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The Chatelaine: History’s Forgotten Accessory

Inspired by some new chatelaines that AAJ has sourced this week, today’s Wednesday blog will be all about chatelaines: the long-lost accessories that were popular in the Georgian and Victorian eras. So, what are chatelaines? And why did they fall out of fashion?

A chatelaine is an accessory that hooks onto a belt, clasping at the waist of the wearer. From the hook falls a series of chains, each carrying charms or useful trinkets such as watches, thimbles, étuis (sewing kits), tiny notebooks, pencils, vinaigrette, or household seals.

You might be thinking: this sounds kind of like a hanging swiss army knife. And you would be right! Chatelaines carried useful household objects primarily for the ease of having each tool at hand at all times. They could be customized according to the wearer; some women preferred to carry around a sewing kit and scissors, whilst others were partial to writing equipment. Professional women, such as nurses and seamstresses, wore utilitarian chatelaines containing their work necessities.


18th-century three-color gold chatelaine including five suspension hooks bearing needlework implements, a pair of scissors, a sheath on a chain, a thimble in a case, two egg-shaped compartments with hinged lids, and other elements decorated with applied flowers and trophies.

Photo via © The Trustees of the British Museum


A well-dressed woman wearing a needlework chatelaine. It was unusual to wear chatelaines in posed photographs, so this is a rare example.

Cabinet card, c 1880. Photo via Collectors Weekly.


A nurse in full uniform including a utilitarian chatelaine, taken in Goven c. 1890.

Photo via The Glasgow Story

Chatelaines were not only practical, however, but also frequently decorative and beautiful. Think charm bracelet meets bum bag: this is the dual beauty and purpose of the chatelaine. And as with any jewelry, they were subject to embellishment with carvings, symbolic shapes, and intricate patterns. Although chatelaines’ purpose was to be worn within the home, the really beautiful ones were also shown off outside, and even sometimes at balls.


It's also worth noting that chatelaines varied enormously depending on the woman's status in society. Whilst some chatelaines really were purely practical, such as a nurse's kit, others were diamond-encrusted and worn by the aristocracy as jewelry or status symbols.


1838 chatelaine of polished steel ornamented with faceted steel beads, stamped on the reverse of a hook-plate, with ten writing and sewing implements suspended on nine chains. The needle-case contains an engraved bodkin.

Photo via © The Trustees of the British Museum

Cut steel chatelaine, c. 1885. The tools on this chatelaine include a watch, scissors, tweezers, magnifying glass, scent flask, and a miniature notebook or ivory writing tablet.

Photo via The V&A.

This chatelaine with blue enamel and rose diamonds is similar to the one owned by the Duke of Devonshire, reputedly made for the Duke of Wellington to commemorate his being made a viscount in 1809. Image and info via Georgian Jewellery 1714-1830 by Ginny Redington Dawes and Olivia Collings.


Chatelaines have existed in many forms throughout history. People have always had a need to carry around their essentials, whether it be in a medieval-style coin purse, or a Japanese netsuke, which served a useful purpose given the lack of pockets in kimonos. Ancient Roman women wore a kind of chatelaine brooch, onto which they could attach toiletries and cosmetic items such as ear scoops and tweezers. Historian Michael Wood in The Story of England even tells of a 5th-century group of Saxons where the women wore Roman style chatelaines.


It's likely that chatelaines would have existed in various forms in Britain for centuries, then, but they rose once again into popular fashion in the early 18th century. To begin with, they were often fragile gold or enamel pieces, but as the century progressed they became more sturdy, in cut steel or pinchbeck (a faux gold alloy). As a result, more and more accessories were hung from them, and this collection of items was called the equipage.


Miss Mary Edwards by William Hogarth, 1742. Miss Edwards was an extremely wealthy woman, and here she poses for a painting wearing a small but sparkly chatelaine.

Photo via The Frick Collection.


Pinchbeck chatelaine incorporating a scissor case, needle case, etui, and two thimble cases. c. 1730-1735. Photo via The V&A.

1777-1778 Gold and enamel encased watch chatelaine with medallions of George III and Queen Charlotte. Made by John Leroux.

Photo via © The Trustees of the British Museum

Gold, agate and diamond chatelaine by John Pyke, ca. 1750. V&A Metalwork Collection.

The word 'chatelaine' is said to derive from the French châtelaine, meaning the key-holding mistress of a chateau or castle. This mistress would historically have worn a belt for her keys, which is where the name comes from. As a result of this etymology, wearing chatelaines in the 19th century was often a status symbol showing that a woman was the woman of the house: the key-carrier, the châtelaine of the home.


Pretty, practical, and compact... so why did these practical pieces go out of fashion? Well, it was partially due to the rise of the wristwatch, and partially due to the increasing fashion for handbags. With wearable timepieces and fashionable bags that could be stuffed full of even more trinkets, the chatelaine started to fall out of favor around the turn of the 20th century.


This diamond chatelaine with a watch was a gift to Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark from her mother-in-law, Juliane Marie. Movement by Jodin of Paris, the chatelaine and case signed by J.F. Fistaine, Copenhagen, 1767. Image and Info via Diamond Jewelry: 700 Years of Glory and Glamour by Diana Scarisbrick.

Late 18th-century chatelaine with watch, made of gold, silver, diamonds, and hair. This belonged to Georgiana Cavendish, wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire. The small navette-shaped lockets bear the Cavendish snake coiled crest in diamonds. From The Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Image and info via Le Grand Frission: 500 years of jewels of sentiment by Diana Scarisbrick.

Nowadays, chatelaines are especially hard to come by because we no longer create this kind of jewelry. The only chatelaines we have are antiques. They make for beautiful, intricate pendants, or can be worn as brooches. Regardless of how they are worn, however, these accessories are certainly worth collecting, given their rich history, beauty, and their importance for the women of the past.

See Antique Animal Jewelry’s gorgeous chatelaine collection below.



#chatelaines #wednesdayblog #jewelryhistory #antiquejewelry

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