Quick ID guide to different types of cameo .. Part 1: Plastic cameos

I’ve recently had a couple of emails from readers asking for help in identifying what their cameos are made from, so it’s given me an idea to do some blog posts on the different type of cameo available.

Let’s start with the cheapest type of cameo – one’s made from plastic resin. Generally costing between £2 and £15, they are perfect for everyday wear, and many are beautifully detailed.

Tips to identify:

  • Plastic cameos tend to feel slightly dense and heavy, and make a dull sound when gently tapped on the teeth.
  • Hold a piece of shell or smooth glass/ pebble in your hand – it’s feels cold. Now, hold a plastic cameo – it will feel warmer and softer in comparison (this is a great tip for identifying plastic beads too).
  • Stand in front of a window, and with the front of the cameo facing the window (so you are looking at the back of it), a hold a plastic cameo up to the light – it’ll be quite dense and opaque, where as shell cameos would still be detailed and quite transparent.

 

Here are some pictures of plastic cameos I’ve had, with further identification details:

 

vintage art deco plastic cameo clip on earrings
Vintage art deco circa 1930s clip on plastic cameos earrings. Note the glue marks around the face, where the white ‘face’ of the cameo has been glued onto a red background (real cameos are carved complete from one shell or hard stone). These plastic earrings have had a lot of thought put into them, as each face is slightly different, as would be the case with real shell cameos.

 

vintage 1970s plastic cameo brooch jewelry
Vintage circa 1970s plastic cameo brooch. There was a big art nouveau and deco revival in both the 1960s and 70s, and many pieces I have seen advertised for sale as genuine art deco often date from this much later period. The technique for this brooch cameo is the same as the above earrings – a separate plastic molded white figure glued to maroon background.

 

Art deco plastic resin cameo vintage brooch 1930s costume jewelry Adam and Eve
An old art deco superb quality molded plastic cameo brooch, depicting Adam and Eve from the Old Testament Bible. This stunning piece dates from around the 1930s, and was completely molded in a cream piece of plastic as one piece, with a darker beige ‘background’ painted on after the molding took place.

 

Plastic kitsch cameo girl pendant charm jewellery
Probably the most famous and well known type of cameo is this plastic side-facing pony-tail lady, first seen around the 1980s and still being mass-produce made today. Quick ID tip! Plastic cameos tend to be glued into their metal frame setting, as you can see with this one (it has a slight gap around the edges where it doesn’t sit flush to the setting. Real shell cameos tend to be flush-bezel set or prong set into the frame, with no gaps.

 

Vintage art deco plastic resin cameo brooch
A well detailed vintage art deco circa 1930s cameo brooch, made from one piece of cream molded plastic, with darker orange painted background and metal filigree detail.. Old art deco plastic cameos can be well detailed – plastic was a new and exotic material to work in, and I have a feeling the complexity of some these deco cameos may have reflected perhaps a desirability of this new ‘plastic’ material at that time.
Vintage circa 1950s plastic costume jewellery cameo brooch
I purchased this cameo brooch as a gamble a few years ago, from an online auction site, hoping it was real shell. It wasn’t – but instead was a lovely quality plastic cameo, nicely bezel set (the type of metal and brooch back dating it to circa 1950s)

 

Vintage 1980s plastic resin cameo costume jewellery brooch dancing people
Beautiful quality circa 1970s plastic cameo brooch. I’ve come across a few of this type (ie, intricately detailed romantic scenes) and they are so realistic they could be mistaken for real cameos. However, on close inspection you can see they are molded; they also are quite heavy, are not very see-through when held to the light, feel warm to the touch compared with glass or stone, and make a dull muffled cluck sound when gently tapped on the front teeth (where as shell/ gemstone will make a high pitched sharp ‘clink’ sound).

 

 

 

Further reading:

Five tips on how to date vintage brooches – with photos to help!

A beginners guide to cameo jewellery (there are pictures of two very good quality plastic cameos in this article).

 

 

 

Vintage marcasite jewellery

If you want sparkle, but prefer an understated look, then marcasite gemstone jewellery may be perfect for you.  These semi-precious stones are a type of mineral, which range in colour from silver-yellow to bright white silver. When faceted and set into jewellery, they create a subtle sparkling effect, rather than a full on glitz – perfect for adding a hint of shimmer.

