Before women carried purses, they often relied on chatelaines to keep an array of miniature accessories close at hand. Named after “La Chatelaine,” or the female head of a French household who was responsible for an estate’s keys, chatelaines became a practical accessory for women at a time when pockets were tiny or nonexistent.
During the 16th century, it was common to hang such tools near the waist with a cord or ribbon, but in the 18th century, stylish European chatelaines took over. These chatelaines generally featured a central medallion mounted on a hook or pinback brooch to be attached directly onto a dress. Dangling from this central point could be anywhere from one to 20 chains, each attached to a small trinket or tool.
Many chatelaines included a symbolic key, referencing their original namesake, as well as useful objects like needlework tools, coin purses, notebooks and pencils, or tiny perfume bottles. Often these accessories were produced and sold as a complete set, in styles ranging from utilitarian steel to exquisitely detailed varieties of precious stones and metals. While some of the most stylish versions were simply designed to showcase an expensive watch, others were tailored to specific pursuits, like painting or archery.
As purses grew in size and fashions shifted, chatelaines became less popular, gradually disappearing altogether in the early 20th century. Today, it is rare to find a complete chatelaine with all its original accessories, thus these are the most desirable among collectors.