Decorative Accessories

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Pietra dura (also pietre dure) is an Italian phrase, with pietra meaning “stone” and dura meaning “hard” or “durable.” While pietra dura is the preferred term (at least according to The Getty’s Art and Architecture Thesaurus at, the terms micromosaic or Florentine mosaic are occasionally encountered. (Some find “micromosaic” to be a little objectionable, applying only to the “rougher” forms of the art produced for the tourist trade.)

Pietra dura is derived from the Byzantine art of mosaic work, although mosaics vary slightly in two important ways – grout is typically used in the creation of a mosaic, but more importantly, pietra dura creations are usually portable, while mosaics tend to be larger works, often done on walls or floors. Both are, of course, an art, with pietra dura being referred to as “painting with stone.”

Italian pietra dura plaque, signed G. Montelatici, 20th century, depicting a bust-length portrait of a smiling monk, framed.

Montelatici pietra dura portrait of a monk. (p4A item # D9807400)

Pietra dura is considered an Italian art, with roots in 14th-century Rome, developing into an art form in Florence, supported by the patrons of the Renaissance and flourishing in the 16th and 17th centuries, and with a later period of popularity in Naples. However, some of the finest works of pietra dura appear in the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, indicating that Indian artisans had perfected the skill by the mid-17th century as well. With the extensive presence of parchin kari, as the art is known in India, in the Taj Mahal, the skill continues to be practiced in Agra, producing lovely, delicate works for the tourist trade.

A late 19th century Italian micro mosaic picture, Cani in guardia ardente (Guard Dogs on Alert)

Italian mosaic plaque with two dogs. (p4A item # D9788305)

A watercolor and ink on illustration board by Arthur Rackham (British, 1867 to 1939), illustration from Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle in Newcomb-Macklin frameTracing its beginnings to S. H. McElwain’s entry into business in 1871, the Newcomb-Macklin company gained its famous name when McElwain introduced his bookkeeper, Charles Macklin, to John C. Newcomb and they became partners in 1883. The Chicago firm would go on to employ many designers and craftsmen to produce some of the most beautiful and original Arts & Crafts frames in America as well as to purchase the rights to reproduce the famed architect Stanford White’s frame designs after his assassination in 1906. Drawing from a wide variety of frame designs, Newcomb-Macklin crafted frames for many important American painters including George Bellows and John Singer Sargent, often working directly with their premier artist clients, especially the American Impressionists, to develop frame styles and finish treatments to compliment their paintings. Newcomb-Macklin frames came to be highly sought by the discriminating public, and in order to meet this demand, the company maintained showrooms in New York and Chicago, as well as employing traveling salesmen to represent their wares in the early years of the new century. In 1979 the Newcomb-Macklin company was purchased by the Thanhardt-Burger Corporation. The acquiring company had specialized in producing hand-made frames since 1927 and is now considered to be the oldest continuously operated frame-making company in the United States.

It is fairly easily to distinguish Newcomb-Macklin frames, as they have the unusual construction technique of perpendicular corner splines. They are also usually factory stamped and occasionally labeled as well. Newcomb-Macklin frames appear fairly regularly at auction, sometimes on existing paintings as the original frame, sometimes empty, and they fetch fairly steady prices, because they are still considered quality frames of good construction and good resale value.

Gorham silver urn-style compote“Vermeil” is a French word co-opted by the English in the 19th century for a silver gilt process. Vermeil is a combination of silver and gold, although other precious metals are also occasionally added, that is then gilded onto a sterling silver object. The reddish (vermilion) hue of the addition of the gold gives the product its name. Vermeil is commonly found in jewelry, silver tablewares, and small decorative objects and a standard of quality (10 karat gold) and thickness (1.5 micrometers) has been set with regard to jewelry.

Vermeil was initially created through fire or mercury gilding, a technique developed in the 18th century, which requires the application of a solution of mercury nitrate to the object and then the application of a silver and gold/mercury amalgam. In order for the gilding to adhere to the surface, the coated object is placed in a kiln and exposed to extreme temperatures, which burns away the mercury. (This is similar to the technique used to produce ormolu, a form of gold-gilt.) As a result of the intense and prolonged exposure to mercury, it has been estimated that most mercury gilders died before the age of 40. Mechanical or chemical gilding techniques were largely replaced by electroplating by the mid-19th century, and the process was banned in many countries in the mid-1800s.

The White House has a room known as the Vermeil Room, so named for a collection of vermeil tableware.



Felt pen wipe with a recumbent lion

Felt pen wipe with a recumbent lion

More than 50 felt pen wipes, the collection of Edwa F. Wise, recently sold at Pook & Pook in Downington, PA.  Pen wipes, which are rarely seen at auction, come in a variety of whimsical forms and date to the days before modern ball point and felt tip pens when people wrote with nib or dip pens.  These pens, having no ink reservoir, were dipped into an inkwell to collect ink, and a pen wipe was necessary to wipe any excess ink from the nib, or tip of the pen.

Pen wipes were sometimes in the form of bronze figures with bristled backs, while others, like those in the Wise Collection, were handcrafted out of felt.  They were often made as small gifts and exhibit a great deal of skill and creativity. The creative forms they were made into, usually animals, are endless and include examples like a puppy drinking water, prize pigs, and mice nibbling on pretzels and cornHuman figures also exist, as well as the more commonly seen heart-in-hand design, and they are found in both two- and three-dimensional forms.

-Jennifer Castle, Editor,

Inkwell; sailor dressed dog in tub

Inkwell; sailor dressed dog in tub

Today’s back-to-school lists certainly outline plenty of supplies that can make a parent crazy – dry-erase markers, specific crayon sets and stacks of tissue boxes, but stop and take a moment to be grateful that ink and inkwells aren’t on it!  (Honestly, regardless of when pencils were invented, I’m surprised it wasn’t earlier.  A life involving me as a small child and an inkwell would not have been worth living….)

Inkwells are one of those small decorative objects that reveal so much about how fashions develop and change; you’ll find delicate Wedgwood examples (and I marvel at their cleanliness – I would have had them splattered permanently with ink) and gorgeous glass examples from companies like Clichy and Lalique, as well as figural examples of horses, owls and turtles.  And, of course, there’s Tiffany – there’s always Tiffany – and I’m holding out for a complete dragonfly deskset, but in the interim, I’d be happy with this enameled Art Deco piece, in case anyone’s starting Christmas shopping early.

Inkwells also mark an abrupt departure from the tasteful.  They seem to have become an early version of the novelty gift, and the delicate classical glass and porcelain forms quickly gave way to mandolin-playing frogs, devils with bat wings, and phrenology heads!  And somewhere beyond that are the pipe-smoking bulldogs in sailor suits, like the one pictured above.  A collection of inkwells makes a great collection, because it is truly a celebration of taste, both good and bad!

-Hollie Davis, Senior Editor,

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