By Neil Shapiro

Gorham's Martelé products are usually thought of as being made of silver but Gorham also made a number of Martelé items in gold. In fact, in a 16 day period, in 1899, the Gorham Manufacturing Co. produced 6 Martelé 18k match safes. They were studded with gems with hand chasing that took up to 24 hours to complete. The exact whereabouts of these safes are not known today. Nor is it known if they are still in existence, or exactly what they looked like, there are, however, some tantalizing hints as to their design. But if they still exist and if they can be found they may be the most valuable and beautiful American match safes ever made.

Martelé was a unique line of mostly hand made products made by the Gorham Manufacturing Co. in Providence, Rhode Island starting in 1897. The silver Martelé wares are of differing purities, .925, .950 and .9584 (Martelé, Gorham Art Nouveau Silver, L.J. Pristo, Phoenix Publishing Group Book, 2002, p.29), but Gorham also made a limited number of 18k gold items for the Martelé line of products. Among them are these 6 match safes - or as they were listed in the Gorham records - "match boxes."

The match safes were made by a single maker, noted as "E", on the cost records. Who "E" was is not known at this time. There are some clues to be found in the work of Sam Hough, a Gorham archivist and L.J. Pristo, a Martelé researcher, but right now there is no certainty who was "E". Based on the work of these two men who studied the Gorham payroll records, the maker may be either Adolph C.E. Erichsen (Erickson) or Finn (F.O.?) Erichsen. Whoever "E" was he worked on raising the gold sheets into the match safe forms over periods that ranged from 9 ˝ to 12 hours. The time it took "E" was related to the complexity of making the match safe rather than its size. In Pristo's book there are some larger Martelé objects made that had taken less time to make because they had a less complex structure.

All 6 match safes were then chased by "L". Again, we do not definitively know who "L" was. Based on Pristo's payroll analysis, two guesses are either, Frank R. LaBree or Thomas Lewis. It took "L" between 13 to 24 total hours to complete the chasing on the match safes. As a comparison, "Bowls took in the neighborhood of 30 hours to make, while a coffee pot was completed in around 70 hours." (Pristo, p.27).

William C. Codman, the chief designer at Gorham from 1891 - 1914, is credited by some Gorham researchers for the design on most, or even all, of the Martelé product line (Pristo, however, notes that Codman did not produce all the Martelé- but did create much of the earliest items, p.27). At the beginning of Codman's work at Gorham his designs were influenced by the Art Nouveau movement and the hand written notes on the bottom of the cost slips as well as a sketch that exists for another 18k gold safe, made in 1899 - not marked Martelé, more on that later - appear to bear out the assumption that Codman influenced or designed the Martelé match safes. The "names" of the match safes as they appear on the bottom or the verso of the cost records are: "Tobacco", ‘Violet', "Dragon & Seaweed", "chased ornamental scroll & flower" and "Fleur de lis." The sketched image appears below:

(Image #1)
Sketch for match safe #3672

The Martelé match safes were all made as samples, as noted on the cost records, and bear the production numbers, 3621, 3623, 3636, 3637, 3657, and 3658. When made in 1899 they cost between $72.15 and $108.00. Today that would roughly equivalent to $1,439.39 and $3,192.00.

There is no evidence that the Martelé match safes were made for display and/or sale at the 1900 Paris Exposition (officially, Exposition Universelle). But there is photographic evidence of match safes (see image #2) that Gorham did make to bring to the Paris Exposition. They are found in the Woodwards' Album (Gorham Company -Photo Album- Photographic Record of Gorham Products - Woodwards' copy, Gorham Archives, Brown University) of articles that Gorham made for the Exposition.

(Image #2)
Match safes made for Paris Exposition
Image courtesy of L.J. Pristo

The six images in the center of the photograph are production numbers, X155, X156, X157, X158, X159, and X160. The cost records note the cases are made of 18k gold, and either the hinge or spring is made of 14k or 10k gold. They were all made on March 22, 1900 and made by "E" and chased by "#40" (X155-X158), "#125" (X159), and "#21" (X160). They cost, respectively, $108.00, $104.00, $108.00, $120.00, $108.00, and $116.00 when made in 1900. That would be equivalent to $2,074.80 and $2,394.00 in the year 2000 dollars. They all have applied stones and unusually, all were finished by the maker rather than the finishing shop.

(Image #3)
Close-ups of 6 match safes Gorham sent to Paris Exposition

The 3 images (see image #2) at the top of the photograph and the 6 images at the bottom of the photograph are match safes that Gorham made in sterling silver as well as 14k gold in previous and subsequent years. There is no evidence that the 6 safes in the middle of the image were ever made again in any other material.

(Image #4)
Close-ups of 3 18k match safes Gorham sent to Paris Exposition

(Image #5)
Close-ups of 6 18k match safes Gorham sent to Paris Exposition

Gorham may have also made some other match safes for Paris, this time in sterling silver. They are production numbers, B3, B4, B5, B6, B7, B8, and B9. All of these safes were made in 1900 and have scenes of Paris on them. B3, B4, B5, B6, and B7, all have painted enamel images. B8 and B9 are engraved and etched. We have one known example of these safes, B4 (see image #6):

(Image #6)
Images courtesy of the Cooper Hewitt Museum

All the painted enamel safes were made by maker "G" and cost Gorham the factory net price of $6.00 in 1900.

The Paris Exposition was held from April 15 to November 12, 1900. We do not know the exact dates - only the year is noted - the safes, B3, B4, B5, B6, B7, B8, and B9 were made. So it is possible they were made and brought to Paris but we can't be certain The inscription on the back side of the illustrated match safe reads, From J.L. Steiner to his friend, Wm. B. Birge, Paris, 1900.

Finally, the sample match safes 3672, 3673, 3674, and 3675 are all made by Gorham on November 11, 1899. They are made of 18k gold, all by maker "E", finished by "E", all chased with gold 10k springs and costing, respectively, $64.00, $76.00, $84.00, and $80.00. They are marked on the bottom of the cost slips, "all this size and shape" for the illustration of #3672, and "snakes & scroll" (3673), "Forget me not, similar to 3672" (3674), and "Indian worms?" (3675); regrettably, no one has located an extant example or even a photographic image of any of these safes. Only the sketch in image #1 gives us an idea just what these safes looked like. A copy of these work records appear below:

(Image #7)
Copy of Cost records, 3672, 3673, 3674, 3675 Courtesy Gorham Archives @Brown University

We cannot definitively conclude that Gorham made and sent all these match safes to the Paris Exposition. But the timing, expense and the workmanship on these match safes would seem to indicate that Gorham made them for the Paris Exposition.