Two rare and highly refined Jamaican engraved tortoiseshell combs
Port Royal, c. 1673-1692, attributed to Paul Bennett
H. 14.2 x W. 24 / H. 13.2 x W. 21.8 cm
(enquire for condition)
Today only about twenty Jamaican tortoiseshell combs are known to exist of which none, as are the ones present, are in perfect condition. They follow the ancient tradition and form of combs that already millenniums ago had important religious and social-economic meanings in Europe and around the Mediterranean. One is one-sided, the other double-sided and both are engraved with an elaborate floral motif of scrolling vines. The first comb is decorated with a coat-of-arms that seems to be typical for Spain. Possibly these were made for a Spaniard who surrendered and became British after the annexation of Jamaica by England in 1655.
Combs made of various materials such as ivory, wood and horn, were quite common in medieval and early modern England, and a well-known status symbol. These tortoiseshell combs are objects created from familiar forms, to reflect new cultural structures in a quickly changing society. Taken home after the ‘colonial adventure’ as mementoes of Jamaica, they proved their owner’s worldliness and newly gathered fortunes by being a perfect balance between the exotic and the familiar, thus being a tool to obtain a higher social status upon arrival. These combs were surely not to be used, but to be placed in a kunstkammer.
The Hawksbill Turtle’s shell was a widely used material and can be regarded as plastic avant la lettre, having the ability to bend when heated. These turtles were common in the oceans until hunted down almost to extinction, only to be protected in the 20th century.
This set is a beautiful, but a poignant expression of a painful cultural moment. Bought with wealth generated by enslaved Africans, it embodies the English appreciation of Jamaica’s glorious natural history and the simultaneous savaging of it.