Donor Interview: Mona Nesseth on hand fans

Today's post highlights the recent donation of exceptional hand fans by FIDM Museum donor and Fashion Council member Mona Nesseth. Thanks to Mona's contributions, our collection of fans has grown by leaps and bounds. A Graduate Gemologist, custom jewelry designer, and an expert in antique and estate jewelry, Mona is also fascinated by hand fans. In today's post, she reveals the origins of this interest and describes the most fascinating fan she's ever encountered—a lace and mother of pearl fan that once belonged to Phoebe Hearst.

Exhibit22-15Hand Fan (detail)
c. 1885
Gift of Mona Nesseth


When did you become interested in hand fans?

I have always been mesmerized by hand-held fans, both antique and contemporary. I am inspired by their beauty, their flirtatious function, and the enchanting stories that they can conjure. Throughout my life, I have been repeatedly tempted to purchase antique fans, but the prices seemed daunting for the ones that I desired. Also, I did not have the knowledge, expertise or confidence to commit to the substantial investment required by the antique hand fans that caught my eye.

In the past, I have had the opportunity to visit The Fan Museum in Greenwich, England and The Hand Fan Museum in Healdsburg, California. I have always admired fans at museums whenever they are on display and I often notice them in historical portraits.

Fifteen years ago, I finally found the courage to purchase my first antique hand fan. Mounted within a shadow box frame, this lace and ivory hand fan featured a hand-painted pair of cherubs in a bed of flowers, amongst a flurry of butterflies.


As you’ve researched and collected fans, have you
learned anything surprising?

The more that I learned about fans, the more
entranced I became. I learned that fans have been globally important
in most cultures for thousands of years. Fans are depicted in art and are considered an art form. Fans were important status symbols, mementos, and
collector's items. The history of fans was rich in splendor and
mystery. And the variety and multitude of themes are

One of my favorite historical aspects of hand fans is "The Language of the Fan." I recently had the pleasure of witnessing this language during Maxwell Barr's enlightening presentation, Fashion in the Age of Louis XV. Maxwell demonstrated the dancing messages revealed as the fan was opened, closed, fluttered, pointed, directed, held, touched, and twirled. 

Hand Fan (detail)
c. 1910
Gift of Mona Nesseth


Can you describe the most unusual fan you've ever encountered?

A few years ago (maybe 2007), at the annual Las
Vegas Antique Jewelry show, I spied an enticing carved mother of pearl and lace antique hand fan at the booth of a coin dealer. I admired the magnificent details of the
iridescent mother of pearl exquisitely carved in high relief, featuring a central goddess figure playing
the tambourine and dancing, accompanied by dancing putti finished with a goddess figure on the guard. The fan was personalized with a diamond encrusted
signature that read "Phébé" and was signed by the fan maker

I almost didn't purchase it because it read Phébé, which is a very rare and unusual name for the Greek Goddess of
Light. I thought an inscription, such as
"Amore" would have more resale value, but I decided the fan was so phenomenal that
I had to adopt it.

I have a friend, Beatriz Hyp, owner of
Summerhill Antiques in Summerland, California, who is a renowned antiques dealer and lace
expert. I asked for her advice regarding how to care for my new lace fan. Bea shared that she had encountered several antique hand fans that had belonged to Phoebe Hearst, an avid
collector of hand fans and mother of William Randolph Hearst. Bea explained that Mrs. Hearst loved her fans so
much she had the fan boxes personalized with her name.

I replied that the original owner of my newly
adopted fan was so fond of her fan she also had her signature
"Phébé" (the French spelling) encrusted in diamonds on the guard stick. Bea exclaimed that Phoebe was Mrs.
Hearst's first name!!! We were both so excited that I had rescued this
historical and enchanting treasure.

A few months later, my jewelry historian friend,
Christie Romero, introduced Phébé and me to Kevin Jones, the Curator of the FIDM Museum, in Los Angeles,
California. I adored Kevin immediately and was so pleased to
make his acquaintance. A few years later, I promised Kevin that someday I would donate my Phébé fan to the FIDM Museum. Inspired by my friendship with Kevin, I decided to donate Phébé to the FIDM Museum in 2013. I also have had the pleasure of getting to know
Christina Johnson, the Associate Curator of the FIDM Museum. Kevin and Christina are an exceptional, dynamic, and dedicated team, and I was confident that they would be the most wonderful caretakers of my precious Phebe fan.

The Phébé fan is the rarest and most unusual fan that I have encountered and Phebe remains my favorite fan of all, my personal Holy Grail. Inspired and enthused by the joy realized when I
rescued and adopted the Phébé fan, I ventured on a treasure quest in search of more
fabulous fans to donate to the FIDM Museum's Fan
Collection. I am truly a "Fan of the FIDM Museum."

Phebe fan"Phébé" Hand Fan
Gift of Mona Nesseth
Photo by Harold & Erica Van Pelt


One response to “Donor Interview: Mona Nesseth on hand fans

  1. How elegant and extravagant. I can easily imagine Ms Hearst gently fanning herself on the veranda of the mansion.

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