Monday, September 13, 2010

Guilloche and Fabergé

In my last post, I showed a sample of Asher B. Durand's banknote engraving. In the top middle of that specimen sheet, you'll see a rosette. It's an example of guilloche, which is the wonderful pattern of parallel intertwined lines that we all associate with currency security.

This is a detail of a Swiss banknote from the 1970s. Isn't it wonderful? Designers of European currency positively exult in guilloche.


Now, here's a different kind of guilloche. The term also applies to the engraving of the pattern on metal, usually then enameled in the style of Peter Carl Fabergé. In fact, the word comes from Guillot, the engineer who invented the guilloche engraving machine.

When his wealthy patrons would commission an enameled piece from Fabergé, he would show them this chart of guilloche chips, to help them make decisions. Imagine the delight of such choices! This is an illustration from The Art of Carl Fabergé, by A. Kenneth Snowman. While writing his excellent book sixty years ago, Snowman corresponded with and interviewed Fabergé's sons, and also surviving Fabergé craftsmen.

This is a pillbox from my own collection. I bought it while I was in high school, and shortly after reading Snowman's book. When I saw this in an antique shop, I realized that it was a fine design and probably as close as I'd get to owning a Fabergé creation. I based that not just on the flawless enameling, but also because the lid is seamless. If you study Fabergé's work, you'll find that he excelled at hiding hinges and clasps. Many of his eggs opened with the press of a jeweled button. Here, I've placed the pillbox on top of a portrait of Fabergé, though in fact the box is English silver.

And finally, for my architect friends, guilloche also refers to this particular design of intertwined ribbons, which is often found in Greek and Roman architectural detailing.


  1. I've always admired Fabergé guilloche enamel work. Surprisingly, many early 20th century objets such as small photo frames or little clocks, have this exquisite finish. I think it was very much in fashion during the Edwardian era.

    This elaborate network of lines on engraved banknotes and on things like old stocks and bonds has always intrigued me, but I didn't know that the term also applied to this application.

    The design reminds me a bit of the Spirograph toy set I had as a child, in which plastic cogs directed a pen to achieve similar patterns on paper.

    I really like the design/pattern at the bottom of this article, and didn't know that it could also be described as "guilloche." It is one of my favourite patterns and I always thought it was called Vitruvian scroll, but I am now corrected. I have this design carved on a Louis XVI headboard and I find it simple but elegant.

    Very interesting post. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for your comments. You made me curious about Vitruvian scrolls because I'd never heard the term, and so I did a little investigating. The Vitruvian scroll, it turns out, looks like a repeating, stylized Greek wave. We're more apt to see it in Greek murals or on urns.

    And I, too, loved my Spirograph! So much so that I still own it! Don't think I'm a hoarder, though. It truly was one of my favorite toys.

  3. I never knew what this was called -fascinating! This proves that there is 'something' behind everything!
    I too had a spirograph as a kid and would spend HOURS experimenting with colors and different patterns.

  4. Thanks AD. You and Square with Flair have got me itching to get out my old Spirograph, which was actually an all-metal precursor by a different name. I still have it in its original box, with two envelopes of round die cut paper! And now that I think of it, it's worth unpacking and making into a separate posting. Stay tuned.