The Art of Marquetry : Boulle Work


“A present day definition of marquetry is inlay, in which pieces of super thin wood (or shell, ivory, etc.) are glued into elaborate recessed designs in the surface of furniture and other decorative items. Marquetry originated with the work of the ancient Egyptians who produced examples using what was then leading edge skill. It has been evolving for centuries as better methods for cutting thinner sheets of veneer and better tools for sawing veneers into intricate designs have been developed. Along with technological advances, marquetry has become a long-standing favorite hobby in England and is also popular in Germany, Holland, Italy and Russia. Americans, Australians and Canadians are also joining groups and learning this fine hobby.

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, marquetry almost faded into oblivion, but in the 14th and 15th centuries renewal of interest and refinements in technique cemented its popularity for all time. Florence, Italy, may be credited with the rebirth because of special schools set up there to teach and perfect marquetry/boulle techniques. Veneers of this time were thick and easily crafted with hand tools such as chisels. By the 17th and 18th centuries, France had become the axis of great marquetry/boulle work.

Boulle is named for Andre-Charles Boulle (1642-1732) who developed a method for marquetry with tortoiseshell and brass along with pewter and exotic woods. The same principles were involved, but his choice of inlay materials set his work apart. He also gave a name to the work he did, coincidentally naming it for himself.

Contrasting colors and the implication of slight textures make inlay work appealing to a very wide audience. The colors originally employed by the men of Boulle’s time were created by using a variety of specialty woods. At the time Boulle created his masterpieces, few in Europe were creating inlay work with striking contrasts. Woods used were cut into veneer sheets, cut into designs in a single layer of material and glued to a solid surface such as the top or front of a piece of furniture.

Boulle’s work was dramatic in comparison, but still utilized the same principles. Boulle layered two wafers of equal thickness, one of tortoiseshell and one of metal (usually brass). A sheet of paper marked with a pattern was placed on top, and then the pattern was cut with a special saw through the sheets of tortoiseshell and brass below. The cutout pieces of brass then fit perfectly into the spaces left in the tortoiseshell–dramatic and exquisite and widely collected, so much so that one hundred years after his death, craftsmen were mimicking his techniques and enjoying a status originally set aside for only a few gifted artisans.”