Tips for Buying Antique and Vintage Jet Jewelry

jetbead

A single, simple jet bead, circa 1910

Jet has a feel like no other substance.  Smooth and mat and velvety, almost warm to the touch, it isn’t like wood or like stone or like rubber… it is unique.

Once you have handled real jet you will never forget the feeling in the hand.

Some facts about jet

  • Jet is fossilized wood, specifically fossilized resinous driftwood, originally from the Monkey Puzzle Tree, pressurized between layers of shale in the Jurassic period.
  • Jet is considered to be one of the  ‘organic gemstones’ (the others are pearls, coral and amber). 
  • A common misnomer for jet is ‘black amber’.
  • Another confusion is that jet is often used to describe the color black and not just used to describe the substance.
  • If someone says that they have a ‘jet necklace’ check that they don’t just mean they have a black necklace.
  • Jet is relatively soft and is easily carved.
  • Jet is also easily polished.

The History of Jet in Jewelry

The first piece of jet jewelry dates from 17, 000 B.C in Spain so it has truly been in favor for a long time.  It was also popular in Ancient Rome and has also often been used for rosary beads.

However, in more recent times jet truly came into vogue after the death of Prince Albert in 1861.   As mourning jewelry became so popular, jet became a very favored substance and was always part of Queen Victoria’s mourning dress.

In the 1920s, the flapper girls favored long strings of jet beads and found them excellent accessories for dancing.

19th century polished jet mourning brooch

 

Whitby Jet

Since the town began production in 1800, the most sought after jet has been from Whitby in Northern England.  ‘Whitby Jet’ is prized worldwide and is still a thriving production center.

There are some stunning carved designs of Whitby jet, particularly brooches, which came in a large variety of designs.

whitbybroochfront

Carved Whitby jet brooch, late Victorian.  (This brooch is showing some slight damage around the edges).

Carved Whitby Jet Brooch, circa 1870.  The word ‘Mother’ as well as first names were popular, probably to remember deceased loved ones.

Other substances that are mistaken for jet

There are many other substances that are often mistaken for jet. Jet is the most valuable of all these substances and is considered highly collectible, particularly Whitby jet.

It is worth becoming familiar with all of those below so you can better identify jet.

Onyx

Onyx may have a similar look but is much cooler to the touch and shinier.

French ‘jet’

French jet is not jet at all but is, in fact, black glass.

Vulcanite or ebonite

Gutta Percha

Coal

Bog oak

Epoxy resins

A test for jet

One test for jet is to rub it on some unglazed porcelain. Real jet will leave a brown mark. However, once you have handled a few pieces you will find this unnecessary.

It is always sensible to buy antique and vintage jewelry from a reputable dealer.

 

il_570xN.340892961 Carved jet beads, circa 1910

 

Learn About Victorian Scottish Jewelry

Another rage in the Victorian era was Scottish jewelry (or ‘pebble jewelry’ as it was also known).  This fashion was begun by Queen Victoria after she bought Balmoral Castle in the Caledonian woodlands of Scotland in 1848.

Balmoral Castle, the romantically situated Highland home so beloved by our Royal Family. Its position by the River Dee, facing the majestic range of Lochnagar, makes it one of the most beautiful of Royal residences

Balmoral Castle

Victoria had Stuart ancestry and she absolutely loved all things Scottish.  After the purchase of the castle, she began to avidly collect Scottish jewelry.  Fashion soon followed.

Brooches and pins were by far the most popular form of Scottish jewelry worn. It was usually made with silver and set with stones such as:

  • Agate
  • Moss agate
  • Carnelian
  • Bloodstone
  • Jasper
  • Cairngorm (this was the most popular stone and is also called smoky yellow quartz and, less correctly, smoky topaz or Scotch topaz)
  • It was also made with enamel work

One of the things which greatly added to the popularity of Scottish jewelry was the inexpensive of the materials used.  Initially only made in Scotland, this style of jewelry was soon adopted by English jewelry manufacturers also.

By 1851, fashionable people were wearing tartans with matching plaid bracelets.

