Right on the Button: La Jolla collector delights in offbeat hobby

What: California Button Society’s 2014 Antique, Vintage and Collectible Button Show

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 17 and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, May 18

Where: Town and Country Hotel, 500 Hotel Circle North in Mission Valley

Admission: Free, $5 suggested donation


By Pat Sherman

These are some of Renée Comeau’s favorite buttons from her collection, many which are considered are works of art.

“You can laugh later when you get to the car,” Renée Comeau joked, while confiding to the La Jolla Light at her La Jolla home that she is in her second term as president of the California State Button Society — part of a national network of rather serious collectors of both utilitarian and artistic buttons spanning the globe and centuries — including many with serious monetary value.

“Probably a quarter to a third of our members are men,” Comeau said. “Some collect military buttons, wood buttons, police uniform buttons or sailing ship buttons.

“This button right here is all carved very minutely in wax,” she said, displaying her most treasured antique apparel fastener (circa the 18th century). “Can you imagine this lasting 300 years?”

During the 18th century and first half of the 19th century, buttons were primarily worn by men, including members of the royal courts of London and Paris, who commissioned the day’s top artists to create them, Comeau said.

Those buttons might feature, enclosed in glass, a rare beetle or the feather of a bird someone shot while hunting (specimen buttons), or miniature scenes painstakingly painted on ivory.

Buttons-Cloisonne Enamel Copper Man smoking pipe

This cloisonné enamel on copper button depicts a man smoking a pipe.

“Even though some of these are very feminine looking, they were worn by men,” Comeau maintained. “Men in Europe would spend thousands of dollars (in today’s currency) on a single set of buttons in the 1700s. Women didn’t really wear buttons as fasteners until the mid-1850s.”

Though early European men’s buttons are some of the most beautiful, Comeau said among her favorites are simple, American Colonial buttons of chaste copper and pewter, made during a time when people were rejecting the trappings of European aristocrats.

Button Bonanza

Comeau will take part in the California Button Society’s 2014 Antique, Vintage and Collectible Button Show, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, May 17 and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, May 18 at the Town and Country Hotel, 500 Hotel Circle North in Mission Valley.

The show will feature hundreds of thousands of buttons from the 18th century to more contemporary ones made of celluloid, enamel, Victorian glass and other materials.

This red bakelite star button also serves as a compass

This red bakelite star button also serves as a compass.

The show will also feature a workshop on how to make button jewelry without damaging a rare or delicate button, and presentations on identifying buttons from the Arts and Crafts design period and on sporting buttons.

It is the first time in 55 years that a show under the umbrella of the National Button Society has been held in San Diego, said Comeau, who, when not collecting buttons, said she is busy pushing her husband Terry’s buttons with her obsession.

“This is how he appeases me,” she said, displaying Terry Gulden’s “one and only” themed button card (the method collectors use to compete at shows). It includes vintage buttons with the likeness of famous persons, from Napoleon to Joan of Arc and Teddy Roosevelt.

“This drives him crazy, my little habit,” Comeau said.

Origins of an obsession

Comeau was introduced to buttons by her grandmother, one of 18 children who grew up on a farm in San Juan Capistrano.

“Buttons made using the plique-à-jour process (French for letting in daylight) are enamel buttons with no backing. “It takes the very best enamel artist to be able to make one of these,” Renee Comeau said. “It’s taken me years to find one like this.”

“Everything was (saved and) repurposed, because they had no money,” Cameau said, noting that upon her grandmother’s death, she inherited two shoe boxes full of buttons that she had been enamored with as a child. That, and an exhibition of 18th and 19th century buttons at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library 10 years ago, heightened her interest.

Lest anyone think buttons are staid or stodgy, Comeau leafed to a section of a book on button designers of various periods that showed pictures of 18th century buttons that depict vividly erotic scenes. “These were actually buttons that people wore,” she said, agreeing, “They leave nothing to the imagination.”

A button in her collection from the 1920s — once fastened to a woman’s garter belt — bears the image of a policeman signaling, “Stop!”

Tortoise Shell with stagecoach-1

One of Comeau’s stagecoach buttons.

To add to her collection, particularly when she is arranging buttons of a particular theme for one her award-winning cards, Comeau scours button shows, estate sales and flea markets.

Her collection includes smuggler’s buttons, which have compartments once used for hiding things such as jewels, and a 2,000-year-old jade button from China. Two others feature daguerreotype portraits, or those made using the first widespread photographic process, in which the image is formed on a polished silver surface.

One of her happiest finds were two rare buttons made using the plique-à-jour process (French for letting in daylight), which she procured during last fall’s Del Mar Antique Show.

“I didn’t have much luck finding great buttons and a guy at the entrance who was an antiques dealer ... asked if I had seen the clown buttons in the back,” Comeau recalled. “He took me by the hand and, sure enough, they had some plaster of Paris, hand-painted, World War II clown buttons.

“I picked them up and at the bottom of the dish were two plique-à-jour enamel buttons. I paid $1 apiece for them and the next day I sold one for $400 and kept the other one for my collection.”