Travel was a long, hard and oftentimes tedious affair in Europe two centuries ago. To make a journey more pleasant, aristocrats would bring along their compact travel cases, in which they would pack their perfumes, toiletries, combs, mirrors, sewing kits, food, jewelries and even medical equipment. These luxurious cases were often made of gold, silver and ivory.
As time goes by, most of these antique travel cases have disappeared. But a Dutch couple, Mies and Jaap Kamp, has devoted much time to collecting and researching these rich reminders of a bygone era. They treasure not only the travel cases but also the great stories behind them.
Mies is an expert on gold, silver and jewelry, having previously worked in an auction house. It’s there where she found the first item for their collection 25 years ago.
It was an antique travel case that somehow did not appeal to collectors. Attracted by the fine silver caps of the bottles inside, Mies decided to buy the entire case.
Three years later, the couple discovered their next treasure during a visit to France. It was an even more opulent set in which the caps of the bottles were in silver gilt. They bought it without hesitation.
Since acquiring those two travel cases, the Kamps have never stopped becoming avid collectors.
Complete royal travel cases are rare — the supply is extremely low while the demand is keen. It is estimated that there are only around one hundred cases now in the hands of private collectors. About a quarter of them are in the Kamps’ possession.
The couple once met the curator of Buckingham Palace and was told that only four or five complete British royal travel cases have survived in the past two centuries.
However, according to Jaap, travel cases were prominent in the royal family with each member having a case of their own in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The 1746 French porcelain tableware set is the oldest treasure in the Kamps’ trove. Each piece comes with a silver rim and delicate floral designs in Chinese-style relief. Jaap says that it was a fashionable design at that time.
Each tool in the set serves a specific purpose. For instance, the basin was used to wash the pot and keep the drinks warm.
Jaap notes that there is another similar but smaller set of tableware currently in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Judging from the high-end materials, he suggests that it might have belonged to a royal family.
The youngest item in the collection is the travel case of Queen Emma of the Netherlands, which is believed to have been made in Paris between 1875 and 1900.
The case is in fact a wooden makeup chest decorated with silver gilt. Every single part is a work of art. At the bottom of the case is a hidden drawer for jewelries.
Unlike conventional makeup chests, it had more to offer to Queen Emma — four candlesticks, sets of writing instruments, and a notepad with her handwriting behind the mirror.
The entire case gives us a glimpse of Queen Emma’s life acted as regent.
The couple’s favorite is an 1809 Pierre-Dominique Maire oval case owned by one of Napoleon’s officers. In the lid of the case are a mirror, a compact washing basin and a folding wooden board set with tools. Bottles and cans of different sizes are neatly arranged in the case.
The Kamps are so impressed by the fact that every inch of available space has been used for storing over 50 pieces of tools in a travel case made with superb craftsmanship.
The couple believes a travel case can reflect the owner’s personality and character. Among notable nobles, Dr. Sun Yat-sen was regarded as “the modest” with his plain travel case mainly of metal tableware.
George Washington, the first American president, also carried a simple travel case. Given the condition of the case, one could surmise he was a frequent traveler.
Napoleon’s case, by contrast, is extravagantly crafted with gold and silver relief, which definitely helped capture much public attention on behalf of its owner.
The wife of the French King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, had a sumptuously crafted travel case that seems to make the 12th birthday present for British Queen Victoria rather humble by comparison.
Though the Kamps’ collection mainly consists of items from the West, the couple believes that China has a longer history when it comes to travel cases.
They recall seeing a silver casket in a museum in Suzhou. It belonged to the mother of the rebel leader Zhang Shicheng in the late Yuan Dynasty, i.e. in the 14th century. Inside the two-layered casket are combs, scissors, mirrors and boxes.
But whether from the East or the West, the travel cases of aristocrats of yesteryears, their patterns and personal toiletries, are remarkably alike.
France and Germany have always been famous for their superb standards of craftsmanship. Their travel cases were prized possessions of the elitists and aristocrats.
Today’s luxury brands — Louis Vuitton and Hermès — have been renowned travel case makers since the 18th century. French artisans at that time would leave a unique marking or hole in their products to identify the makers.
However, the sophisticated handmade travel cases eventually faded out and were replaced by utilitarian, machine-crafted ones upon the arrival of the Industrial Revolution.
Over the years the choice of materials also has been dictated by what is convenient. Bottles are no longer made of glass or porcelain but of plastic instead.
“Travel cases by mass production would not be considered,” Mies says. “We would only treasure those with superior materials and exquisite craftsmanship.”
The Kamps are dedicated to promoting the royal travel cases. They have hosted exhibitions in different countries in Europe and have written a book about them.
Speaking of the future, the couple intends to send their private collection to a museum since the antique cases need meticulous attention and care.
The silverware also has to be polished regularly to prevent them from being tarnished and preserve them for future generations.
This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 29.
Translation by Darlie Yiu
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