Close up of loose marcasite gemstones
Above, a varied selection of vintage marcasites, harvested from old broken jewellery. Notice how some are flat-backed (near the back), and some are the traditional ‘diamond’ shape, depending on the setting of the jewellery they came from. Marcasites generally vary in size from approx 0.5mm to 1.5mm. They are seriously tiny!
marcasite gemstones size close up next to finger
Marcasites next to my pinky finger!
vintage marcasite pave sterling silver ring jewelry
Marcasites can be set into all types of jewellery, and were a popular gemstone to be used in art deco rings.
vintage marcasite swirl silver tone bridal wedding necklace jewellery
Marcasite necklaces have been worn since the 19th Century, and are still hugely popular today. This vintage beauty dates from around the 1960s.
vintage marcasite swirl silver necklace jewelry
The above marcasite necklace when worn
vintage marcasite bow silver brooch jewellery
Marcasites can sometimes develope a yellow/ brown colour over time, as seen in this adorable vintage circa 1970s bow brooch – this is simply age and nothing to worry about 🙂
vintage silver marcasite carved shell cameo brooch jewellery
Had normal glitzy glass paste rhinestones been used to frame this lovely carved shell cameo, they would have detracted from its beauty. Marcasites however, are perfect for giving a crisp finish without over awing the jewellery itself.
vintage cold painted enamel marcasite flower basket brooch jewellery
Flower basket brooches were hugely popular in the 1950s – some were plain or set with rhinestones, while others were encrusted with diamonds and coloured gemstones (depending on your budget!). Marcasites are the happy medium between costume jewellery and fine jewellery, and suit most budgets.
vintage 1950s cold painted enamel marcasite flower silver brooch jewelry
This outstanding marcasite flower brooch has been ‘cold painted’ with enamel (ie, using a paintbrush and enamel paint, rather than more complex true vitreous enamel work which involves firing powdered glass in an oven). Cold painted marcasite enamel jewellery was popular during the 1950s to 1970s, and on a personal note, is one of my all time favourite types of vintage jewellery – it transcends ‘accessory’ and becomes ‘art’.
vintage 60s marcasite collar necklace leaf wedding bridal jewellery
Vintage circa 1960s marcasite and silver tone leaf necklace
vintage marcasite clip on earrings swallow bird silver jewelry
These marcasite bird clip on earrings look like they could have been made recently – but they actually date from the 1950s. Cuteness never goes out of style 🙂
vintage 1970s cultured freshwater pearl marcasite swirl circle brooch jewelry
While a couple of stones missing from vintage marcasite jewellery is quite normal, any more and I consider it damaged and in need of repair (with prices to reflect this.
repairing marcasite stone jewellery
Repairing marcasite jewellery yourself is tricky, but can be done with a steady hand and the right tools. Firstly, you need a good stock of marcasites harvested from other broken jewellery (or buy some online). Match up the sizes to the rest of the marcasites in the jewellery you wish to repair. Next, get yourself some proper ‘jewellery cement’ such as “GS Hypo Cement” – it’s a strong clear specialist jewelry glue that has a super fine nozzle – perfect for tricky work (never use superglue – it dissolves marcasites, as I found to my horror many years ago at my first attempt at marcasite fixing!). Put a tiny dab of cement in the hole you which to place the stone in, and then pick up the marcasite by pressing your finger on it – the natural moisture on your finger will temporarily hold it on. Finally, place it in the hole, and adjust with a pin if needed. This is tricky work, and it may take a few attempts before you get it right.
vintage 1960s marcasite gold tone maltese cross teardrop pendant necklace jewelry
An unusual vintage circa 1960s Maltese cross pendant – gold tone, but set with silver colour marcasites
vintage 60s faux marcasite horse pony eloxal brooch silver jewellery
Spotting faux marcasite jewellery can be hard work, especially because modern real marcasite jewellery can look very similar to vintage faux marcasite jewellery! A good giveaway is the weight – vintage faux-marcasite jewellery, as seen in this cute pony brooch, was made from a metal called Eloxal (a type of aluminium) which was very light in weight – almost weightless! (Vintage Eloxal jewellery was usually made in West Germany and occasionally East Asia, and was popular during the 1960 and 70s because it never tarnished or discoloured). Grab a magnifying glass and have a good look at the stones – if they appear too ‘perfect’ and flush set, it could be faux marcasites (real marcasites are a pain to set straight, and are often even purposely set slightly crooked to give better sparkle and depth to the whole piece of jewelry).
vintage 1960s faux marcasite eloxal panel bracelet chunky jewellery silver celtic knot pattern
A beautiful Celtic inspired vintage circa 1970s faux marcasite panel Eloxal metal bracelet. Two give-aways in identifying the jewellery was its weight (almost weightless when held – a signature of vintage Eloxal metal), and the uniform shape and settings of the ‘stones’. Vintage Eloxal jewellery is a collectable in its own right, and I absolutely love this bracelet!

What is French Jet jewellery made from? Info and guide here!

