Though they are rarely worn nowadays, chatelaines were once prized as useful and decorative items, worn by housekeepers, fashionable ladies and some working men


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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Jewelry > Fashion > Feature: Chatelaines

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 Though they are rarely worn nowadays, chatelaines were once prized as useful and decorative items, worn by housekeepers, fashionable ladies and some working men.

 The servants in a large Victorian house had their own pecking order. The butler or steward and the housekeeper reigned supreme below stairs. Housekeepers were in charge of the maids and responsible for the maze of still-rooms, storerooms, larders and pantries below stairs.

 The housekeeper's badge of office was a chatelaine, the keys to her kingdom. This cumbersome piece of jewellery was made to be worn a the waist. A number of chains - at least three, and often more - were attached to an ornamental hook plate or brooch and a variety of objects, one per chain, were hung from them. Such items as sheathed scissors, a notebook, a needle case and a thimble often joined the keys that jangled at the waist.


 Chatelaines were not originally meant to be useful, or indeed to be worn by servants, even one as exalted as a housekeeper. They came to England in the late 17th century from the continent, where the chatelaine, the lady of the castle, wore one to carry her keys and various keepsakes. These were modelled on medieval ornaments and had romantic associations with fair damsels and adoring knights.

 In the more decorative form, and usually fashioned from precious metals, chatelaines were popular pieces until around 1830, and continued to be worn by some wealthy women throughout the 19th century. They often include a small, but ornate watch, perfume bottles and other trinkets.

 A few men, especially those whose trade meant they needed ready access to handy tools, also wore chatelaines, which were usually anchored at the top of the thigh rather than the waist.

 Towards the end of the Victorian period, chatelaines came back into vogue and remained fashionable until the outbreak of World War 1. After that, changing fashions in clothing made them redundant.

 The chatelaine's clip fitted on a belt. Chains had to be long enough to allow accessories to be used without restricting the wearer.


 Early examples of chatelaines from Germany or France tend to be very expensive, and were made of gold, silver or pinchbeck (a gold coloured alloy of copper and zinc). They typically had just three chains, ending in small containers. Victorian ones were made in gold, silver, brass and cut or polished steel, among other materials, and tend to have a great many chains and ornaments; they got heavier and more elaborate as time went on.

 Today's collectors tend to look for complete examples with a good clip and a wide variety of attachments. Some specialize in a certain period - delicate art nouveau designs are particularly popular - while others concentrate on chatelaines and accessories specific to a trade or hobby. Seamstresses' chatelaines, with thimbles, needle cases, buttonhooks, scissors and tiny pincushions are an excellent example of this.


 The main consideration if you're considering buying a chatelaine is that it is complete. Missing accessories will bring down the price a little; missing chains a lot. The best way to tell if chains are missing is to look at the clip to see if there are any tell-tale holes.

 Of course, replacement chains may have been added, and new accessories fitted. This isn't always easy to spot. Different lengths or styles of chain often appeared on the same chatelaine, but there was generally an odd number of them, and they were almost always arranged symmetrically. Check that the metal is the same colour throughout and has been evenly worn, and that the design of the chain matches at least one other on the piece.

 Individual chatelaine accessories are also collectable. You can generally tell a chatelaine accessory from any other small piece of metalwork by the small loops or hooks with which they were attached to their chains. If these are missing, or have been broken off, prices should be lowered accordingly.


 While housekeepers' chatelaines tended to be plain affairs, those made to be worn by the lady of the house would have ornamental work on them. Some of them were extremely ornate and encrusted with gemstones, though you'll find it easier and much cheaper to seek out ones including enamelling, tassels or inset beads. In every case, the main thing is that all the decorative work is present and correct.

This chatelaine in London's  Victoria & Albert Museum was greatly admired by the exhibition jury and won a Prize Medal. Their report commented: “ a beautiful chatelaine, entirely of wrought steel: it is composed of twelve pieces, adjusted with extreme care, and covered with faceted ornaments; several of the pieces, such as the étui, the key, the tablets and the almanack, have required very long and skilful work and twelve months were required to complete this chatelaine. It was made entirely in London, and not a single piece of it was stamped.”

 Chatelaines were decorative but useful waist hung fashion accessories. The system of clips and chains, attached to the belt, kept small but necessary items such as sissors, keys and money easily accessible for housewives and housekeepers. Before the 1850s pockets were uncommon in women’s garments and chatelaines were a versatile and ornamental alternative. The huge numbers of increasingly large and elaborate chatelaines made in Britain and America was ridiculed in satirical publications like Punch magazine.

Place of origin:London, England (made)
England, Britain (made)
Date:ca. 1850 (made)
Artist/Maker:Banks Durham, Joseph (maker)
Materials and Techniques:Cut steel
Credit Line:Given by Mrs Gilbert Russell
Museum number:M.10:1 to 9-1971
Gallery location:Jewellery, room 91, case 19, shelf C



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