A Brass Pomander

January 2021

From the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, pomanders were considered an important and even necessary accoutrement in navigating through a pungent and often foetid environment. The jeweler’s talent and inventiveness was sorely challenged by the creation of these delicate cages of gold and gems designed to hold perfumes, cloves and ambergris -scents that greatly enhanced everyday life.

The term pomander originated from the French “pomme d’ambre”, translating to “apple of ambergris’’ and originally referenced the mixture of scented material, such as ambergris, clove, cinnamon, musk or civet that was rolled into a ball and held in a netted covering. The earliest known pomanders were reportedly from the East and reserved for the use of nobility and clergy. By the 14th century, the name pomander had evolved to also refer to the container, which became increasingly more decorative and symbolic. The earliest containers were spherical, opening to reveal two equal halves (referred to as loculi in French) perhaps influenced by the form of clove studded fruit. (https://www.langantiques.com/university/pomander-3/)

Now that it has been delivered, I would like to share the project I made for the East Kingdom Laurel & Maunche Gift Exchange; a brass pomander.
When searching for a gift appropriate for a late period Italian / Arabic persona that I could make utilizing my metalsmithing and artifact manufacturing skills I came across an example of a beautiful silver pomander. In diving into the research about these items I discovered that they were used in part to ward off disease and illness, and I thought, what better gift to give in our time of global plague pandemic!

I welcome any questions, or constructive advice.

Inspired by research into multiple period examples of pomanders from various periods and regions.  Construction based primarily on design of the 17th century Italian pomander in silver (Example 1).  I chose to use the several examples as inspiration rather than working to reproduce any single extant example in detail, instead designing my own version of such an item that may have been created for a late period person in Italy.  

I was very glad for this opportunity to research into a new era and learn not only new techniques and work for my craft, but also the opportunity to expand my research into a new era and new applications of my skills.

Materials used were brass patterned sheet, imitating etched floral pattern and painted with glass paint to provide a ‘faux’ niello effect, and brass tube stock and wire. The pattern was of my own, cut and formed. The top was a cast brass bell that had been procured and modified for this purpose. 

The scent bag contained combination of clove, cinnamon, and dried orange peel in a tea bag.


*Please note: Inspiration descriptions are verbatim from websites where the examples were sourced and are intended to share knowledge, and are not intended to be represented as my work, analysis, or writings. Whenever possible links are included to the source works.

Example 1

Title: Pomander

Date:17th century

Culture: Italian

Medium: Silver

Dimensions: Overall: 2 1/2 × 1 1/8 in. (6.4 × 2.9 cm)

Classification: Metalwork-Silver

Credit Line: Gift of Mrs. Arthur Curtis James, 1920

Accession Number:20.67

Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

Inscription: On covers on four boxes, respectively: [1] Neroli (orange flower oil); [2] Cocco (cochineal or cocoa-nut); [3] Macis (mace); [4] Carvi (caraway)https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/194605

Example 2

Physical description: Combined rosary bead and pomander, silver gilt, shaped as a hollow, slightly pointed ball, divided into two halves and attached to each other by a centrally placed screw. Each half is pierced by Late Gothic tracery. A hoop at each end: to one is attached a corded ring.
Place of Origin: Germany (made)
Date: ca.1500 (made)
Artist/maker: Unknown
Materials and Techniques: Silver-gilt, pierced
Dimensions: Height: 3.7 cm, Width: 2.5 cm

Object history note: The Museum purchased the object in 1853. The vendor was not recorded. It was acquired as a pomander or scent case, German, fifteenth century. In 1975 Michael Snodin (MS note in Departmental Register) suggested it was probably a scented rosary bead and compared it with the beads of the rosary in Joost van Cleeve’s Virgin and Child with St Bernard (Louvre), repr. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, IX, pt.1, 1972, pl.62 (a work of c. 1508). Ronald W. Lightbown (Medieval European Jewellery: with a catalogue of the collection in the Victoria & Albert Museum, 1992) agrees that ‘the bead in the picture closely resembles the present ball, and the hypothesis has much to recommend it.’ There is another, perhaps more comparable, rosary bead-cum-musk-ball in the portrait, by Barthel Bruyn the Elder, of Kunegundis von Heimbach. The entry for this object in the exhibition catalogue for ‘500 Jahre Rosenkranz: 1475 Köln 1975’ (Cologne, 1976) reads:
‘The wife of the mayor of Cologne, Peter von Heimbach, is in prayer, holding an expensive rosary with pomander (musk ball). As in other portraits by this artist, the form and function of the prayer beads (Gebetsschuere) typical in the Lower Rhein region are apparent, which are known almost exclusively through pictorial tradition.’
However, Lightbown points out that there is a ‘South German muskapfel of c.1500’, comparable to the object under discussion ‘with a small chain attached to a large ring, in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich. See Steingräber (1957,p.81).’ Steingräber notes that such scent balls were generally ‘in the shape of small, round ampullae and were worn as pendants on the belt or around the neck.’ Lightbown notes that ‘If a muskapfel, then a bead or ornament of some kind probably hung from the lower hoop.’ As ‘small musk-balls in open-work cases seem often to have been worn as paternosters, and paternoster beads appear to have had the same design’ there is occasionally, as in the case of Museum No. 918-1853, a question whether what we have is in fact a musk-ball or a paternoster bead, or both.

