Before Handbags

From medieval times to the early 20th century, women kept essential items such as keys close at hand on their “chatelaines.” These precursors to purses hung from belts and featured long chains with hooked ends to clutch accoutrements. But when women started working full-time outside the home, cloth handbags—with straps instead of chains and plenty of room for cosmetics and sunglasses—made chatelaines obsolete.But chatelaines survive among estate jewelry dealers and their customers. Part of their appeal lies in their ornate and symbolic designs, which reveal how women’s lives have evolved.

Where to find them. High-end estate dealers find their best pieces at estate sales. But over the past 20 years, it’s been tougher to find intact ones, says Barry Weber, the owner of Edith Weber Co. in New York. Some collectors are interested only in the attachments, such as watches. “I frequently see chatelaines with missing elements,” he says. Dealers also draw on their own customers to find top-notch originals.

Some estate jewelers find chatelaines at flea markets, including some outside the United States. Shien-Shu Sues, owner of SNS Fine Jewelers Inc. in New York, found a few sterling silver originals in perfect condition at a flea market in Taiwan 10 years ago for $50 apiece. Intrigued by their rarity and uniqueness—and low prices—she bought the pieces, thinking that a market for them would one day exist. “I did show them in the United States right after I bought them, but I kept them because there was little interest,” she says. “The Chinese didn’t use chatelaines, so I think these were made for export to the French and English.” Sues estimates the pieces were made in the late 19th century. At the time, the Chinese city of Canton was a major manufacturing center, and shipments were exported via the port of Guinjaui. One chatelaine even has English writing on it, she notes.

Reproduction chatelaines are available, but demand is limited. Mark Rutstein, the owner of Jem Estate Jewelry in Palm Harbor, Fla., makes a few styles. “Chatelaines are truly a matter of personal taste,” he says. Rutstein once made a reproduction with a belt clip—just like the originals—but there was no demand for it in the marketplace. Sues, who deals in estate jewelry, declines to create reproductions because she believes the time isn’t right.

But one of Rutstein’s reproductions is quite popular. A replica of an original he once owned, it’s made of sterling silver and features three chains holding a perfume bottle, a stamp box, and a whistle. These accoutrements—common on antique chatelaines—are still useful today, he notes, which might account for the piece’s success among consumers bold enough to wear it.

What price is right? The rarity of the metal affects the value of chatelaines. Sterling pieces—both reproductions and originals—are common, as are originals made of brass and silverplate. But despite silver’s status as a “precious” metal, it does not necessarily command a higher price than a lesser metal. Christie Romero, a jewelry historian and author of Warmin’s Guide to Jewelry (a third edition is slated to be published in spring 2002), found a gunmetal chatelaine with four appendages that was worth several thousand dollars because so few were made that way.

Originality of parts also affects price. “Many chatelaines feature newer appendages,” says Romero. She says many solo accoutrements are available and cites eBay as evidence. At press time the auction Web site was offering 174 chatelaines or attachments—2% of its vintage fine-jewelry items.

Rarity of accoutrements also affects cost. Chatelaines for sewing and those with keys and perfume bottles are relatively common, because these items were daily necessities. Two years ago, at an antique show in Atlantic City, N.J., Sues was tempted to buy an intact silver chatelaine with sewing accoutrements. “They were asking $600,” she says. She declined because the price wasn’t right.

Rutstein’s best-selling reproduction costs $100 at keystone. At just 20% of the cost of the original model, reproductions such as this make owning a bit of women’s history affordable for consumers looking for a conversation piece.

Recommended reading.Chatelaines, Utility to Glorious Extravagance, by Genevieve Cummins and Nerylla Taunton.

Contributing editor Maria Miriam conducted research for this article. JCK‘s December 2001 Heritage section will feature a chatelaine pictorial, descriptions of the uses of the item, and keystone prices.