The Evolution of Piqué Jewellery: From Pricking to Artistry

Piqué jewellry, pronounced 'pee-kay,' is a fascinating category of antique jewellery that never fails to capture attention. While its value is not particularly high compared to other antique pieces, it's the remarkable journey of this art form from its humble beginnings to the intricate designs of the 19th century that truly impresses. In this essay, we will explore the origins, development, and influence of piqué jewelry, shedding light on its evolution from a simple technique to a sophisticated art form.

The term "piqué" has various meanings in English, but in French, it literally means "to prick." This simple action laid the foundation for the term's evolution into a decorative art form. Piqué involves the delicate process of applying small gold or silver pins into materials like ivory, tortoiseshell, or even non-organic substances such as silver. The captivating aspect of piqué lies in how these pins, when applied in clusters or larger proportions, create beautiful plays of light and shadow.

 17th Century Ivory 

Piqué gained prominence in France during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Its rise was closely tied to a fashion trend of the time, which involved carrying movable objects like snuff boxes, combs, and trinket boxes. This surge in demand for unique materials beyond the conventional choices like silver, porcelain, and ivory paved the way for piqué's popularity.

Tortoiseshell, a key material in piqué jewelry, has a rich history. It can be traced back to ancient times, possibly even to the Romans in the first millennium AD. Recent archaeological discoveries, such as a Roman burial chamber found in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, dated to the second century AD, underscore the enduring appeal of tortoiseshell. Artifacts from Greece and Rome also reveal the use of tortoiseshell as inlays in furniture and as drinking vessels, showcasing its flexibility and malleability. 

In the course of history, we often see a pattern where one country pioneers an art form, only to have another refine it. Piqué jewelry followed this pattern. The Dutch, who traded through the East Indies, played a significant role in transporting tortoiseshell throughout Europe. However, it was the French, with their refined taste, artistic sensibility, and passion for beauty, who applied the techniques of piqué with exceptional finesse.

In the late 18th century, thanks in part to the influence of French Protestants known as the Huguenots, the English embraced piqué as well. They introduced new processes and methods that allowed for greater flexibility in production. Machinery was employed to refine the inlaying process, enabling the manipulation of tortoiseshell into flattened, curved, and molded forms.  Victorian Piqué Earrings

While piqué initially found its place in crafting exquisite jewelry pieces like brooches, lockets, and pendants, it soon extended its reach to utilitarian objects such as card cases, writing boxes, dressing table sets, and purses. However, it was the production of jewelry, particularly earrings, towards the end of the 19th century, that saw piqué artistry embracing the post-artistic tendencies of the neo-classical movement. 

 Victorian Pique Earrings 

Piqué jewelry is a captivating art form with a rich history and evolution. Its journey from a simple pricking technique to a sophisticated art form, influenced by France, refined by England, and encompassing the beauty of tortoiseshell, continues to mesmerize and inspire. The next time you encounter a piece of piqué jewelry, consider the centuries of craftsmanship and innovation that transformed a basic act of pricking into a work of art.