About the buttons of materiotek-mercerie
↓ The manufacturers
↓ The materials
↓ Mother-of-pearl buttons
↓ Metal buttons
↓ Plastic buttons
↓ Horn buttons
↓ Bone buttons
↓ Tagua nut buttons (Corozo)
↓ Raffia buttons
↓ Passementerie buttons
↓ Glass buttons
↓ Sources of information
↓ Identification of the materials used for the manufacturing of the buttons and dating
Source of the information at the bottom of the page
These buttons initially stem from a haberdashery shop in Toulon (France) that closed in 1944. The stock was then bought up by the Mamiboutons Company, Noortje Bergmans: she kept a shop in the Gard department in France, and she also was present on markets and online through an e-shop open until recently. She sold her stock to us in 2014 and the buttons are now available at materiotek-mercerie in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland.
All these buttons were manufactured in France. Except for some they were produced in small series, which is no more the case today. Either because the materials are no longer available (for example the composition of plastics changed or was abandoned), or because the techniques of manufacture changed.
Buttons with buttonholes first appeared during the 12th century. They replaced "fasteners", a kind of hook. At that time, buttons were rich decorations made from silver, gold and beads, and they were worn by rich people.
In some cases the name of the manufacturer (or of the supplier) is known because the buttons were still in their original boxes:
- A la ruche
- Art et Mode
- Boutons lingerie
- Boutons tailleur
- Corozo tailleur
- Galamode-Créations L. C.
- Dernière création
- Haute mode de Paris
- La mode
- Latest Style
- Magasins réunis
- Mode de Paris
- Mode parisienne
- Série idéale
- Suvesco RECD - Fashionwise
- Washable glass buttons
The materials represented
- Natural plant materials: wood, raffia, corozo (vegetable ivory)
- Natural animal materials: horn, bone, mother-of-pearl, leather
- Artificial materials: metal alloys, glass paste, rhinestone, early plastics
- Synthetic materials: plastics
Some particular materials selected within the materiotek-mercerie stock!
Mother-of-pearl is a resilient, white, iridescent material, derived from a large number of sea shells, more particularly mollusc species. The thin superimposed transparent platelets produce a brightly-coloured sheen. Instead of using pearl oysters, which had become rare, button-makers substituted Haliotidae shells (or ormer, also called “ear shells”), trochus shells and turban snails (also called marbled turban). They stem from warm-water habitats in the Pacific Ocean, mainly from South-East Asia or from the Gulf of Mexico. In these areas intensive fishing had been partially responsible for the disappearance of the shell banks prior to the 1970s. Because of laws enacted to protect endangered animal species and thanks to high international standards, traditional fishing is controlled, even prohibited and the shell species are currently grown in shell farms.
Mother-of-pearl was used to fashion buttons for textile manufacturing, for men’s, women’s and children’s clothing and also for gaming chips.
The decline in the use of nacre starts at the beginning of the 20th century, because of the progressive disappearance of market opportunities due to increasing competition and more particularly because of the emergence of plastic materials.
The manufacture of a mother-of-pearl button can involve up to seventeen stages: selection, peeling (in tumbling drums or by abrasion), cutting (with a milling cutter), abrasion (with a rasp), polishing (with a disk), dyeing, hole drilling or fastener-assembling, and lastly carved decoration (with a chisel or a lathe). The accurate dating of the manufacture of mother-of-pearl buttons is not known, but the most ancient specimens in Europe were dated to the Middle Ages.
Our mother-of-pearl buttons stem from two sources
- Small factories in Southern France, which supplied the haberdashery of Toulon that closed in 1944.
- A manufacturer of mother-of-pearl buttons of Les Arcs (Var, France), named M. Ghuez or Gueze, who produced from the 1930s on.
Prior to the emergence of plastic materials, metal was obviously the most commonly used material for the manufacture of ancient buttons. Except in very rare cases, metal alloys were used and the most frequent f these were copper alloys such as brass and tumbago, iron alloys such as steel, and aluminium alloys. Generally, these metals were covered by a paint coating that determined their colour. Other buttons were made from tin and tinplate (iron with tin coating) and with a paint or enamel surface coating.
