Lesley 1968, p. 111) that other Spanish jewels have wings when the examples cited are the 'pelican' (in the Salting Bequest) and the 'winged dragon' of the ‘Inventario’ (c. 1777) in the Archivo del Real Monasterio, Guadalupe, folio 27 - the so-called ex voto of Cortes (Muller 1972, col. pl. 1). The presence of wings on these jewels is both logical and convincing, but at the 'hips' of the mermaid jewel these 'wing-fins' seem both badly conceived and wholly at variance with known Renaissance convention.

The so-called ex voto of Cortes that was recorded in the Guadalupe ‘Inventario’ of c. 1777 has disappeared, but a pendant of a winged creature with a very similar pointed emerald beak is now in the Wernher Collection, Luton Hoo, and is considered to be closely related (see Muller 1972, p. 33, fig. 34a and b). The Luton Hoo 'winged dragon', which has no earlier history, does not have the usual curving graceful tail that ends in the normal pointed terminal tail-fin; instead it is straight and abruptly ends in an intricate cornucopia-like knob or terminal. This straight truncated cornucopia tail is just as incongruous and inexplicable as the curving cornucopia tail of the Waddesdon mermaid. A close examination of the Luton Hoo jewel confirms the impression that it was probably made in the same workshop as the Waddesdon pendant.

Furthermore, the Luton Hoo jewel is also important in this context because the links of the jewel's double suspension chain correspond exactly with the design of the four smaller links in the Waddesdon double chain, even to the tiny pierced holes on either side in each lobe. Regrettably, the distinctive type of links used in the double suspension chain and the central pendant hanging from the 'cartouche' of the Waddesdon jewel cannot be paralleled on any extant jewel with a well-documented history or provenance, though it can be seen on a monster-fish pendant (Muller 1972, fig. 132) and a winged dragon pendant (Hackenbroch 1979, fig. 844A and B); both are in private collections in America and attributed to Spain in the late sixteenth century. Interestingly, the former is richly studded with cabochon emeralds and the latter with faceted emeralds.

Probably originating in the same workshop as the Waddesdon jewel is the large and well-known Centaur pendant jewel, preserved in the Hispanic Society of America's collection in New York (see Muller 1972, p. 83, col. frontispiece and fig. 125). Priscilla Muller has described it as a “late 16th century” Spanish jewel of enamelled gold set with a “white sapphire”. This large faceted gemstone is set in the centre of the Centaur's abdomen surrounded by the same intense dark blue enamel that is such a distinctive feature of the Waddesdon jewel; the gold setting of this gemstone, which is hexagonal, appears to be in an unaltered state. If the printed description is correct - and it is certainly very surprising - then this “white sapphire” is unlikely to have been cut and set in this fashion in the late sixteenth century, and so the age of the entire jewel is called into question. Certainly, the plain burnished gold of the Centaur's face, neck, arms and hands corresponds closely in style and technique with the Waddesdon jewel. In most essential respects the design of the Centaur jewel faithfully echoes the Barcelona drawing of 1600 in the Llibres de Passanties, folio 350 (see Muller 1972, p. 83, fig. 124), but perhaps because of a gauche misunderstanding on the part of the goldsmith the real character of the Barcelona design has been lost and a clumsy, insensitive, three-dimensional version has resulted - particularly noticeable around the Centaur's tail, legs and torso. The jewel exhibits few of the vital characteristics that would help to re-affirm the traditional dating of this spectacular pendant to the Renaissance but rather more of the tell-tale signs of a modern copyist slavishly clinging to the two-dimensional source - a Barcelona apprentice drawing.

Finally, the 'dolphin' pendant in the Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Vienna (Hackenbroch 1979, fig. 866) has many of the same characteristics as the Waddesdon mermaid jewel. Apart from the massive, almost cumbersome, quality, the lavish use of rounded cabochon emeralds and the same harsh translucent green enamel over the scaly pattern, it also has (on its side) a large strap-work design that closely resembles the 'cartouche' of the Waddesdon mermaid jewel.

The excellent state of preservation of all these last-mentioned jewels, especially the undamaged enamelling, serves only to add to the sense of misgiving and to the suspicion that none of the jewels in this group may be older than the early nineteenth century. It is, perhaps, significant that among the 1,079 drawings from the Reinhold Vasters workshop sale in 1909 in Aachen and now preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum (see ‘Princely Magnificence’ 1980, p. 139, no HG. I) two drawings (E. 2807 and E. 2809) show the front and back of a mermaid pendant, with a diamond dagger (not a comb) in the mermaid's left hand and with no large round or oval gemstones but, instead, an elaborate enamelled design and some small diamonds. However, Vasters appears to have made two wash drawings of a mermaid jewel with both its abdomen and tail set with oval stones (E. 2825 and E. 2826). It is possible that these two drawings were made as a visual record of an existing jewel and that Vasters then used it as a basis to create a number of loose interpretations; for example, E. 2827 and E. 2800 show the front and back of a mermaid holding a mirror with a more convoluted tail, while E. 2802 shows the mermaid jewel from the front with a 'baroque' pearl and suspension chains.

Although the Waddesdon jewel was in Lord Londesborough's Collection before 1857, little is known about the life of Reinhold Vasters - and certainly nothing about his early years. Marc Rosenberg in ‘Der Goldschmiede Merkzeichen’ (Berlin, 1922-8, vol. III, no. 42) has stated that Vasters was working in Aachen between 1853 and 1890, but no detailed information about his youth, training or activities in the years before 1853 has been published. Consequently, despite misleading claims made in Somers Cocks 1984 (p. 106), the Londesborough Collection provenance does not necessarily pre-date the activities of the young Vasters or the workshop in which he was trained. For a further discussion of other aspects of this difficult problem see cat. no. 21, p. 137 [WB.158], where attention is drawn to the existence of four identical versions of the Spanish 'dog-on-cornucopia' jewel, all with apparently 'good provenances' which, in the past, would seem to have excluded Reinhold Vasters and his teachers.


  • F.W. Fairholt, ‘Miscellanea Graphica, Representations of ancient, medieval and renaissance remains in the possession of Lord Londesborough’, London, 1857, pl. XXXVIII, fig. 2
  • E. Plon, ‘Benvenuto Cellini’, Paris 1883, pl. XXIII, fig. 5
  • ‘The Treatises of Benvenuto Cellini’, trans, and ed. C. R. Asbee, London, 1898, illus. facing p. 25
  • Charles Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 154, pl. XXXVII
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 154
  • Joan Evans, ‘A History of Jewellery, 110-1870’, London, 1953 (rev. edn 1970), p. 26, pl. 82a
  • Parker Lesley, ‘Renaissance Jewels and Jewelled Objects from the Melvin Gutman Collection’, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, 1968, pp. 110-11
  • Priscilla E. Muller, ‘Jewels in Spain, 1500 – 1800’, The Hispanic Society of America, New York, 1972, p. 81, fig. 119
  • Yvonne Hackenbroch, ‘Renaissance Jewellery’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, New York and Munich, 1979, fig. 849, col. pi. XXXXI (no text)
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 1., The Jewels', British Museum, London, 1986, no. 23, pls. XVI, XVII, figs. 130-133
  • Dora Thornton, 'A Rothschild Renaissance: Treasures from the Waddesdon Bequest', British Museum, London, 2015, pp.230-233.
  • References

    1. Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
    2. Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
    3. Tait 1986: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; I The Jewels, London, BMP, 1986

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