The fashion for Scottish jewelry and all things Scottish continued until 1861 when Albert died and it fell out of vogue.

lady

Photograph of a young Victorian woman wearing Scottish inspired fashion.  The bracelets on her arms might well be matching her dress. Circa 1851.

catphotoVictorian Scottish brooch with serpent motif, another Victorian fashion.  This piece is unusual in that it combines both fashions.  Set with a variety of native Scottish stones.

 

Enamel Techniques in Art Nouveau Jewelry

Enameling is one of the most expressive and stunning techniques for creating jewelry.  It was used extensively during the Art Nouveau period (1890-1910).

An endless array of colorful and intricate designs were created by applying the enamel in a variety of ways which have become very much associated with the period. Enamel work showcases the jeweler’s artistry perhaps more than any other technique

Enameled jewelry from the Art Nouveau era is highly prized and collectible. There are, of course, many replicas.

Thanks to enamel’s hard-wearing qualities, there are many surviving enameled pieces from the era for us to enjoy.

How is enamel created?

Enamel is created from:

  • Silica, quartz, borax, lead, and feldspar ground together into a fine powder. Basically, it is powdered glass.
  • Metal oxides in powder form are then added to produce the colors.
  • This mixture is then fired at a very high temperature, resulting in the gorgeous, rich colors of enamel work with which we are familiar.
  • The metals that the enamel work are fired on must be able to withstand such high temperatures.
  • A large amount of time and care is required on the part of the jeweler. 

There were six main methods of enamel work that were popular in the creation of Art Nouveau pieces.  These were as follows:

Cloisonné

Cloisonne is created by:

  • Soldering or arranging fine gold or silver wire onto another metal to create a design.
  • The main metal it is soldered onto is often copper or bronze in the case of cloisonne, but it can also be gold or silver.
  • The enamel powder is then used to fill in the partitions created by the wires. 
  • As the enamel tends to shrink when fired, often several firings are required. 
  • In the end, the enamel is sanded to be level with the wire.

Plique-à-jour

Plique-à-jour enamel with small rose-cut diamonds in the veins c1900 by Louis Aucoc (1850-1932)

  • Plique-à-jour is the type of enamel work that most people think of when they think of Art Nouveau jewelry.
  • It is the most delicate method of enameling and tends to fetch the highest prices.
  • The enamel is created with no metal backing, hence the translucent and stained glass-like effect of the end result.
  • To achieve this, the enamel mixture is made to be very viscous. 
  • Sometimes a thin mica or clay backing is used and then removed after the firing.
  • Thin metal, which burns away during firing, can also be used. 
  • Plique-à-jour looks truly stunning when held up to the light. 
  • Plique-à-jour means ‘letting in the day’ in French.

Champlevé

Champlevé means ‘raised field’ literally in French. Champlevé enamel work is created by:
  • First making cut out hollowed designs in the metal.
  • These hollowed out places are then filled with the enamel mixture and fired.
  • This is repeated as many times as necessary and then polished. 
  • Copper and brass bases are often used with Champlevé as well as gold and silver.

Basse-taille

Basse-taille literally means ‘shallow cut’. Basse-taille is created by:

  • Engraving the design into the metal, usually gold or silver.
  • The entire piece is then covered in translucent enamel so that the engraved low relief design shows through.
  • Different effects can be created by adding different amounts and colors of enamel in different locations.

Niello

Niello is usually classified as a kind of enameling technique although it is not a true enamel.  It is created in the following way:

  • Instead of the powdered glass enamel, a mixture of sulfur, lead, copper, and silver is used.
  • The design is engraved in the metal and then the mixture is applied.
  • The piece is then fired.
  • When it is polished, all of the mixture is removed apart from that which is left inside the engraving. 
  • The result is always black.
  • Niello looks different from black enameling because it doesn’t have the same glassy effect and is more metallic seeming.

Taille d’epargné

Taille d’épargne means “sparing cut” literally in French. Taille d’épargne was popular in the mid-1800s but was also used by Art Nouveau jewelry artisans.

It was created in the following way:

  • The design was cut deeply into the metal.
  • It was then filled, fired and polished. 
  • Although any color can be used for the enamel, black or blue was generally favored. 

I hope this article helped give you an overview of the six different enameling techniques that were used in the creation of Art Nouveau jewelry and will be useful to you when you are identifying antique jewelry.