Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Women's Follies Through The Ages

( Orginally published 1962 )



A woman will do anything to enhance her beauty, even if it means wading out into the ocean to drag in the contents of the intestinal canal of a dead whale.

Each year more and more treasure seekers scour long stretches of our beaches trying to locate the gray smelly substance that is ambergris. Most of the time the substance found is nothing more than vegetable wax or soap from passing ships, but the one find in a thousand will be the gray lumps which are ambergris-that fantastic substance so necessary for the retention of the delicate odors of perfumes-without which perfume would be of little use to the woman who treasures it so highly.

The smell of ambergris, as found in the ocean-if you are lucky enough to find it-has been likened both to musk and to a sweet earthy odor. Often it will contain the beaks of cuttlefish, and this is one way of telling whether or not the substance you have found is actually ambergris-or somebody's left-over soap.

Usually found in small amounts, it sometimes appears as a great glob weighing as much as five hundred pounds!

In ancient days, ambergris was used for medicinal purposes and was purported to be the excrement of the sperm whale. Today we know that at its origin the ambergris is enclosed in the intestinal canal of the sperm whale. Also, it must come from a diseased whale. It is for this reason that ambergris is so rare. One whale is capable of producing hundreds of pounds of this substance, but, then, how many sick whales are there?

It is this scarcity of ambergris which makes the price paid for it so high-in recent years reaching about $20 a pound, or $2,(}00 per one hundred pounds, or $10,000 for five hundred pounds. Obviously well worth watching for-and even wading for.

Yet there are other items connected with perfume that can be found without getting your feet wet. Among them the cones which were set into the wigs worn by the women of ancient Egypt. These cones contained perfume and would, today, be considered items of great historical interest.

The Romans also had their own methods of filling the air with scent. The women of Rome carried silver and golden nets into which were placed small balls of amber, and when the amber was rubbed, it threw off fragrance into the air-amber balls worth watching for.

Besides perfume, there are other treasures used by women of the past to enhance their beauty, and among them are examples of embroidery.

There have been times in our history when embroidery ranked as high in prestige as the great paintings of the day. Some examples of this ancient art have survived-and they may be waiting for you to find them. From ancient China, watch for the silk, brocade-embroidered robes of the women who lived under the ancient Manchus. Watch for the white robes of the ancient Greeks, robes embroidered in reds, blues, yellows, and other colors.

In earlier times, during the Middle Ages, embroidery was so popular that monasteries and convents had special rooms where nothing else was done except that work. The patterns showed a Byzantine influence-fine and lovely workmanship for the treasure hunter to locate, if he can.

From the thirteen to the fifteen hundreds, Europe was a center for some of the most exquisite pieces of embroidered work the world had ever known, lovely things to clothe the most beautiful ladies of the land.

Even the men got into the embroidery act, in the seventeen hundreds, when Louis XV ruled France and it was fashionable for men of the court to appear in handsomely embroidered coats. These coats are today well worth your search, keeping in mind that some of the most beautiful of these had been sent all the way to China for their embroidery work-although the design of the embroidery was distinctly European.

Rarity, age, historical association, and fine workmanship are the criteria upon which is based the evaluation of any piece of embroidery. Let us hope that the piece of embroidery which has been in your family for so many years can meet the rigid standards of these pieces of worked cloth which are considered as great art in their own right.

But embroidery is not the only cloth to watch for, beautiful though it is. Ancient Japanese brocade robes dating to the late 1500's would be museum pieces if you could find good examples of them. Also from ancient Japan come robes which were decorated with gold and silver foil, sometimes even with glass. How heavy these must have been for the women who wore them, especially since the Japanese ladies wore as many as twenty articles of dress at once, one over the other.

From ancient Byzantium, watch for cloth of gold. They wore fantastic garments, from patterned silk to cloth, into which gold was woven; many of them are museum pieces.

In feudal times, the noble ladies of the land wore cloth woven with gold. They called it aureotextile. Sometimes they wore aureoclavi, which means brocaded with gold. Women's clothing from this period is always worth watching for, especially since it became so fabulous that laws were passed limiting the extravagances to which women might go in having their clothes decorated.

From the later period of the Renaissance there are many items of clothing to watch for-brocades and velvets and silks. Robes were lined with crimson silk, or sometimes with ermine and sable.

Fashion was so important at one time that fashion dolls were made especially to display the latest thing in milady's fashion world. This was in the late thirteen hundreds, when each year the city of Venice sent to Paris for a fashion doll which, on Ascension Day, was placed on display in Piazza San Marco.

Whether it is a fashion doll, a piece of golden embroidery, or a gray and smelly lump of ambergris, it is treasure-if you can find it.

Truly the beauty of womankind offers an unlimited field to the treasure hunter, since there are almost no limits to the length to which women have gone in the past-and probably will in the future-to enhance their charms, and probably the most familiar of these aids to beauty is the necklace.

