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What Is Boulle and How Was It Created?

Updated: May 10

Boulle is a technique which became popular in 17th century France. Taking tortoise shell, brass and pewter to create beautiful pieces of inlaid art in furniture and clocks.

an antique French Louis XV style boulle games table with bronze gilt ormolu mounts

Andre-Charles Boulle was a furniture maker for King Louis XIV of France. Born in 1642, he was known to be one of the most skilled craftsmen of his time. Working for the king he created opulent furniture and perfected the use of tortoise shell (turtle), brass and pewter marquetry work which is now known as 'boulle'

How is boulle created?

Firstly the tortoise shell veneer was separated, scraped, steamed to soften and put under a press to create a flat layer. The translucency of the tortoise shell made an interesting effect with the natural mottling which allowed colour to be added behind it.

It was then layered with a sheet of brass to create a sandwich.

From there a design was applied to the sandwich which was cut out using a fretsaw. This left the brass and tortoise shell separate from each other. One created a tortoise shell background with a brass foreground and the other created a brass background with a tortoise shell foreground. This is known as premiere parti and contrapartie. This allowed pairs of cabinets or tables to be made from a single pattern with contrasting backgrounds.

Most often the pieces were glued to the furniture with red pigment mixed in to the glue. Sometimes green pigment was used or even the shells natural colouring was showcased. Once set under cramps the brass was then filed, sanded, polished and engraved. The engraving was filled with charcoal dust which helped create depth to the design and a 3D element.

Picture 1 - Turtle shell veneer which shows the translucent nature of the product allowing colour to be seen from behind.

Picture 2 - Design cut out revealing a floral pattern in brass

Picture 3 - Engraving tools used to engrave brass and pewter


Can any home accommodate boulle furniture and clocks?

Absolutely. The best way to showcase the beauty of boulle furniture is to have one or a few items in your home. Boulle tables and cabinets look stylish on marble and wooden floors and boulle mantel clocks add elegance to a mantel piece with a giltwood mirror above or accessorised on a side table with a lamp.

Many hours were spent hand making these beautiful items and purchasing something boulle is an appreciation for someone's skill and artistry from a time when everything was made by hand.

We have a number of antique boulle items for sale on our website which have all been lovingly restored allowing them to enjoy many more years and preserving the history around them. We also offer a boulle restoration service.

an antique French Louis XV style boulle bureau plat writing table with leather surface


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