The metal buttons have plain, engraved or chiselled decorations but the most common technique used was stamping. Stamping is an impression technique for producing relief or sunken designs with a pattern-bearing mould or punch strongly pressed onto the metal. When the metal plate is pressed on the mould, a mould casting is obtained. A wire shank was attached to the back of the button by creating a small area of attachment (alpha type, omega type, etc.). The buttons can be moulded, hammered, stamped, striated, blued, glossy, golden, silver, painted… all these techniques make up their decoration and colour.
Most of the buttons stemming from the former Mamiboutons stock have a stamped decoration with classical patterns: mythology, uniforms, flower or geometric decoration. Some are painted; others have a plastic shell bearing polychrome patterns. All these buttons are dated prior to the 1940s.
The metal buttons sometimes have the manufacturer’s name or the manufacturer’s mark coined on the back
- A. M. & Cie PARIS (Deshayess Masse et Cie. 1853-1960)
- A.P & Cie PARIS (Albert Parent et Liéger 1912-1939)
- BAGRIOT (1854-1930)
- D.M. R M PARIS
- LA BELLE JARDINIERE (grand magasin fondé par Pierre Parissot, mercier parisien en 1824 et qui fermera ses portes en 1970)
- N. M & Cie M PARIS
- PARIS ELEGANT
- SCHAERER (Bern)
- T. W. & M/M PARIS
- T.W & W. (1844-1970)-COINDEROUX (ART METAL-FRAMEX)
From the 19th century on, new “plastic” materials progressively replace the traditional materials used for button making. These plastic materials were originally developed to imitate natural materials (such as horn, ivory, tortoise shell) in order to avoid shortages. These are wonderful buttons with varying textures and colours.
Stamping and moulding are the traditional techniques used for the manufacture of these buttons. Stamping involves placing a piece of plastic on a matrix (which may have been previously engraved), pressing the whole, drying it and then cutting the pieces. Moulding involves placing powder (or small pellets) of plastic matter in a cavity mould and then exposing them to a strong pressure. In both cases, all the final stages (turning, grinding, drilling, and polishing) required manual work and special skills by the button makers.
Most of the plastic buttons sold by materiotek-mercerie are made from galalith and celluloid. Some of these buttons are very ancient and involve particularly sophisticated work. They were indeed specially used for Haute Couture. The most frequent plastic types are the following:
- Vulcanite®, Ebonite®, Gutta Percha® (~1823): initially made to imitate jet, plant gum (tree or shrub secretions) is exposed to sulphur. This thermosetting, resilient, brittle, black, opaque material is quite similar to ebony wood, hence the name Ebonite. The stamped blanks can be worked like wood.
- Cellulose nitrate (1845), Celluloïd® (1870), cellulose acetate (1868): cotton or wood cellulose is combined with a mixture of acids, which provides a mouldable thermoplastic paste: the added plasticisers make it possible to improve the moulding and shaping properties. Moreover, these plastics have the largest, transparent and opaque colour range.
- Galalith (1897): the first plastic not made from plant materials. The name galalith stems from the Greek word “gala = milk”: as this was a milk protein (casein) hardened with formaldehyde. Galalith is a thermosetting plastic available as sheets, rods, tubes or blocks, and it can be worked like wood.
- Bakelite® (1909): the first completely synthetic plastic invented by the chemist Baekeland, hence its name. This phenolic resin invariably includes sawdust that provides a characteristic speckled and very dark aspect. As a thermosetting plastic it can also be worked like wood.
- Polystyrene (1937): this is a thermoplastic made from vinyl resin; it is very suitable for moulding and is an extremely lightweight material.
- Polyamide (1938): this is also a thermoplastic, belonging to the amino acids family, it is commonly known as Nylon®.
- Polyester: thermoplastic (1941) or thermosetting (1950), this is a large family of chemical compounds, the "esters" in the main chain of the polymer they are composed of.
Buttons made from bovid horn (cow, buffalo) are the most common of this stock, but ovine (sheep) and caprine (goats) horn is also present. To be worked the horn has to be straightened and it is “steamed” to soften the keratinous fibres it is composed of. These latter are elastic and very tear-resistant, so the straightened horn can easily be cut, moulded, shaped and polished. Generally, once shaped, horn preserves its natural translucent or matt colour, ranging from honey-coloured or white-streaked to brown, grey and black.
Bone is a material, which is not only very easy to work but also more frequent, more abundant and less expensive. These are small buttons for general use. Circular button blanks were cut out and two or four holes drilled. Their fresh white or creamy colour becomes darker over time and takes on an amber colour.
