Saturday, May 04, 2002

Antiques Detective

Collectors take a shine to Victorian jewelry

By Anne Gilbert
Enquirer contributor

        Collectors have carried on a longtime love affair with Victorian jewelry. Part of the fascination is with the ways the jewelers turned everything from conventional precious metals to unconventional materials such as tortoise, human hair and objects of nature into elegant jewelry.

        Early collectors Martha and Dean Fales' 18th- and 19th-century American jewelry was acquired recently by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The collection is notable for its diversity — Tiffany pieces to examples of engraving techniques and unusual materials.

        When is a belt buckle a brooch or a locket a charm for a bracelet? The answer is when they are examples of Victorian jewelers' artistry, rediscovered by today's collectors and used in new ways. For instance, the utilitarian belt buckle was turned into a work of art showing the jeweler's skill.

        Jewelry designs followed the fashion of the era. Beginning in the 1860s and through the 1870s, there was an interest in Japanese art and design. Butterflies, bamboo and flowers were mounted in gold as brooches and bracelets.

        Natural materials such as tortoise shell often were inlaid with stripes, lines and tiny dots of silver and gold known as pique work.

        The strange technique known as “hair jewelry” that dated to the early 18th century reached its peak by the mid-19th century. It is also known as “mourning” jewelry, because it was made from the hair of a deceased friend, lover or family member. The pieces became elaborate, often with hair arranged in three-dimensional shapes, set with gemstones and gold and sometimes with faceted jet and enamel.

        Novelty jewelry in the shape of animals, baskets of flowers and even windmills enjoyed a brief popularity in the 1870s. Some of these brooches depicted hunting dogs, whips and golf clubs.

        Some of the most interesting pieces of jewelry used enameling. The unlimited use of colors resulted in unique designs when combined with metals and precious stones. By the late 19th century, jewelers were using a spin-off of conventional enameling known as “plique-a-jour” (a process where tin-backed wiring is filled with transparent enamels, giving a stained-glass effect).

        Today, coral jewelry is a trendy collectible. It was very popular in the 1870s when it was combined with gold and worked into naturalistic forms.

        Nevertheless, Victorian jewelry doesn't have to contain precious metals or gemstones to be collectible. Some interesting examples were gold-plated and set with imitation rubies, amethysts and jade.

        Mechanization was introduced with the use of gas and steam engines. Often a thin sheet of gold was attached to brass, and intricate designs often were stamped on the metal. Beginning collectors can still find late 19th-century, mass-made brooches in different shapes (birds, turtles and flowers) and sizes.

        Flea markets and garage sales are good sources for collectible jewelry.

        Contact Anne Gilbert by mail: c/o Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. Photos cannot be returned.


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- Collectors take a shine to Victorian jewelry