Fishing for hooks

By Alain, April 7th 2008

Liberty leading the poissardes.
Anonymous German print.
This fine, fat fishwife, with her head twisted backwards, and whose pale coloring, and showy kerchief, all mussed, and expression of pain mixed with pleasure depicts a paroxysm that is sweeter to experience than it is decorous to paint.[1]

The virtual world is a fabulous place to be in at times. The strong emphasis on adult content has long been replaced by billions of pages filled with all kinds of information and services of varying quality. Today one can obtain music, images and even complete movies for free without ever needing to leave the seat. Postal offices struggle due to the electronic highway and the resulting diminished need for paper and stamps. Contacting friends and family on the other side of the globe takes only a fraction of a second without the need to pay international calling fees. The greatest strength, at least to me, of the internet is however the easy way in which information is shared, both through informative websites maintained by volunteers, as well as through the large internet communities. Not so very long ago we were depending on our own research skills to get the information we were searching for through visits to libraries, conferences, shows and colleagues. A time consuming enterprise when doing research for a large project as the Antique Jewelry University.

While I was reading up on jewelry from the neoclassical era I of course stumbled on the typical earring type named poissardes and I began to get curious about them as all my own books referred to them in generally the same matter; large oval earrings of geometric design, often made from 2 or 3 ornaments below each other on a typical hook with an s-shaped cross over bar. Sometimes accompanied with images. I always knew they were named after fishwives, yet I never wondered how they got such a plastic name. My own book sources gave little extra information and I soon found myself skimming through dozens of pages on the internet, trying to find anything related to them. To my surprise there was very little written on the earrings, other than the usual descriptions in the paper references and that made me even more curious as this type of earring is so characteristic for the French revolutionary days. I decided to throw out my rod in the Gem-A internet community as it has more than a few jewelry historians as members and I hoped to get some extra hooks on the subject.

One of the first clues I got came from the GIA library, relating them to the fish selling woman at the market (Les Halles) in Paris and to a clan of fishermen in Boulogne, France. Both the market women as well as the women of the fishermen in Boulogne were denoted by the name poissardes. The only reference to the earrings came from the Boulogne source where Isabel Burton wrote about them ".. Their long, drooping, gold earrings and massive ornaments are heirlooms, and their lace is real .."[2]. This description matches those found previously with the added detail that they were heirlooms, so in a conservative taste. Another clue lead me to the writings of Jean-Joseph Vadé (1719-1757) which provided me with the necessary background on these women and possibly an answer to why this type of earring was so popular in those days. A good summary of the poissarde cult, which emerged in the second half of the 18th century, is given by Carla Hesse [3] where she describes the role of the "lower class" women of the days in French literature and society, in particular relating to the fish selling market women of Les Halles - the poissardes.

These poissardes were not your every day women, they were strong and enterprising women who used their oral skills to sell their products in the rough neighborhoods that the markets usually provide for. They were most likely illiterate but their street speech and moeurs were so profound that it became a parodied way of expression one self in the upper classes, much induced by Vadé's comic plays in the "genre poissard". According to Hesse the poissardes held a prominent place in society since the late middle ages due to their role in the fasting rules (eating fish was permitted during Lent). Under the rule of Louis XV and Louis XVI of France they were invited a few times a year at the court of Versailles - even to attend royal weddings - and they held a special place in the heart of the French Kings. Bittersweet the taste that they played an important role in the downfall of the ancien régime, mostly not by their own wrong - or right - doing. The libelles and poissonades published in the years before the revolution were not necessarily the opinions of the market women, rather a platform for revolutionists to express their critics through popular speech to the working classes. Nevertheless the market women were not content anymore with the royal protection by the late 1780's and they took part in the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and they forced the royal family to reside in Paris instead of at Versailles.

Due to their role in the revolutionary days the poissardes became some of the heroines of the new cause and we can safely assume that the new elite (instigated by the Directoire and Napoleon) wanted to indentify themselves with them under the égalité motto, much like the fashion of wearing long pants by men. Which leaves us with the question "what did the earrings of these poissardes look like in the days before they got popular in the circles of the upper classes". In other words, what was the inspiration in relation to conservative or costume jewelry. Were they of a typical design c.q. form, did they have a characteristic hook, were they just of plain gold or were they encrusted with gemstones. For an answer on that we need to look at paintings of the days and illustrations in early publications.

Poissardes from Vever

In Vever's book there is a publication of poissardes of typical designs and with the typical earring hooks that are usually associated with them, but in the same image[4] he also shows two pairs of earrings that do not fullfil the ideal image as shown by most sources. Neither do the two pairs (in the center of the image) look like they would have the typical s-shaped cross-overs as in the other earrings on the same picture. When one looks at Vever's illustration, one can see that there is an extra eye attached to the wire of some of the earrings and my first impression was that it would act as a "stopper" behind the earlobe to keep the earring from "crawling" up the ear. Möller[5] however states that these extra eyes were used to draw a thread through and then attach the thread in the hair, in effect acting as a weight relieve for the earlobes, but the many images of poissardes do not indicate they need that extra support. The s-shaped bar in the wire was probably used to keep the cascading ornaments in one line and this technique was obviously not needed for earrings that were larger and heavier.

The Vever illustration did not satisfy me much - as it just shows sec images of the earrings worn at the time. To make it worse, it even added to my confusion. Hence I started looking for portraits of women as painted by Le Brun, Greuze and others. Although the women of the days were not wearing much jewelry - it just didn't fit the Hellenistic look and gold was scarce -, there are many images left of women wearing some jewelry in official portraits, even paintings of commoners who could not afford to pay for a portrait. But none of them were caught wearing the typical poissardes earrings. Maybe the latter is the problem in my quest. During the times of the early "genre poissard" the working classes were depicted in many ways, but that hardly ever was related to anything of good taste or jewelry. The market women are usually depicted as amazons to fight the revolutionary cause, never in full tenue and all that we can work with are the surviving pieces of jewelry from the upper classes and some less elaborate examples. I could not find one image of a woman wearing poissardes earrings.

Although I did not get the definite answer on what a "poissarde" is as an earring type, I did learn much on the backgrounds of the French revolution and the emancipation of women during the 18th century. The Museum of the French Revolution (near Grenoble, France) seems to have a good collection of images of the days and hopefully one day I can continue this quest. For the time being I'm left unsatisfied in my search but also very satisfied that I'm not the only one wondering about this topic and that I got all the support I could get from the internet community. In time we will undoubtedly find more sources that can solve this puzzle.

The internet is a wonderful world even for post-teens.


  1. Diderot, comment on a work by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1765 Salon), probably on one of the "Mme Greuze endormie" prints (pers. comm. with Prof. Hesse).
  2. The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton - Chapter IV "Boulogne: I Meet My Destiny (1850-1852)
  3. The Other Enlightenment, chapter I
  4. Scanned by the GIA library for this discussion
  5. Möller, p.55

Sources consulted

  • Hesse, Carla. The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern. Princeton University Press, 2003. ISBN 0691114803
  • Landes, Joan B. Representing Women in the Revolutionary Crowd
  • Möller, Renate. Schmuck. Munich, Germany: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1998
  • Burton, Isabel. - The Romance of Lady Isabel Burton - Chapter IV "Boulogne: I Meet My Destiny (1850-1852)"

For other resources used, see Neoclassical Jewelry.


  • Jack Ogden and the members of the Gem-A community
  • Dona Dirlam and Kevin Schumacher of the Cartier Rare Book Repository and Archives of the Richard T. Liddicoat Gemological Library and Information Center at GIA Carlsbad