The Alphabet of Art & Antiques – N is for …


Nacre, also known as mother-of-pearl, is the basic substance secreted by oysters and mollusks to form the inside of their shells. When nacre secretions are deposited around a foreign substance which has invaded the mollusk’s body, they build up to form a pearl. The specific luster, iridescence, and coloring of nacre and, therefore, of any pearl which it forms depends on the number and thickness of the various layers, as well as on whether or not the layers overlap one another.

From Apter Fredericks: An ormolu mounted mother of pearl jewelry or trinket box. Austria, circa 1820.

Nanban (or Namban)

Nanban art refers to Japanese art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries influenced by contact with the Nanban or “Southern barbarians” – traders and missionaries from Europe and specifically from Portugal. Most Nanbam artists were Christian converts. They created screens, lacquerwork and pottery decorated with Western or Christian subjects such as paintings of Portuguese galleons and their crew and passengers disembarking in Japan.

Nanban byōbu (folding screen) from circa1570-1616, attributed to Kanō Naizen. Image via the Kobe City Museum.


Násfa is a Hungarian term for a sixteenth-century pendant or brooch traditionally attached to the bodice of a garment. Adorned with gems, pearls, and enamel, násfas were often styled with a floral motif. A gift presented by a bridegroom to his bride on the morning after their wedding night would often have been a Násfa, and they were engagement gifts as well.

A rare continental renaissance gold, enamel and diamond-set násfa circa 1626, probably Hungarian. Image via Christie’s.


Navette is another term to describe a marquise shaped gemstone or jewelry contour: pointed at both ends with equally curved sides, i.e. a pointed oval.

From Lang Antiques: Vintage diamond and natural pearl bracelet with slender navette shape links, circa 1900.


A nécessaire is a portable case for personal articles needed when traveling. They usually included toilet necessities, sewing instruments, toothpicks, cutlery and sometimes even cooking utensils. The earliest version were small and pocket-sized, often elaborately decorated. Larger ones were sometimes in the form of caskets or trunks.

Nécessaire fitted with sewing and writing implements as well as a watch, probably 1745-1750. Image via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


A nef is a vessel shaped like a ship, usually of silver, used in the later Middle Ages for the lord’s napkin, knife and spoon. By the 16th century they were used as table ornaments, especially in Germany and Switzerland, and many were elaborate and accurate models of fully rigged ships.

Large antique silver-gilt model of a nef by Berthold Müller. Germany, circa 1890. Image via Mayfair Gallery.

Neue Sachlichkeit

Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”) was a representative style of art that was developed in the 1920s in Germany by artists including Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, and George Grosz. Artworks in this style were often satirical in nature, sending a critical eye upon contemporary taste and the postwar society of Germany. In both content and style, artists of this movement directly challenged and broke away from the traditions of the art academies they had attended.

“The Skat Players – Card Playing War Invalids”, 1920 by Otto Dix. Image via Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin.


Niello is a decorative technique on metal, often on silver; an engraved design is filled with a black compound of sulphur and powdered copper, silver or lead and is fixed by heating.

Silver and niello diptych, with gilt-bronze frame, Paris, circa 1500. Image via The Cloisters.


A nimbus is a ring of light that surrounds a person in art. They are often used in religious works to depict holy or sacred figures, and have at various periods also been used in images of rulers or heroes. In, among other religions, Hellenistic Greek, Roman, Buddhist and Christian sacred art, sacred persons may be depicted with a nimbus or halo in the form of a golden, yellow or white circular glow around the head, or around the whole body, which is often called a mandorla.

Mosaic of Christ surrounded by angels and saints in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy, circa 526.

By Vera Vandenbosch