Unusually for the period, Napoleon Bonaparte was very concerned with personal hygiene, and in particular his oral health and teeth, which were reputedly strong and white. Constant, his first valet, wrote in his memoirs that "for his teeth, he used a toothpick made from boxwood and a brush dipped in opiate". Each of the nécessaires produced by Biennais included at least one toothbrush, featuring a gold or gilded metal handle on the end of which could be attached a wooden head mounted with pig bristles.
This luxurious nécessaire presented here, an exceptional example from the period, holds a number of different instruments suited to the most delicate of dental hygiene tasks. Essentially a collection of descaling tools, the nécessaire is made up of two overlaid mahogany trays, each hollowed out into eight compartments, and sixteen instruments with gold handles and chiselled gold ferrules and bases. The instruments include twelve assorted rugines (or surgeon's rasp, for scraping tartar from teeth), a plugger (instrument used to pack filling material into the prepared cavity of a tooth) and two cauteries. The second tray holds seven different instruments including a pair of scissors, two lancets and a pair of tweezers. Finally, next to the instruments are two gold boxes, two crystal vials with gold caps engraved with the imperial eagle insignia, a threaded rod, and two lancets. Comparative studies between these instruments and those from other nécessaires bearing Biennais' name have allowed historians to attribute the creation of this set to the emperor's goldsmith.
Nevertheless, the box set decorated with imperial insignia does not bear his usual signature which he left on other objects of a similar quality, suggesting that it may be the work of another craftsman. Grangeret, a cutler active during the period, is known to have produced similar sets, and one of his memos dating from 1810 provides an outline of repairs made to a nécessaire belonging to Napoleon and comprised principally of descaling instruments.
The set originally figured as part of the collection belonging to Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild (1840-1915). The story goes that the object came into the family's hands via Rothschild's grandfather, Nathan (1777-1836), who obtained it from a soldier who himself had stolen it from the emperor's baggage at Waterloo. A summary of Napoleon's will and testament features in its inventory a list of effects that were left in the Conte de Turenne's possession, including a "gold dental nécessaire, which was left to the dentist". It is however difficult, with the knowledge that we have, to establish a connection between the two.
Karine Huguenaud (tr. H.D.W.)