Rubies, diamonds, emeralds, gold, and silver, have gone into the baubles which have encircled the necks of some of the world's most famous beauties. These necklaces of the past are well within the scope of the treasure hunter. Whether they are very ancient or comparatively modern-provided they are of fine craftsmanship or set with precious stones or can be proven to have belonged to some particularly important personage.

The necklaces of ancient Egypt were of exceptionally fine quality -and certainly are worth the treasure hunter's time. Necklaces of this period have already been found, of course; one of these finds being a serpent necklace discovered on the mummy of the royal Egyptian princess, Knoumit. The necklace was of gold, silver, and emeralds. This, naturally, was a tremendous find-but there are other Egyptian necklaces which have never been located. And, since many of the ancient tombs were desecrated and robbed and the items found therein scattered to all parts of the world, there is really no telling where you might find another treasure similar to the necklace of Princess Knoumit.

Also watch for the necklaces of ancient Crete. The British Museum already has examples of these fine necklaces, of amethyst, rock crystal, and carnelian beads, but there were others which may never be found-and others which may be found by you.

The necklaces of ancient Persia should also not be forgotten. One of the greatest finds was made near Susa in the early part of the twentieth century when Henry de Morgan discovered a sarcophagus. It contained the skeleton of a woman, and with her skeleton were many necklaces -emerald and jade and turquoise and lapis lazuli. There was also one other necklace, a three-row necklace of pearls. Originally it had consisted of over four hundred pearls, and when de Morgan found the necklace, over two hundred of the pearls were still in good condition. Who knows what other necklaces are still hidden from the eyes of mankind-waiting to be found by a treasure hunter.

With the amount of grave robbing through the ages there is no telling what you might find-anywhere-whether it is in the bazaars of the east or even here in America. Tourists have brought back stranger things than lost treasures, without even knowing what they had.

One of the objects to keep in mind-and certainly they were on the minds of beautiful women of the past-are brooches, such as the medieval brooches of the Irish and the Anglo-Saxon women. But these are not the only brooches to watch for. There are brooches from all times and all eras-from the plain and simple historic brooches to those which are of value because of their precious-stone settings.

Nor did the beauties of the past neglect their arms. They decorated them with some of the most magnificent bracelets the world has ever seen. In the time of ancient Egypt, all kinds of precious stones and enamels were used to make beautiful bracelets.

Some of these ancient Egyptian bracelets have already been found, among them the bracelets of the Queen of Zer. These are of gold and turquoise, and at least one of them is decorated with golden hawks. There were other bracelets-those of the Persians, the Medes, the ancient Jews, and the ancient Greeks of the time of the Trojan War. All worth watching for.

Gold powder is another item to look for from this era. This, however, was used by the men of ancient Persia, who actually dusted their long, curled beards with gold powder.

Gold powder for dusting the beard may seem unusual to us, but it certainly is not as unusual, nor as beautiful, as some of the decorations of the women of long ago-all of which are listed as treasurehunting items.

Among these must be included the forehead jewels used by the women of the Renaissance. These gems were worn in the middle of the forehead, sometimes attached to a head veil. These were beautiful then and are beautiful today-if you can find them.

These treasures of women's beauty can be found by anyone, even by a farmer who found a ring and tied it to his dog's collar. The dog wore it for over six months-until the farmer discovered that the ring was gold. It turned out that the ring had belonged to Ethelswith, sister of Alfred the Great, Queen of Mercia in the ninth century. Today this ring is a prized possession of the British Museum.

Another famous find was made in a field at Stratford-on-Avon, when the ring that Anne Hathaway allegedly gave to William Shakespeare was discovered.

The value of a ring, if you find one, is increased a great deal if it belonged to a famous person-or if the ring is set with precious stones so that it has a value of itself. But whether the ring you find is a golden ring of Mycenae, an English iconographic gold and silver ring bearing images of the Saints and made in the 15th century, an antique memorial ring, or a unique and ancient ring of any kind, it is worth while having it examined by an expert. At least don't attach it to your dog's collar.

From rings to fingernails is not a long step in beauty adornment -as the women of ancient China proved with their Manchu finger guards. These guards, protecting the long fingernails which were a sign of class status, were made of silver and gold and jade.

Whatever it is that you find, have it checked. If it was used to beautify a woman and if it is set with diamonds or emeralds or rubies, your problems are solved-no matter what famous person may have worn it. But sometimes it takes a little more to make an item of jewelry into a treasure. Such as the hairwork jewelry which was so popular during the 1800's. Made of human hair, these were bracelets, earrings, and charms for charm bracelets. Originally, hairwork jewelry was a kind of keepsake, made from the hair of a loved one who had died. But as time went on it became a fad and there was hardly anyone who did not have at least one item of hairwork jewelry. Today hairwork jewelry has a minimal value.

For example, hairwork brooches and earrings can be purchased for from $50 to $104. But, if you find examples of hairwork jewelry which had belonged to a famous person, or if the jewelry itself has an unusual history, the value of the item would naturally increase. And this is a point to remember when looking for any items used by women from time immemorial to enhance their beauty.