Decorative canes

The decorative canes available to collectors today generally date to the second half of the 19th century and into the second decade of the 20th century.  They were created as fashion accessories or perhaps designed as fashion statements.   Limited only by the imagination of highly trained artisans and craftsmen, a variety of forms and materials such as gold, silver, ivory, porcelain, jewels, enamel and even glass were employed in creating decorative walking sticks.  More decorative canes are seen with plain shafts, with decorative handles crafted from a variety of materials;   however, shafts made from ivory and tortoiseshell as well as other precious materials are seen.

Widely produced during this time period, silver handled decorative canes enhance many cane collections.  Note that handles may appear to be sterling silver, but unless marked as such, should be priced accordingly (unless of course the stick has other historical features, rarity or provenance to increase its value).  Finely chased sterling and gold knob handles were often inscribed and used as presentation pieces.  Sterling knobs might take the form of animals, human figures or elaborate crook handles. The Art Nouveau period produced some beautiful and highly prized sterling-handled canes. One occasionally sees highly chased crook handles with the gold content marked. Many canes carved from less expensive materials will have an ornate gold, silver, or perhaps engine-turned collar as an accent. Most gold handled canes were made for evening use and will usually have an ebony or equally elegant shaft.

Ivory was a favorite medium for cane artisans.  Intricately carved ivory cane handles in every size and shape imaginable are treasured by the collector.  Be aware of Cites laws regarding ivory prior to purchasing ivory and byproducts from other endangered species!

Porcelain handles produced by renowned makers including Meissen and Sèvres are highly collectible due to their extraordinary beauty and rarity. Because they are so fragile, most porcelain handles were damaged over the years and are difficult to find in mint condition. Note that not all 18th and 19th century porcelain was marked, making attribution designation difficult or confusing at best for collectors and dealers.    Reference sources indicate that as much as 70% of Paris porcelain were made without any company marks at all,  or as yet have not been identified and cataloged, which makes assigning these pieces today to a definitive maker almost impossible. Another factor that makes identification a problem is many of the decorating studios in Paris used blanks, called “white wares” made at Limoges or even by Sèvres, but generally not marked with their origins until the late 19th century.

Other materials used to craft handles and shafts for decorative canes included tortoiseshell, bone, antler, brass, bronze, wood, snakeskin, leather, sharkskin, and even glass. As with most decorative antiques, care should be taken to acquire canes that are free of cracks, chips or repairs, if possible, although repairs if done by an experienced conservator, may be almost invisible to the eye.

Elite houses such as Fabergé and Tiffany produced handles encrusted with diamonds and jewels which can command considerable prices. The shop of Fabergé was known for its intricate enamel and diamond handles while Tiffany produced elegant gold handles with ebony or tortoiseshell shafts.

A collector may build their collection based on a particular theme, precious materials, or indulge in a variety of styles and types, always searching for that one particular stick that fills a niche.  Pricing depends not only on the materials used, but also the degree of decoration, the quality of the workmanship and the rarity of a particular theme. Canes that combine various materials, such as porcelain and gold, or ivory and sterling can also command premium prices. Erotic canes, depicting nude forms, carved from ivory, cast in silver or carved in wood, also to command premium prices.

Tortoiseshell and ivory dress cane. French, 19th century. Plain turned ivory knob on a full tortoiseshell shaft with a metal ferrule. The sizeable, straight and fluting shaft shows the valued marbled and well streaked, warm mellow honey colors of tortoiseshell with the magical translucency and discreet shine of the noble marine material. H. 1 ¾” x 1 ½”, O.L. 35″. Image courtesy of Kimball M. Sterling Inc., #84, Tortoiseshell and Ivory Dress Cane-French, 19th Century, February 4, 2012.
European dress cane. Mid-19th century. Straight and slightly tapering citrine handle engraved with vertical and deep recesses bundling at the top under a half pearl in a gold frame and at the bottom with a finely chased and fire gilt metal collar. The handle comes on a well figured snakewood shaft, the king of all woods, with a metal ferrule. The expertise required for its execution leads us to safely assume that it has a French origin. H. 2 ¾” x ½”, O.L. 37 ½”. Image courtesy of Kimball M. Sterling Inc., #81, Citrine Dress Cane, February 4, 2012.
French, ca. 1900. Substantial rustilated quartz handle also called angel hair roc crystal, cut in the shape of a snake with coiled body on grass and raised head with inset, ruby cabochons eyes, rosewood shaft with metal collar and ferrule. This one­-of-a-kind cane belongs to the upscale jewelry Objects of Virtue and is in mint condition. Rutilated quartz is said to slow down the aging process and to be a strong healer. H 3″ x 1 1/4″, O.L. 36 3/4″. Image courtesy of Kimball M. Sterling Inc., #85, French Rutile Quartz Dress Cane-Ca. 1900, , February 4, 2012.


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2. Monek, Francis, Canes through the Ages.
3. Dike, Catherine, Canes in the United States.
4. M.S. Rau Antiques, LLC, Collecting Antique Walking Sticks, 12/9/99.
5. Frances H. Monek, The Encyclopedia of Collectibles, Canes, Staffs of Many Lives, 1978.

For antique cane and walking stick enthusiasts