Tagua nut buttons (Corozo)
The Corozo nut grows on palm trees in South America and Sudan. This is a very dense and hard material with a light colour that resembles ivory, which explains why it was called "vegetable ivory". The nuts were sliced to obtain blanks that could be cut, turned, drilled and subsequently carved and dyed. As the corozo nut is very dense and brittle it does not support a great degree of relief. The decorations are therefore quite fine and delicate. It is not easy to identify a vegetable ivory button as its original light colour becomes darker and increasingly similar to distinct woods, bone or ivory.
Raffia is a palm tree that grows on Madagascar. Its leaves yield a very solid fibre used for ropes. The strings or threads are braided, interwoven, just like passementerie to obtain voluminous buttons.
Passementerie is the art of interweaving, braiding, weaving and knotting all types of threads to make various items such as tassels, fringes, galloons, wimples, etc. The passementerie buttons stemming from the Mamiboutons stock are mainly made from cotton or viscose threads, refined by metal threads, set on a plastic cap made from celluloid or galalith.
Glass buttons were very popular because their production was inexpensive. This material therefore became widely available from the mid-nineteenth century on. Ancient techniques, rediscovered during the Industrial Revolution, such as moulding and pressing of silica glass made the serial production of buttons possible: glass can be transparent, opaque or iridescent and the finishing (perforation, deburring and polishing) required a lot of manual work.
Some particular compositions of this material are more difficult to identify as being glass. They were made deliberately to imitate other materials such as semi-precious and precious stones or porcelain. This is the case for aventurine glass or goldstone, i.e. iridescent, opalescent and bubbled glass; for crystal glass or "lead glass", with a high transparency and a rendering finesse; also for opaline glass, a translucent glass with a milky aspect that can be dyed, that imitates kaolin-based porcelain, and lastly for the so-called “Bohemian black glass” and more generally the glass produced in Central Europe (Austria and Germany). These different glass techniques made it possible to produce beautiful trompe-l’œil passementerie, beads or facetted cabochons, which were so popular at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
Sources of information
- Boutons d’Antan, vêtements civils, uniformes militaires, http://boutonancien.forumactif.com/forum
- Boutons.web.fr, http://boutonsweb.fr/collectionboutons/Boutweb.htm#début
- Histoire de collection militaria, http://histoire-collection.com/company.html
- ARTMETAL PARIS, http://www.framex.net/default.asp
- Allio, Loïc, Boutons. Ed. Seuil, Paris, 2001.
- Bellair, Véronique dir., Dé-boutonner la mode. Catalogue de l’exposition "Déboutonner la mode", du 10 février au 19 juillet 2015 au Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Les Arts Décoratifs ed., Paris, 2015.
- Bonnet, Laurence, La nacre, la tableterie, le bouton, l’éventail. Ed. District du Sablons, 1998.
- Gandouet, Thérèse, Boutons. Collection l’Amateur de collections, Les éditions de l’Amateur, 1984.
- Howells Jocelyn, MacFerlane Joan and Deal Nikki, National Button Society Section 9-A synthetic polymers Handbook. The National Button Society Publication, 2000.
- Jeannès Michel, Filer la métaphore. Du bouton aux journées du matrimoine. Musée dauphinois, éd. Fage, Grenoble, 2010
- Wiesniewski, Debra J., Antique & Collectible Buttons, identification & values. Collector Books, USA, 1997.
Identification of the materials used for the manufacturing of the buttons and dating
This work was carried out thanks to my colleagues and friends conservators-restorers, experts of natural, artificial and synthetic materials and of ancient and modern technologies and finally of processes of decay of the materials.
The knowledge of the materials (their transformation by humans, their natural or accidental weathering) makes it possible to date the pieces. The exploitation of natural materials such as mother-of-pearl or horn existed for millennia, however, commercial exchange changed and broke traditions as did the protection of animal species from the 1970s onwards. This explains partially the search and the development of artificial and then synthetic materials (plastics and elastomers) from the mid-nineteenth century up to date. Most of the buttons of this stock are made from early plastics (cellulose acetate, Bakelite, galalith, etc.) and were manufactured between 1920 and 1940, even slightly earlier for some of these. These are small series and each button was first mould, and then turned. The buttons have simple and systematic shapes and their shaping was long (at least ten operational stages and several pieces assembled at the end), sometimes implying extensive polishing and mass or surface dyeing.