WB.188     1550–1600 • Enamelled gem-set gold, ‘baroque’ pearl • pendant tooth-pick

Constructed around a ‘baroque’ pearl, this pick resembles a design published in 1562 by Erasmus Hornick in Nuremberg. Toothpicks were luxury items. This one may be a clever fake from the 19th century.

Curator's Description

Toothpick pendant; form of mermaid; gold head, scroll head-dress enamelled; body of baroque pearl; lower part terminates in point engraved with scroll pattern between translucent green enamel; two cartouches in relief at junction with body, enamelled and set with three rubies in raised settings.

This object was collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

3.5 cm wide, 7.6 cm high, 1.5 cm deep, and it weighs 22g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1986:-

Origin: Probably Italian or German, second half of 16th century.

Provenance: None is recorded.

Commentary: This form of gold toothpick pendant had certainly become fashionable north of the Alps by 1562, when the Antwerp-trained goldsmith Erasmus Hornick published in Nuremberg two engraved designs for toothpicks. Hornick had incorporated the three main components - a torso with head, a 'belt' of cartouches with strapwork and a curving lower part terminating in a point - but there is no evidence that his designs indicate the use of a 'baroque' pearl; indeed, it is most unlikely since his own sketchbook (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, col. icon. 199) has a coloured drawing for a fork and a spoon with handles of similar design. In neither case does Hornick's meticulous draughtsmanship indicate that the heads are separate from the torso nor that he intended the outline of the 'baroque' pearl to exist. He appears to be concerned solely with a design that a goldsmith could execute straightforwardly in gold or silver. It seems very likely that he borrowed the idea of this design from an Italian source, most probably from the work of an artist in the Florentine circle of Francesco Salviati (1510-63). Among the numerous Salviati school designs in the possession of the Swedish collector Dr Pirman is a drawing of a salt-cellar with Leda and the Swan (on the cover) and, above, a spoon and fork of a strikingly similar design, albeit rather more Mannerist and sophisticated - particularly the fork where prongs become the 'legs' of a second merman or nereid. The Italian inscription below the salt-cellar makes it clear that it also served as an egg-stand but sheds no light on the date of this pen and wash design, which has loosely been described as “mid-sixteenth century” (J. H. Hayward, The Mannerist Goldsmiths, ‘The Connoisseur’, 168, March 1965, p. 146, fig. 4). If there were similar Italian designs for a toothpick of this type circulating before Erasmus Hornick published his pair in 1562, they are unlikely to have incorporated in the round an irregularly shaped 'baroque' pearl within the design of the torso because, as yet, there is no evidence to suggest that this new use of the 'baroque' pearl and its long-lived popularity had begun as early as the 1550s.

An engraved design for jewellery attributed to “D. Weitner c.1600” (Hackenbroch 1979, p. 200, fig. 558A-B) has two versions of toothpicks, but neither incorporates the 'baroque' pearl. However, one of the two - the entwined Nereid and Triton toothpick - is interesting because it appears to have been designed with an identical small, projecting hook at approximately the same place - just before the toothpick narrows and curves to a point. The relevance of the other engraved version lies not so much in the male bust, clad in antique armour, but rather in the middle zone that is really very similar in design and treatment to the solution employed by the goldsmith of the Waddesdon toothpick. Nevertheless, the absence of the 'baroque' pearl from either design, both dated 'circa 1600', is noteworthy. This dating may not be very significant, however, if this engraver was not in the mainstream of European fashion. None of the standard reference books refer to a 'D. Weitner' and, consequently, neither the basic facts about his life nor his oeuvre are available. Yvonne Hackenbroch does not mention him in her text, though the reference to the two illustrations of his 'designs for jewellery' occurs within a Hungarian context and it is implied that his engravings helped to encourage Hungarians to make jewellery in the Late Renaissance style “well into the seventeenth century” (p. 200).

On the other hand, one fine, well-documented instance of the continuing popularity of the 'baroque' pearl to form the centre of the bare female bust can be seen in the very comparable toothpick, with 'baroque' pearl bust and gold helmeted head, that has been preserved in the treasury of the Saxon court in Dresden (see J.L. Sponsel, ‘Das Grüne Gewölbe’, vol. III, ‘Kleinodien der goldscheidekunst’, Leipzig, 1929, p. 188, pl. 11, no. 7). The helmet terminates in a suspension loop in a similar way and the jewel is thought to be “German, circa 1600”.

By the last quarter of the sixteenth century the taste for 'baroque' pearls was growing rapidly, but for the most part jewellers seem to have been content to incorporate the 'baroque' pearl within a gold setting, thus giving it protection and strength, whilst allowing themselves a free rein with their imaginative interpretation of its appearance (see cat. nos 26-30 inclusive).

