Eighteen-Piece Silver Mounted Mother-of-Pearl Dessert Service

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A seemingly unique 18 piece Queensland mother-of-pearl shell dessert service, silver mounted by Wang Hing, Hong Kong, circa 1900 with a dated contemporary correspondence, 6th October 1910 (see attached).

In the 19th century the Queensland government exhibited at major international and Australian exhibition, mother-of-pearl shell trophies. See attached.

Countless exhibits of shells, corals and sponges record the harvesting of the sea's riches. Most valuable was the pearl-shell to be found in the waters of the Torres Strait, promising 'a veritable jeweller 's shop' of wealth. From the 1860s pearl-shell was harvested for export to London for button manufacture and 'divers artistic uses'.

At the Sydney and Melbourne exhibitions of 1879-1881 Queensland showed trophies of 2 tons of pearl-shells and admonished visitors to dismiss any 'tales' of the exhaustibility of its shell stocks.

These 'tales' had some substance, however, for soon afterwards the Pearl-shell and Béche-de-mer Fisheries Act of 1881 was passed to regulate the rapidly growing pearl-shell industry. The value of shell exports had reached almost 70,000 GBP annually by 1886 when Queensland showed its next pearl-shell trophy at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition. This kiosk-type trophy was covered in crimson plush decorated with hundreds of pearl-shells, while inside the
kiosk was a case containing pearls, painted pearl-shells and pearl-shells made into 'novel' table ornaments.

Most conspicuous of Queensland's trophies at the Melbourne exhibition of 1888-89 was a 'marine' trophy from Burns, Philp and Company of Thursday Island, the colony's largest exporter of pearl-shell. This trophy, made of 6 tons of pearl-shells piled nearly 20 feet high on a base of clams and corals, won a silver medal. More intensive harvesting by the schooner system (of large fleets with a mother schooner) led to such rapid decline in shell stocks that Queensland's 'Pearl King' James Clark had to move his fleet north to the Dutch-controlled waters of Aru in 1905.

Meanwhile at the Queensland International Exhibition Clark put on a show of 'priceless' pearls and a 'grotto' made of 4 tons of pearl shells. Finally at Glasgow in 1901 Queensland showed its grandest-ever pearl-shell trophy, another kiosk festooned with white nautilus and green-tipped snail shells as well as gleaming pearl-shells, all illuminated in rainbow colours. 'No illustration can satisfactorily convey an IDEA of the scene', raved the Scots Pictorial.217 Of course, exhibition-goers were unaware that Queensland's pearl-shell stocks were now so depleted that the trochus shell would soon become the mainstay of its shell exports.

Nobody could make this service today, because the mother-of-pearl source has been destroyed, and we live in the world of the plastic mother-of-pearl shell button!

Each plate is a different size and shape as they are all made from a natural pearl shell. The measures given are the maximum.


    7.87 in. H x 14.96 in. W x 8.27 in. D
    20 cm H x 38 cm W x 21 cm D
  • Dealer Location
    Chudleigh, Australia
  • Number of Items
  • Reference Number
About the Seller

1stdibs seller since 2016

Located in Chudleigh, Tasmania

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