Marquetry is the craft of forming a decorative panel of veneers composed of shaped sections of wood (sometimes including bone or ivory, turtle-shell (conventionally called 'tortoiseshell'), mother-of-pearl or fine metals) and applying it to a structural carcass. The simplest kind of marquetry uses only two sheets of veneer, which are temporarily glued together and cut with a fine saw, producing two contrasting panels of identical design, (in French called partie and contre-partie, 'part' and 'counterpart'). Simple geometric marquetry designs reminiscent of basketwork, tiling or trelliswork, are often called 'parquetry,' in reference to the similar patterning of parquet flooring.
Marquetry may be much more complicated and ambitious, using many local and exotic woods including ebony, rosewood, mahogany, boxwood etc. some dyed or even shaded by scorching edges in hot sand, to create realistic designs such as vases, bouquets of flowers, even landscapes. When marquetry is intended for a non-functional purpose, such as stand-alone fine art pictures and not applied to furniture, it is regarded as fine art.
Marquetry should not be confused with inlay in which a solid body of one material is cut out to receive sections of another. Nevertheless, in English, marquetry-makers were called 'inlayers' throughout the 18th century. In Paris, before 1789, makers of veneered or marquetry furniture (ébénistes) belonged to a separate guild from chair-makers and other furniture craftsmen working in solid wood (menuisiers). The most famous example of inlay in Europe may be the late 15th century Studiolo made for Federico da Montefeltro in his Ducal Palace at Urbino, in which trompe-l'oeil shelving seems to carry books, papers, curios and mathematical instruments, in eye-deceiving perspective. Inlay may equally be of metal inlaid in metal. A similar private study made at Gubbio is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The technique of veneered marquetry had its inspiration in 16th century Florence (and at Naples). Marquetry elaborated upon Florentine techniques of inlaying solid marble slabs with designs formed of fitted marbles, jaspers and semi-precious stones. This work, called opere di commessi, is known in English as pietra dura. In Florence, the Chapel of the Medici at San Lorenzo is completely covered in a colored marble facing using this demanding jig-sawn technique.
Techniques of wood marquetry were developed in Antwerp and other Flemish centers of luxury cabinet-making during the early 17th century. The craft was imported full-blown to France, to create furniture of unprecedented luxury being made at the manufactory of the Gobelins, to decorate Versailles and the other royal residences of Louis XIV. Early masters of French marquetry were the Fleming Pierre Golle and his son-in-law, André-Charles Boulle , who founded a dynasty of royal and Parisian cabinet-makers (ébénistes) and gave his name to a technique of marquetry employing tortoiseshell and brass with pewter in arabesque or intricately foliate designs. Boulle marquetry dropped out of favor in the 1720s, but was revived in the 1780s. The most famous royal French furniture veneered with marquetry are the pieces delivered by Jean Henri Riesener in the 1770s and 1780s. The Bureau du Roi was the most famous amongst these famous masterpieces.
Marquetry is a demanding craft and remains the work of specialists; it was not ordinarily a feature of furniture made outside large urban centers. Nevertheless, marquetry was introduced into London furniture at the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the product of immigrant Dutch 'inlayers', whose craft traditions owed a lot to Antwerp. At the end of the 17th Century, a new influx of French Huguenot craftsmen went to London, but marquetry in England had little appeal in the anti-French, more Chinese-inspired high-style English furniture (mis-called 'Queen Anne') after ca 1720. Marquetry was revived as a vehicle of Neoclassicism and a 'French taste' in London furniture, starting in the late 1760s. Cabinet-makers associated with London-made marquetry furniture, 1765-1790, include Thomas Chippendale and less familiar names, like William Linnell, the French craftsman Pierre Langlois, and the firm of William Ince and John Mayhew.
Marquetry was a feature of some centers of German cabinet-making from ca 1710. The craft and artistry of David Roentgen , Neuwied, (and later at Paris as well) was unsurpassed, even in Paris, by any 18th Century marquetry craftsman.
Marquetry was not a mainstream fashion in 18th Century Italy, but the neoclassical marquetry of Giuseppe Maggiolini, made in Milan at the end of the century is notable.
The classic illustrated description of 18th century marquetry-making was contributed by Roubo to the Encyclopédie des Arts et Métiers, 1770. The most thorough and dependable 20th century accounts of marquetry, in the context of Parisian cabinet-making, are by Pierre Verlet.