Very few Renaissance jewels with a well-documented history or known provenance have survived to exemplify the more daring fashion for employing an irregular large 'baroque' pearl completely in the round as part of a figure. The goldsmith who made the Waddesdon toothpick saw in this particular 'baroque' pearl a mermaid's torso and proceeded to fashion in enamelled gold the head and the lower part of the creature around the pearl.

Of this genre the best-documented and the most audaciously conceived example is the Triton and Nereid stem of the rock-crystal covered cup, which owes its survival to the Dukes of Württemberg, in whose kunstkammer it has been preserved (see Mechthild Landenberger, ‘Kleinodien aus dem Württembergischen Landesmuseum, Stuttgart’, Pfullingen, 1973, p. 7, col. pl. 31; see the more detailed discussion of this piece in cat. no. 26, p. 153 [WB.155]). This imaginative interpretation of the 'baroque' pearl as a miniature piece of sculpture, free-standing and composed of two figures, is exceptionally accomplished, but also preserved in the Württembergisches Landesmusuem, Stuttgart, is an even more closely related jewel with a 'baroque' pearl in the round. It is a toothpick in the form of a dragon-like creature, the head and wings in enamelled gold and set with three gemstones, the 'torso' formed of a large, irregular 'baroque' pearl completely in the round and, below, a gem-set scrollwork 'belt' and an enamelled scaly tail curving and tapering to a point. This toothpick pendant, which despite its use of the 'baroque' pearl in the round is so different in its enamelling and general appearance, has been described as North German and “circa 1600” (Hackenbroch 1979, fig. 606, but there is no mention in the text).

The largest concentration of extant specimens of this type is, however, in the Museo degli Argenti at the Palazzo Pitti, Florence (for illustrations of six jewels incorporating a 'baroque' pearl in the round see Hackenbroch 1979, p. 251, figs 673-676, 679, 680 and 685, where they are all attributed to the Netherlandish craftsmen working “c. 1580” at the Medici court). None is particularly related to the Waddesdon toothpick in other respects, except that it is interesting to note that the face of the 'double-tailed siren' jewel is not enamelled. This unusual feature, which characterises the Waddesdon toothpick, is also to be found on the spectacular Siren jewel in the Kungliga Husgerädskammeren in Stockholm. The latter is exceptional because of the excessively rounded contours of the 'baroque' pearl, which so evocatively forms the torso, and because the enamelled wings behind the head are attached to the gold drapery that disguises the join of the neck to the 'baroque' pearl bust. This Siren has gold arms attached to the 'baroque' pearl as well as an enamelled and gem-set tail (see S. Fogelmarck in ‘En Värld i Miniatyr’, Stockholm, 1982, p. 112, no. 223, with col. pl. on p. 105, where it is dated soon after 1600 and is stated to have belonged to Queen Hedvig Eleonora, the wife of Karl X (reigned 1654 - 1660).

Two other jewels of this type should also be considered because, although their earlier history is lost, they can be traced back to the earlier part of the nineteenth century. The more famous is the so-called Canning jewel, a merman pendant of particularly dazzling appearance that was “acquired in India by Charles John, 2nd Viscount Canning, Governor-General of India (1856-62)” and since 1931 has been in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Inv. no. M. 2697-1931; see Shirley Bury, ‘Jewellery Gallery Summary Catalogue’, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1982, p. 154). The 'baroque' pearl that forms the torso of the merman is completely in the round, but the bearded head and the arms are white-enamelled gold, set with gems; the translucent-enamelled scaly tail is heavily encrusted with gemstones, including an Indian carved oval ruby. According to Bury 1982, parts were rebacked and replaced, probably while it was in India, and consequently its original appearance cannot be established with certainty. Significantly, the organisers of the 1980 Victoria and Albert Exhibition 'Princely Magnificence, Court Jewels of the Renaissance, 1500-1630' omitted the Canning jewel from their selection, even though it resulted in this class of 'baroque' pearl jewel being left totally unrepresented in that exhibition. The most recent official Victoria and Albert Museum publication of the jewel describes it as follows: “The design probably FLEMISH, the execution ITALIAN; about 1570. Traditionally said to have been given by a Medici prince to a Moghul emperor” (see Bury 1982, p. 154, case 26, no. 10; illus. p. 155). However, the uncertainty surrounding the origin of the jewel is reflected in the variety of attributions published over the last few years: in 1980 it was described as “Italian or South German, c. 1560” (A. Somers Cocks, ‘An Introduction to Courtly Jewellery’, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1980, p. 16, col. frontispiece); in 1979 it was said to be a product of the “Netherlands, c. 1580” (see Hackenbroch 1979, p. 240, fig. 646); and in 1970 it was published as !Perhaps Italian c. 1580” (see Joan Evans, ‘A History of Jewellery, 110-1870’, London, 1953 (rev. edn 1970), p. 26, pl. 81). On balance these opinions favour the tradition linking the jewel to a Medici prince, since it is known that Netherlandish craftsmen and artists were a dominant influence at the Medici court in Florence during the last decades of the century.

The slightly less well-known of the two pendants is the companion Siren or mermaid pendant, inscribed (on the reverse of the tail FALIT. ASPECTVS. CANTUSQ . SYRENAE (“Both the appearance and the song of the Siren deceive”); also the letters D. L. VD. R. (the VD is conjoined; all five letters occur on a different area of the reverse - the back of the projecting 'fin' on the left of the jewel). This Siren jewel, with its white-enamelled head and arms, can be regarded as the companion of the Canning jewel because it too was acquired in India, during the time when Lord Canning was Governor-General. Moreover, its traditional history is the same and was fully published in 1970 in Sotheby's Sale Catalogue of the Arturo Lopez-Willshaw Collection (Sotheby's, London, 13 October 1970, lot 9). Its stated traditional history begins with the story of the Medici prince's gift to the Mogul Emperor (perhaps in 1648); after the Indian Mutiny in 1857 the jewel was found in the Treasury of King Oudh at Delhi and, after its seizure, it was reputedly acquired by Lord Canning; in 1863 after Canning's death it is said to have been purchased for Baroness Mathilde von Rothschild, of the Schloss Grüneberg, Frankfurt am Main, and thence to have passed to Baron Max von Goldsmidt-Rothschild, to the House of Duveen, to Arturo Lopez-Willshaw and, finally, Baron de Rédé (see Hackenbroch 1979, p. 368, n. 21). The jewel was exhibited in 1878 in Paris at L'Exposition Universelle, l'Art Ancien, but an anonymous engraving of it showing both the front and the back in perfect, accurate detail (in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) has been inexplicably described as “French, early 19th century” (see Hackenbroch 1979, p. 240, fig. 643). The print bears no date but has an engraved French inscription: “Ton Corps humain, Sirene, en grandeur juste suivie, Est perle la plus fine, de toute Richesse munie”.

This double engraving of the jewel probably dates from about 1878 when the jewel was on public display in Paris. Furthermore, no one appears to have noticed until a few years ago that the jewel had been exhibited in London (at the South Kensington Museum) in a special Loan Exhibition held in June 1862 (see ‘Catalogue’, ed. J. C. Robinson, p. 639, no. 7271, where it is stated that “although of fine Italian work of the 16th century, [it] was brought from India'”. Although Lord Canning was still alive in June 1862, the jewel was “lent by Colonel Guthrie” according to the 1862 ‘Catalogue’, p. 640. There seems, therefore, little doubt that both this Siren or mermaid jewel and its companion, the Canning merman jewel, came to England from India during the six years while Lord Canning was Governor-General, but precisely how and where they were acquired in India is not yet documented. This lack of information in the official records of the India Office in London is surprising, but until it is resolved no faith can be placed in the reputed earlier history linking these two exceptional jewels with King Oudh at Delhi, or with the Medici in Florence and their deputation to the Grand Mogul, Shah Jehan, in 1648.

The letters D.L.VD.R. have not been convincingly interpreted nor had their unparalleled presence on a jewel of this calibre been satisfactorily accounted for. Sotheby's inconclusive conjecture that a goldsmith's signature (perhaps in the form of the monogram VD) is uniquely inscribed on this piece remains as unsubstantiated today as it was in 1970. Research about the age and origin of the Siren jewel has, however, continued, especially within the last two years or so since it has no longer been kept in a private collection. In 1982 it was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and by 1984, when it was publicly exhibited in the new permanent installation, the Jack and Belle Linsky Galleries, along with the rest of the Linsky Collection, this jewel could with justification be described unambiguously as “European, probably ca. 1860”, in accordance with informed opinion at a truly international level. (See Clare Vincent, in ‘The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’, New York, 1984, pp. 196-8 no. 117.) The Siren or mermaid jewel is therefore now being recognised as a very fine fake, which in 1862, when Colonel Guthrie lent it to the exhibition at the South Kensington Museum and had it described as 'brought from India', was very new. If, as seems certain, these current doubts about the authenticity of Colonel Guthrie's Siren pendant are justified, then the Canning jewel (in the Victoria and Albert Museum) becomes more controversial, despite its reputed alterations, and merits a scientific examination.