Historical significance: The piece demonstrates the importance of the role of scent in jewellery and devotional objects. There is a similar bead in the Pforzheim Jewellery Museum (South West Germany). This is described as a ‘Bisamapfel’, or ‘musk apple’, worn dangling from a girdle or attached to a chain and worn around the neck. See Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim, cat. no. 119 and colour image.

Historical context note:
A pomander, (the name is derived from the French pomme d’ambre or apple of amber), is a mixture of aromatic substances carried in a small vessel, in the hand or pocket, or attached to a chain and hung from the neck or waist, especially as a preservative against infection. In the Middle Ages it was universally believed that strong-scented substances had the power to disinfect the air and to ward off plague and other diseases. Lightbown notes that:
‘The earliest recorded European pomander, or rather pomum de ambra (apple of amber) appears in 1287, in the inventory of Cardinal Goffredo d’Alatri. Clearly they were already a well-established adjunct of costume for five are also mentioned in the inventory of Boniface VIII in 1295, and their use probably goes back to the late twelfth century. They may have owed their introduction into European society to oriental example – Byzantine or more probably Islamic – for among the gifts King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem sent in 1174 to the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa were ‘golden apples filled with musk’.
Originally the term ‘pomander’ (of which there are several variants), or, alternatively, the German ‘Bisamapfel’ or ‘Muskapfel’, referred primarily to the perfumed substance and not the vessel which contained it, but over time the meaning seems to have shifted, and the vessels were also termed ‘pomanders’. A recipe for pomander paste of the same period as this object can be found in a verse of 1482 by the German Meistersinger Hanz Folz (c.1450-1515):

‘Therefore we need to know now
What withstands these poisons.
That is: to temper the air, strengthen the stomach, heart and brain,
Taste and savour aromatic things,
(To chase away these Forces)
One could wear a pomander
Prepared as the recipes say:
With frankincense, aloes, amber,
Camphor, cloves, oil-of-Ben, dried ginger-root,
Mace, lemon zest,
Ground mint, nutmeg,
Aromatic reeds,
Stem of Valerian,
Roses, gum, sandalwood,
Java pepper, cinnamon,
White turmeric, bugloss, laudanum,
Marjoram and bone charcoal.
Two types of apple are made of this
For Summer and for Winter time.
But whoever has the illness now
Taste it quickly, is my advice.’

(Hans Folz, Die Reimpaarsprüche Pestregimen in Versen (1482), lines 149-170.)

George Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey (1557) describes a pomander in use when it states that the Cardinal “held in his hand a very fayre orrynge, whereof the mete, or substance within was taken out and fylled uppe agayn with the part of a sponge wherein was vynegar and other confecsions agaynst the pestylente ayers: to the which he most commonly smelt unto, passing among the prease or ells whan he was pestered with many sewters.”
Descriptive line: Silver-gilt ball for musk; with pierced Gothic tracery, German, late 15th-early 16th century

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Lightbown, Ronald W., Mediaeval European Jewellery: with a catalogue of the collection in the Victoria & Albert Museum, (London, V&A Publications, 1992), PP. 530-531.
Falk, Fritz. Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim: Von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Pforzheim: Schmuckmuseum, 1980 (4th repr 1987).
Schiedlausky, G.. Vom Bisamapfel zur Vinaigrette: Zur Geschichte der Duftgefässe. Kunst und Antiquitäten, 4, 1985, pp. 28-38.
Smollich, R. Der Bisamapfel in Kunst und Wissenschaft. Stuttgart, 1983.

