LATE VICTORIAN EARRINGS -ART DECO PIN - LATE VICTORIAN EARRINGS - ANTIQUE JEWELRY CASES LINED IN VELVET, PRIVATE COLLECTION
It is impossible for me to look at cut steel jewelry without thinking of my beloved aunt—Babbs Shoemaker. She first introduced me to this Georgian and Victorian jewelry nearly 15 years ago and I was immediately smitten. There is something special about the history that lives within these small pieces of art that leaves me wondering about the women who wore them—from a time so long ago. The craftsmanship for many of these pieces has withstood the test of time and once you know what you are looking for you will be able to recognize them in your local vintage and antique jewelry stores.
A Very Brief History:
Cut steel jewelry dates back as far as the Elizabethan period [1558-1603]; the age of the Renaissance. The history of cut steel jewelry is all about class distinction with the introduction of sumptuary laws of the mid-18th century in parts of Europe. In an attempt to maintain visual boundaries between the classes these laws specified what items of clothing and jewelry could be worn depending upon a person's rank or income—diamonds exclusively for the wealthy, leaving the middle class with lower priced items such as cut steel.
In 1759, King Louis of France "requested" that all jewelry be donated to the state in order to fund the Seven Years War. The French citizens donated [or hid] their gems and the wealthy French adopted cut steel jewelry as a replacement causing the market to soar. At one point it was even more valuable than gold.
By the 19th century cut steel jewelry grew in popularity as the lower class began to rebel against the imposed sumptuary laws. They would flaunt their irreverence for the mandated class distinction by wearing a wider variety of adornment. This elevated the status of cut steel jewelry once again as it was affordable and admired for its reflective qualities that sparkle like diamonds.
What is Cut Steel?
Cut Steel jewelry was originally created using upcycled horseshoe nails, and eventually, was made out of “fresh” steel. It required quite a bit of labor to produce. Each tiny bead was faceted, polished and riveted by hand using a chipping technique. The earlier individual beads had as many as 15 facets giving them great brilliance and then later, as demand grew in the 19th Century, less facets were created to speed up production but still allowed for the sparkling quality that made them so popular. Steel can become brittle over time and rust if not stored properly, so the use of marcasites was introduced later due to its inherent stability. Eventually the technology to mass-produce marcasites was developed and it replaced the more labor intensive cut steel.
Marcasite “stones” have been around forever [ think Incan ruins and Egyptian tombs ] and remain popular today in contemporary jewelry. Marcasite is the name given to the natural mineral iron sulfide, however, what is used in jewelry is iron pyrite (a.k.a. Fool’s Gold) and often referred to simply as pyrite.
I know this post has gone on a bit longer than it should so I will end it here with a few more pieces I adore from Splurge to Save prices, happy shopping!