Mother-of-Pearl Chest which Carried a Spanish Royal Grant for California Lands

Mother-of-Pearl Chest which Carried a Spanish Royal Grant for California Lands

Maker unknown, 18th century

This chest is covered with mother-of-pearl and its borders are tortoise shell. The inside of the chest features dark and light colored wood in diamond patterns. The lock plate and hinges appear to be silver. The lower portion of the lock plate, set around the lock mechanism, includes a section of the coat of arms for the Bourbon monarchs of Spain, first used by King Carlos III (reigned 1759 – 1788). On either side of the lock is a lion, representing the Spanish province of León.

Each piece of mother-of-pearl is from an individual section of shell, which was sawn roughly, ground smooth, and then sawn again to the shape needed. To create each could take as much as forty minutes. The tortoise shell used for the border was steamed and flattened. Called mueble enconchado (shell-encrusted furniture) inlaid with mother-of-pearl was a sumptuous and highly sought after luxury in Colonial Spanish America.

This chest once carried a Spanish royal grant for religious lands in California. The Jesuit religious order originally established a mission chain in Baja California (a present-day Mexican state). In 1767, King Carlos III of Spain decreed that the Jesuits should be forcibly expelled from Spanish territories in the New World. Carlos, known for centralizing and secularizing the Spanish Colonial government, felt that the Jesuit order was acting too autonomously for the Spanish Crown to control in its New World colonies. This decree finally arrived in Baja California on February 3, 1768. The religious lands there, including the missions, were turned over to the Franciscan order of monks. The Franciscans controlled the missions for a little over five years, establishing only one new mission in Baja California, before they were granted lands in Alta California (the present-day U.S. state) on which to establish a new chain of missions and presidios (fortified outposts). The lands in Baja California were then transferred to the Dominican order in 1772. It is uncertain which Franciscan