SB sends me a beautiful lace collar that belonged to her grandmother Elsa. Such collars were expensive in the mid-19th century and a young married middle-class girl would've been hard pressed to buy such a treasure. Interestingly, Elsa wore it proudly in the 20th century as an older matron. I wondered WHY.
Antonio married Elsa in 1893 in Chemnitz, Saxony, Germany. He had already established himself as an attorney in New York City; son of a prominent banking family, with offices in Leipzig and New York City, Knauth, Nahode and Kuhne, Antonio brought his young wife to a fine New York brownstone. Antonio died before Elsa in 1915.
Why did Elsa choose to have her portrait painted with this collar in the 1920’s? Perhaps because of the social status it concurred. Lace has traditionally been a sign of aristocracy. The best lace came from Flanders in the 18th century: noblemen’s inventories often mentioned lace cuffs.
Handmade Belgian lace of quality from the 16th to the mid-19th century was used for collars, cuffs, corset trims and accents for the hair. Flanders lace was so sought after that British lace makers in the 18th century supported its prohibition: the upper-classes had to have it, thus innovative manufacturers developed machines to weave the lace in 1819, refining the machine-made lace process again in 1847.
What determines quality is the denseness of the pattern. The finest mid-18th century lace has an equal proportion of mesh to the intricate pattern, a more intricate “cloth work.” Hand workers wove, braided and twisted the tiny threads, bent over their work for months.
Two types of collars were worn: one, exposing the décolletage, called a “Berthe,” were worn off the shoulder. Elsa’s collar is a “Big Berthe,” a scarf-like collar. This kind of collar was popular until the mid to late 19th century. Thus, Elsa’s collar may have been a gift dating from the 1880’s.
I sourced a helpful website to research the collar, and found the connoisseur Elizabeth Kurella, who writes about the link between great lace and royal tastes: “I never before understood the mystique of lace – and royalty stories. Now it made sense. The myths and legends had nothing to do with doilies, bun warmers, centerpieces and placemats in tourist shops. Antique lace was a very different substance…. The difference between a Rembrandt and a roadside painted picture of Elvis.”
It takes a lace connoisseur to determine quality, so I phoned Elizabeth Kurella, sending her photos of Elsa’s collar. This, she told me, is a beautiful Point de gaze Big Berthe from the late 1880’s, a distinctive needle lace produced in Brussels from the 1860’s-80’s. The key to this dating is the distinctive central rows of the raised petals. The Berthe was a larger fuller circle that was worn off the shoulder from the 1870’s on. Ms. Kurella referenced the movie The King and I, when Anna dances in her magnificent, off-the-shoulder gown. Before she approaches the King, she slides off her Berthe. This is a formal collar, meant to show off a graceful neck, bare shoulders and décolletage. The phrase “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” came up early in my conversation with lace expert Kurella. Was the Berthe meant to conceal or reveal? Definitely “flaunt,” she said. Elsa was not ‘out of style,’ flaunting it in the 1920’s.
Why would a lady from the 1920’s wear an expensive collar from the 1880’s? Ms. Kurella explained that lace collecting, especially amongst the high-society in NYC, was “a big deal pre WWII.” The Rockefellers, for example, built a collection of art, and antique lace, too. The Needle and Bobbin Club was established in 1916 in New York to promote interest in antique textiles and lace. High society women in NYC collected many a pricey lace flounce at the time that Elsa flaunted her collar.
Is Elsa’s collar valuable? Ms Kurella said that October saw two major antique lace auctions, one at the finest French auction house, Drouot, in Paris, offering hundreds of lots of antique lace, some dating to the 17th century, and the other at Augusta Auctions in Sturbridge, offering select treasures in lace. Connoisseurs bid on and bought Belgian lace from all over the world. In fact, a notable market for antique lace from Belgium is Japan.
Ms. Kurella said Elsa’s collar is in good condition and a great example of a Point de gaze Berthe: she puts value at $200-500, depending on the buyer.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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