Shopping around for black jewellery, you many come across a term called ‘French Jet’. While it sounds romantic or even like a gemstone in its own right, French Jet simply a fancy word for good old black glass.

It became popular during the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) when black jewellery was very fashionable. Genuine Jet (which is a real gemstone, most famously found in the Whitby area on the east coast of England) was the most sought after material for making black Victorian jewellery, but due to demand and increasing scarcity it was became expensive. Black glass was a much cheaper alternative.

Where the actual name French Jet comes from is unclear. The glass beads and stones themselves were usually made in the great glass making countries of Europe, such as Austria and the Czechoslovakia regions, and then sent through to other countries (including England and France) to be made into jewellery.

Other black materials used in Victorian mourning jewellery are: onyx, Vulcanite (a type of early rubber), Gutta Percha, genuine real jet, and bog oak (ancient fossilized wood type material usually found in Ireland).

Quick glance identity to mourning jewellery materials:

vintage french jet glass large earrings glass 60s
French Jet = made from glass, feels cold, hard to touch. Can be quite heavy. Shiny and reflective. Will warm up when held in you hand. Makes a distinctive high pitched ‘chink’ sound if gently tapped on teeth.

 

antique vintage victorian whitby jet two row bead necklace jewellery mourning
Genuine Jet gemstone (eg Whitby Jet) = feels warm, quite soft to the touch, with an almost plastic/ oily feeling. Makes a much duller ‘chink’ when held.

 

Onyx vintage sterling silver brooch jewellery
Onyx = very cold, hard to touch. Heavy to hold. Shiny and reflective. Will not warm up when held in you hand and will remain cold ( here’s a tip – many natural gemstones won’t warm up when held). Makes a distinctive high pitched ‘chink’ sound if gently tapped on teeth. Easily mistaken for glass – if in doubt get it looked at by an expert.

Bog Oak = usually only seen in brooches. Look under a magnifying glass to see wood grain texture. Often depicts Irish scenes, castles and motifs.

Antique Victorian Vulcanite Ivy leaves brooch jewellery mourning
Vulcanite = warm and soft like plastic. Originally black like jet, it often fades with age to a brown colour. Rub Vulcanite and you’ll smell rubber.

Gutta Percha = rare, similar to Vulcanite except one important difference – the taste test. Be careful with this, as moisture can permanently stain old Gutta Percha. With a dry tip of the tongue, gently press your tongue on the jewellery. Gutta Percha tastes very salty!

 

Some gorgeous vintage French Jet jewellery ..

Antique Victorian French Jet bar mourning brooch jewellery
Antique Victorian French Jet bar mourning brooch jewellery, circa 1880s.
Vulcanite and French jet Victorian pendant
Vulcanite and French jet Victorian mourning pendant jewelry circa 1880s – an unusual mix!
vintage 1980s french jet glass clamper black bangle jewellery
vintage 1980s French jet glass clamper black bangle jewellery
vintage 1970s french jet glass diamante black tassel drop brooch (2)
vintage 1970s French jet glass diamante black tassel drop brooch jewellery

 

french jet oval faceted pendant glass bead necklace (2)
Modern French jet oval faceted pendant glass bead necklace
vintage exquisite signed french jet 2 row necklace 60s
Vintage 2 row French Jet necklace with stunning diamante clasp, signed Exquisite, circa 1960s.

 

Info guide to cameo jewellery

Antique victorian carved shell cameo brooch jewelry
Cameo Lovin’

Cameos have been treasured throughout the ages. They are made from hand carved shell, agate, marble, coral and precious gemstones, and even made from volcano lava.


Early Cameo History

It’s generally thought that cameos originated in the Middle Eastern regions over 2000 years ago. They wouldn’t have been used for the decorative purposes we love them for today – cameos were statement objects. They might depict the portrait of the King or Ruler of the time (therefore showing political allegiance of the wearer), or show a religious icon. Cameos were also used as amulets and charms to guard against evil spirits and promote good luck. The main materials used in the making of ancient cameos were precious gemstones and hard-stones such as marble and agates – shell cameos were considered inferior imitations only to be worn by the poor.

 

How to tell real from fake cameos jewelry
ABOVE: A hard-stone carved cameo ring. This early 20th Century piece is made from hard stone agate – cameos like this are usually considered superior to cameos made from shells.



The Cameo Jewellery Golden Era


Although cameos have been esteemed throughout history (Queen Elizabeth I and Napoleon Bonaparte were famously both avid collectors), the heyday of cameo jewellery was between the 18th and 19th Century. They were loved in royal circles and the aristocracy around Europe, who at the time dictated the fashions trends of the time. This period was also the time of the famous Grand Tours,  where the wealthy members of high society would travel extensively around Europe, soaking up new cultures. Italy was an especially popular destination due to its prestigious history in arts and culture. Most of the finest cameos came from there, and were often bought as souvenirs, or sent back home as a gift for loved ones.

