Vinaigrettes are small tightly lidded boxes designed for containing strong aromatic substances. They were produced from around 1780 through to the mid 19th century during which a seemingly infinite variety of designs were created. They were usually made from a range of materials such as gold, silver, enamels or glass mounted in silver. A good proportion of these were highly decorated with beautiful ornament and interesting topographical scenes which successfully disguised their real purpose which was to refresh and revive the individual.
The main distinguishing feature of a vinaigrette is the grille, usually revealed when opening the exterior lid. The grille is another interior hinged lid which is always pierced. The function of the grille was to allow a sponge soaked in an aromatic substance to filter through. Both the grille and the interior of the vinaigrette were always gilded to prevent the substance reacting with the silver. Most grilles are decorated with either geometric patterns or foliate scroll designs. However, rarer grille designs can be found which enhance their value. Examples can include books, birds, musical instruments, quills and Scottish tartans as well as many other interesting variations. A well known and sought after example is the Nelson commemorative vinaigrette with a grille depicting the HMS Victory.
Pictorial vinaigrettes referred to 'castle tops' are particularly sought after. Although the name would suggest that they all depict images of castles this is not the case as it is used more as general term to describe vinaigrettes with pictorial scenes. Nathaniel Mills of Birmingham was famous for making castle top vinaigrettes and his works always command high prices at auction. Another notable maker is Sampson Mordan of London known for his novelty vinaigrettes.
As perfume bottles
During the mid 19th century some vinaigrettes were designed to combine both a vinaigrette and a perfume bottle. Generally these came in three forms being a glass perfume bottle with a vinaigrette base, a combination of two glass perfume bottles with a central vinaigrette and a perfume bottle and vinaigrette combined in the form of a cornucopia.
Out of fashion
Vinaigrettes were widely used by many people for over one hundred years but due to changes in fashion, improvements with personal hygiene and drainage systems during the mid 19th century, they were no longer a necessity and hence by the end of the 19th century both production and usage had entirely ceased. Although, functionally vinaigrettes no longer serve any purpose, they are still widely collected purely as aesthetic objects and some of the rarer ones can achieve high prices at auction.
If you have any silver, please contact Robin Newcombe, silver specialist at Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent.