Around Christmas the word “nutcracker” tends to conjure images of brightly coloured toy soldiers and ballet dancers rather than humble kitchen utensils. But this has not always been the case. “Nuts ripen in winter and are used in Christmas baking, so nutcrackers became a popular gift,” says Arlene Wagner, author of The Art & Character of Nutcrackers and co-founder of the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum in Washington. Today, these erstwhile love tokens in their myriad, highly collectable shapes and forms continue to offer rich pickings for gift giving.
“The oldest-known nutcracker can be seen in a museum in Taranto, Italy,” says Wagner. “It is a bronze pair of hands with gold bracelets and dates from the 3rd or 4th century BC.” Since then, nutcrackers have been made in a variety of materials and styles, from brass to wood. “The first wooden nutcrackers were simply two pieces fastened together by a leather strap or metal hinge,” adds Wagner. “By the 15th and 16th centuries, carvers in France and England were creating beautiful wooden versions.”
These were often figural, with the mouth doing the crushing, and are highly prized: in Christie’s 2010/2011 auctions of The Longridge Collection amassed by the late decorative-arts collector Syd Levethan, several 16th‑ and 17th-century nutcrackers fetched four to five figures. In the 1800s, the style evolved into toy soldiers, first appearing in Germany, then gaining worldwide fame in Tchaikovsky’s ballet interpretation of ETA Hoffmann’s 1816 festive story.
But for many it’s the modern incarnations that rank highest in the style stakes. Take the two elegant hinged forms (one in brass, $1,400, one in brass with leather handles, $1,200) by Carl Auböck available from New York dealer Patrick Parrish. In the 1920s, the Viennese designer took over his father’s workshop and reinterpreted many everyday items – from bottle openers to coat racks – in pared-back modernist style. “Auböck’s nutcrackers are by far the best when it comes to modern, modernist or even postmodernist examples,” says Parrish, who contributed to the book Carl Auböck: The Workshop and in 2016 set up the first-ever auction dedicated solely to the designer, in conjunction with online auctioneer Wright, where a 1945 bowl-mounted nutcracker in oak and patinated brass sold for $1,125 (over a $400-$500 estimate). “They combine design simplicity with subtle humour through suggestive shaping, generally in polished brass or nickel, although there are a few in wood and some that are attached to a bowl.”
A hinged ebony and maple pair (£752) by the workshop founder’s grandson is on 1stdibs, while Auböck made several versions of the latter – a screw style using a “tighten-until-they-crush method”, says Parrish. The dealer sold a striking brass, triangular screw style for $1,400 in 2017, while a round, unsigned one is available for $350 at New York gallery Hamel20. “Auböck signed the majority of his works, but not all,” says Parrish, adding that while the fakes in circulation are increasing, “seasoned collectors covet rarity and patina over a piece being signed.”
But it’s not all about Auböck. A striking 1970s example ($1,600) at New York dealer Wyeth is of unknown designer, but impresses with its tubular nickel-plated-brass form and decisive “guillotine” action, in which the nut is placed in a cavity and a ball bearing comes down to crush it. At 30cm tall, this is nutcracker as coffee-table statement. “People like this style for the mechanics and functionality, and this one is a beautiful, modernist object,” says store owner John Birch, who also has several Auböcks and a monogrammed 1950s English screw design ($450) in silver.
Indeed, British silverware is another strong area for collectors. A classic, two-pronged nutcracker (£1,495) from 1811 by noted silversmith Joseph Willmore can be found at AC Silver in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. “We see lots of Victorian nutcrackers, but this is unusual as it’s an older, Georgian example,” says store manager Rachel O’Keefe-Coulson. “A nice feature is the engraved initial – an R.” Moving up a century are chic nutcrackers by Mappin & Webb: an elegant silver 1923 pair (£445) is available from Amersham’s The Antique Boutique. Another name synonymous with silverware, Tiffany & Co, addressed the form with aplomb in the 1980s. The Elsa Peretti design is all sinuous loops and curves. “Elsa based the shape on the fluidity of the ocean,” says Howard Williams, owner of High Style Deco, which has a pair for $465. “It has old-world elegance.”
For one collector, Henley-on-Thames-based former IT specialist Robert Mills, the draw is vintage nutcrackers that are “interesting and unique. My interest was sparked 20 years ago when my wife gave me what she thought was a garlic press, but it was, in fact, a 1940s metal-lever nutcracker.” The author of a book entitled Nutcrackers now owns several hundred examples – ranging from an 18th-century, turned-wood “screw cracker with teeth marks on the handle” to a 19th-century cast-iron sailor sitting on a lobster pot, who cracks nuts with his head. His most prized finds, though, are “surprising survivors” from the 1600s.
Mills may not use his nutcrackers, but Dr Richard Zheng, a London-based intellectual property specialist, admires the utility of a modernist Auböck-esque screw style he found in a Marylebone antiques shop. “One can control the ‘cracking’ so that the shell and nut are not overly crushed,” he says.
No matter how modern the nutcracker, the appeal is often nostalgic, harking back to a time when, as Wagner puts it, “families sat round the fire eating these delicious morsels”. Time to get cracking.