Materials: Silver-gilt
Subjects depicted: Tracery; Gothic
Categories: Metalwork; Jewellery; Personal accessories; Religion; Christianity
Collection: Metalwork Collection

Example 3

Object Number: BR65.14
People: Unidentified Artist
Title: Pomander
Classification: Vessels
Work Type: vessel
Date: 16th century
Culture: German
Persistent Link: https://hvrd.art/o/218097
Medium: Gilt silver
Dimensions: 13 x 4.4 cm (5 1/8 x 1 3/4 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
inscription: center: IHS MARIA HILF UNS AUS NOT ON END

Example 4


Example 5

• Place of origin: Italy (made)
• Date: ca. 1350 (made)
• Artist/Maker: Unknown
• Materials and Techniques: Partially gilded silver, niello
• Credit Line: Bequeathed by Francis Reubell Bryan
• Museum number: M.205:1 to 3-1925
• Gallery location: Jewellery, Rooms 91, The William and Judith Bollinger Gallery, case 11, shelf C, box 7

Physical description
Pomander shaped as an apple, of silver, silver gilt, and niello. The sections of the body of the pomander are held in place by a pin with a screw section at the top, the whole attached to an octagonal gadrooned head to which is hinged a quatrefoil handle. Inscriptions run around the edge of each section relating to the Judgement of Paris, the interior and exterior decoration of scrolling foliage and geometric patterns.

Marks and inscriptions
Segment 1:

Cover: IUNO
Come, Paris, for the gift of an apple, I give you a spouse.
Segment 2:
Cover: VENVS
You shall be rich in delight, if, the prize being mine, you become my consort.
Segment 3:
Cover: PALAS
Pallas (Minerva)
Kingdoms shall be yours to rule as King if you favour me.
Segment 4:

Cover: PARIS
Venus is the loveliest, her claim is clearly just.
Dimensions: Height: 6.5 cm, Width: 4 cm

Object history note
Londesborough and Wyndham Cook Collections, Francis Reubell Bryan Bequest funds used to purchase the pomander from Durlacher Bros. New Bond Street. Shown in Leeds Exhibition, 1868.
Sold at the Humphrey W. Cook sale at Christies’, July 10 1925, lot 434. Sold at the Londesborough Sale at Christies’, 8 May 1884, lot 137 (wrongly described as from the Bernal collection).
Descriptive line: Pomander of partially gilded silver and niello, made in Italy, 1300-1400
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Campbell, Marian, Medieval Jewellery in Europe 1100-1500, London, V&A Publishing, 2009, p.68, fig.68
Lightbown, R.W., Mediaeval European Jewellery , London 1992, cat. no. 84, pp. 335-7, 529 -30
Schiedlausky, G., Vom Bisamapfel zur Vinaigrette: Zur Geschichte der Duftgefässe. Kunst und Antiquitäten, 4, 1985, pp. 28-38.
Ajmar-Wollheim, Marta and Dennis, Flora At Home in Renaissance Italy, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2006, cat. 197, pp. 185 and 364
Brilliant, Virginia. ‘Pomander’. Catalogue entry in A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe, ed. Martina Bagnoli. Catalogue of the exhibition held at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, October 16, 2016 – January 8, 2017 and at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, February 4 – April 30, 2017. Baltimore: The Walters Art Museum / New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. ISBN 9780300222951
Catalogue of the Art Collections of Mr Wyndham H. Cook, 1905, p. 97, no. 446
A. H. Church, The Portfolio, Vol. XVII, p. 166, fig. 2
Burlington Fine Arts Club Loan Exhibition Catalogue, 1901, p. 181, cat. no. 9, pl. XX

Example 6

Object Details
Title: Pomander
Date: 16th century
Culture: German
Medium: Silver gilt
Dimensions: Height: 2 5/8 in. (6.7 cm)
Classification: Metalwork-Silver
Credit Line: The Collection of Giovanni P. Morosini, presented by his daughter Giulia, 1932
Accession Number:32.75.45
Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings
Inscription: Inscribed at top of each segment: CANEL [cinnamon]; MVSCAT [nutmeg]; ROSMARIEN [rosemary]; SCHLAG [?]; WVRZ.N [possibly gewürz nelke; clove]; BERNSTEIN [amber]

At outer end of each slide: B
On back, each slide lettered A to E

Central Europe (including Germany), 1400-1600 A.D.

Example 7


apparently unmarked
Of spherical form, with all-over filigree scroll work, central ribbed band and hinging in half, each end applied with small circular finial-like detail, diameter 2.5cm.


Example 8

  1. A parcel-gilt silver pomander, made in Italy in the 16th century; features a niello inscription
  2. made in Italy in the 16th century; features a niello inscription, ASPETO • TENDO • CHE • PIATA • SI • MOVA • CHE • SOFRENDO • SI • VINCIE • ONI • PROVA


Additional resource examples available:




In process construction photos:

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