Whereas the problems posed by these two 'baroque' pearl merman and mermaid jewels, apparently found in India in 1858, have yet to be finally resolved, there are sufficiently significant differences between them and the Waddesdon toothpick pendant, which has no history at all, to enable a sixteenth-century attribution for the latter to be sustained. The relative uncluttered simplicity of this toothpick combined with its well-conceived proportions are indicative of a well-designed work of the Renaissance. Equally, extreme care and originality in detail are signs of the Mannerist approach to design, and on the toothpick pendant these aspects are to be noted in not only the elaborate treatment of the head-dress but also (below the 'belt') the novel conception of the upper edge of the fishy scaly skin being shaped and attached to the 'belt' by a loop (at the front). At the opposite end the scaly skin ends, again, in a shaped outline, into which is integrated the curving hook or scraper. The latter is unparalleled among the few surviving toothpicks and earpicks, but the many royal inventories from the leading Renaissance courts testify to the long-lived popularity of both instruments, often richly jewelled, from the end of the fifteenth century into the seventeenth century. In England the lists dated 1550 relating to the coffers marked A to v in the Secret Jewel-house at the Tower of London include valuable evidence of the fashion for both earpicks and toothpicks: “. . . hanginge to the same Cheyne A Unicornes home closed in golde with a Whistell and instruments for teth and Eares and a Dial in the toppe, all golde” (see Janet Arnold in ‘Princely Magnificence, Court Jewels of the Renaissance, 1500-1630’, ed. A. Somers Cocks, exh. cat., Victoria and Albert Museum (Debrett’s Peerage Ltd), London, 1980, p. 33). Queen Elizabeth's New Year's gifts in 1579 included a present from Sir Edward Horsey, Captain of the Isle of Wight, which might indicate that the ostentatious use of a jewelled toothpick had become de rigueur: “A touthe picke of golde the top beinge garneshed with a faire emeraude, a dymond and ruby and other smale dymonds and rubies with two perles pendaunt.” It would seem that Queen Elizabeth also used tooth-cloths, perhaps in conjunction with the toothpick, because in the same year, 1579, she received from Mrs Twiste “six towtheclothes wroughte with blake silke and edged with golde”.

Although the Waddesdon toothpick pendant was described in Read 1902 as “German, about 1580”, an attribution repeated in Dalton 1927, there would seem to be more recent evidence that this type of jewel was also made in Spain. The recently recovered treasure, salvaged from a Spanish plate ship sunk off the coast of Florida in 1715, contained one of the most remarkable examples; on a gold chain, more than 11 ft long and with each of its 2,176 links ornamented with rosettes, hangs a sea-dragon of gold, the serrated spine of which houses a long curving toothpick, while the tail of the monster terminates in a scraper or, possibly, an ear-probe (see John Hunt, Salvaged Treasure of Florida, ‘The Connoisseur’, 163, November 1966, pp. 151 ff., fig. 2; the finds were subsequently sold by auction at Parke-Bernet, New York, on 4 February 1967). It is not known how old this jewel was when the ship sank in 1715, but it has also been published as being a gold whistle and, as such, the personal badge of office worn by the commander of this Spanish fleet, Captain-General Juan Estebán Ubilla. From the photographs it would seem to bear a close affinity with some of the Spanish sea-monster pendants of the early seventeenth century.

Most recently, the Waddesdon jewel has been simultaneously described as a work from “Southern Germany, in the style of Erasmus Hornick, c. 1580” (see Hackenbroch 1979, p. 161, fig. 434) and as a work from “Spain, end of 16th century” (see Hackenbroch 1979, p. 324, fig. 851; the text contains no discussion). The difficulties are obviously very great when firm documentary evidence is lacking, but at the moment the attribution of the toothpick pendant to a goldsmith working at the Medici court in Florence or at a German court seems the more convincing.

[A further comparison is a gold toothpick with pearl in the Musée National de la Renaissance, Écouen, (inv. no. E.Cl.13405) which also has joined hands, possibly associated with FEDE of marriage.]


  • 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. 188, fig. 25
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 188
  • Yvonne Hackenbroch, ‘Renaissance Jewellery’, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications, London, New York and Munich, 1979, p. 161, fig. 434
  • p. 324, fig. 851
  • Hugh Tait, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: The Legacy of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild to the British Museum’, London, 1981, p. 52, col. pl. XA
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 1., The Jewels', British Museum, London, 1986, no.31, pls. XIX, XX, XXI, figs. 152-153.
  • 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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