March 21, 2007
Rare tortoiseshell jewel casket to go on display at CW's DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum
The jewel chest or casket that Queen Elizabeth II of England presented to Colonial Williamsburg during her 1957 visit for the 350th anniversary of Jamestown will be on display at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum beginning April 7. The exhibition will commemorate Her Majesty’s return visit to Williamsburg in 2007 and America’s 400th Anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.
The octagonal box is 14½ inches high, 251/2 inches wide and 23½ inches deep, and was made in Jamaica between 1660 and 1685. It is composed of tortoiseshell veneer on Spanish cedar with mother-of-pearl inlay and silver mounts. The representation of America as an Indian princess and the other inlaid mother-of-pearl figures symbolize the promise of the New World. Queen Mary of Teck, Queen Elizabeth II’s grandmother, acquired it for her personal collection in 1932. It stood in the Charles II Room at Windsor Castle until its presentation to Colonial Williamsburg.
Extravagant toilet services and lavishly decorated dressing and jewel caskets became popular accessories of elevated ladies of fashion in England during the latter half of the 17th century. In aristocratic circumstances, they were often acquired for a wife or a bride-to-be.
Fashioned in the European tradition, this jewel casket’s association with the West Indies is strengthened by a long history of ownership in the family of Admiral Sir Charles Wager (1666-1743), commander-in-chief for Jamaica from 1707 to 1709. He fared very handsomely from his naval exploits at this time, which also would support a West Indian origin. Its extensive use of tortoiseshell and Spanish cedar, as well as the New World subjects of the mother-of-pearl inlays and similarities of some of the silver mounts to those on established West Indian work, lend further credence to a possible Jamaican source. It is believed to have descended through related families from Wager until purchased by Queen Mary.
The casket was on display at the Governor’s Palace from 1958 to the mid-1970s. Since 1985, the Wallace Museum has periodically put it on display.
The spring 2007 issue of the journal of Colonial Williamsburg now is available online on our Web site. The latest “Message from the President” is at http://www.colonialwilliamsburg.org/Spring07/president.cfm, with a slideshow of images showing the Queen's jewelry box.
The Museums of Colonial Williamsburg include the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. Admission is included in any Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket or by separate museums ticket. Entrance to The Museums of Colonial Williamsburg is through the Public Hospital of 1773 on Francis Street between Nassau and South Henry Streets. Operating hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. For information call (757) 220-7724.