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By Jen Cruse:

The Art Nouveau period was a turning point in design principals where imagination and free-flowing creativity were of the essence. The emphasis was on a return to hand craftsmanship and away from increasing industrialization. In Europe between c. 1895 and 1910, a revival in the use of horn was led by René Lalique, Lucien Gaillard and their contemporaries.

Clarified horn bleached with hydrogen peroxide, sometimes frosted, was their favoured material. These innovative artists created some of the most imaginative and naturalistic designs ever seen, and their influence spread around Europe to other like-minded artists. Hair combs and pins especially gained enormous recognition owing to their supreme quality and are much sought after by collectors today. The Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal, has a most impressive collection of Lalique’s work, including a great number of his combs.

The 2 bleached horn combs featured in the photograph display tinted openwork with daisy flowers and a dragonfly. They are carved in the style of the Parisian Art Nouveau artist/designers. Although unsigned, they have been attributed to Mme E Bonté working in the early 1900s.

Horn Combs of Elizabeth Bonté. Ht 3½in/8.9cm to 4in/10.2cm.


For more scholarly research, please examine

The Comb: Its History and Development, by Jen Cruse


By Jen Cruse:

The fleur-de-lys (often spelt “lis”) motif is frequently encountered on ornamental haircombs, either as part of the overall decorative heading or as an applied embellishment. It is said to represent three central petals of the lily, a flowering plant of the genus iris.

The initial conclusion may be that combs depicting this motif must be of French origin, but not necessarily so. The fleur-de-lys was and still is widely used on innumerable artefacts and textiles around the world, although no doubt it had its origins in France.

Certainly the name is French, meaning the “flower of the lily” or “lily flower” and, according to encyclopaedic references, is a very old pattern that was used as decoration in ancient times in countries as far apart as India, Egypt and Italy.

It first appeared in Europe in the 12th century as a motif on heraldic coats of arms. It was the emblem of the French Kings and was depicted on the French Royal flags, shields and banners up to 1789. When Edward III of England (1312-1377) claimed the throne of France, he added three fleurs-de-lys to the three lions of England, and they remained on the English royal arms until 1800. To this day the fleurs-de-lys are still part of the decoration of the royal crown.

The fleur-de-lys is the adopted emblem of the city of Florence in Italy. It also appears on 17th century tombs in Delft churches in The Netherlands. In religious pictures the motif, like the ordinary lily that signifies purity, is symbolic of the Virgin Mary. The motif also became the emblem, in a modified form, for the Scouting movement worldwide, founded by Lord Baden-Powell in 1907.

The 3 combs illustrating the fleur-de-lys motif are all made from celluloid (cellulose nitrate) and date from around 1910 to 1914.


For more scholarly research, please examine

Jen Cruse: The Comb

The website of the Antique Comb Collectors Club

For much of the nineteenth century, tortoiseshell was a luxury material that commanded high prices, whereas horn was a readily available material and inexpensive by comparison. By around 1830, the horn craftsmen found a method of clarifying and staining horn in imitation of tortoiseshell and, over succeeding decades, made combs, hairpins and other small items such as snuff boxes, fans and brooches. Being plausible reproductions of the real shell they, too, achieved similarly high prices and to all but the discerning eye, found a ready market until the advent of celluloid simulations in the 1880s.

The two combs pictured illustrate the remarkable similarities of each material, polished horn and lustrous tortoiseshell.


These combs are British, c. 1850-1870, and can be found on page 43 of The Comb: Its History and Development by Jen Cruse

This beautifully carved tortoiseshell comb is one of only three known to me. Two are in my collection and the third is in the collection of the Museum of London. Each comb varies slightly in format and also condition, and the carving techniques demonstrate the exceptional skill of the combmaker.

The decorative features of each comb originally included engraved emblems of rose, shamrock and thistle (all broken off on this example) together with the Prince of Wales feathers, further embellished with a crown and two fleur-de-lis in rolled gold; European in origin, it is possibly English-made and dates to the mid 1800s.

W 7¼ ins/18.4cm Ht 9 ins/22.9cm

Suggestive of royal connections, for whom these combs were designed or intended is uncertain. Were they to be worn by members of a Royal Court or were they expensive commemorative gifts to celebrate a Royal wedding?

Unfortunately I have been unable to find any precise information on this comb, its ‘sister’ comb featured on page 30 of my book or the Museum comb. Various theories exist but are purely speculative in the absence of reliable evidence.


For more scholarly research, please examine

The Comb: Its History and Development

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