How to tell real from fake cameos jewelry
ABOVE: A late Victorian period shell cameo brooch, depicting Venus and Cupid. Antique cameo brooches are beautifully detailed, and often depicted scenes from Roman mythology.


Modern Cameo Jewellery


By the mid 20th Century the cameos’ popularity was ending. Though they were still being produced, the quality of the carving in many pieces became poor, with figures and portraits being much cruder than their life-like predecessors of the Georgian and Victorian period.

 

How to tell real from fake cameos jewelry How to tell real from fake cameos jewelry

ABOVE: Two cameos. The left one dates from the 19th Century Victorian period, while the one on the right is from the 1960s. Note the difference in quality, with the older cameo benefiting from far superior carving.

 

The cameo is once again seeing a new lease of life. The 21st Century is bringing new state of the art techniques to the craft, such as laser and ultrasonic stone carvings; portraits of pets and loved ones are notable growing areas. These new cameo artisans use lasers to carve the stone while working from emailed photographs, to create a perfect likeness. It seems no matter what happens throughout history, the art of the cameo survives, adapts and flourishes.

How Cameos Are Made


A cameo is carved from one piece of shell or stone such as agate. Shells and stones are naturally layered in colour, for example, the underside may be dark brown, whilst the top may be white in colour. A cameo-carver artisan, due to their years of training, knows how to carve the shell or stone, so that the “white” part is the picture (eg, a lady), and the background is the dark part of the shell or stone. If you do a search for cameo carving on youtube, you’ll see some good videos of this.

Cameo carving is a highly skilled craft, which involves a long apprenticeship and a complete understanding of the materials being used. The basic theory behind both hard stone and shell carving is that the artist develops a deep knowledge of how best to cut and shape a material, so the different coloured layers of shell or stone can be carved and manipulated to their best advantage. For example, a piece of agate may have three layers of colour (eg brown at the bottom, white in the centre, and black at the top). The artisans use their knowledge to take advantage of the layers, leaving the brown as a flat base, the white above this is carved as the portrait, and the black above that is carved into hair. This gives the lifelike 3-D appearance of the fine cameos we see.


‘Fake’ or reproduciton cameos jewellery


As with all fine jewellery, you’ll always find fakes and costume jewellery copies. While most people are honest in describing their cameos, you will occasionally come across people trying to pass on costume jewellery copies as a real carved cameo.  Reproduction cameos are made from plastic or glass. The most common plastic cameo depicts a side portrait of a young lady with her long hair tied in a ponytail – this is the cameo portrait you see in all the high street shops.


Plastic cameos

There are also some beautifully detailed plastic cameos depicting mythology on the market, usually dating from around the 1960s, which to a beginner may look real. Plastic cameos feel warm and slightly soft, not hard and ‘clinky’ like shell. The background can also give you clues – the colour is often a little too bright or pink in plastics. Tap a cameo gently on your front teeth if unsure – plastic cameos feel warm and make a slightly ‘dull’ thud sound, while shell and agate are hard, cold and make a lighter ‘clink’. Finally, you could always try a hot pin test (though this could damage the jewellery and its price, so it’s not recommended). Take a very hot sewing pin (hold it with pliers) and touch the cameo with it in an inconspicuous place. Most plastics will melt, while glass, agate or shell won’t.

How to tell real from fake cameos jewelry How to tell real from fake cameos jewelry

ABOVE: Two good quality plastic cameo brooches. Note the unrealistic background colour on the left one, and the molded look of the right one.



Glass cameos

Glass cameos tend to be either one uniform colour such as cream, black or turquoise, or two contrasting colours (eg black background and a glued on opaque white portrait). Glass is cold to touch (like stone), but the quality is not there. They often look quite molded with little true detail, and sometimes have dyed areas especially around the hair that imitate ‘dirt’. Glass and plastic cameos tend to be thicker and chunkier than agate, while shell cameos are very thin. Occasionally agate cameos can be ‘faked’, with a carved agate portrait being glued to a different agate background (this is called a cameo doublet). A good magnifying glass can help you spot this.

 

How to tell real from fake cameos jewelryABOVE: Glass cameos have been with us for many years. This one dates from the late 19th Century, and it imitates the very expensive angel-skin coral cameos that were around at that same time. Note the beige colour varnish glaze the glass has been given, to imitate dirt (angelskin coral cameos became dirty very quickly).



Collecting plastic or glass cameos is a fun hobby in its own right – many of them are beautiful to look at and are durable enough to worn everyday. The problem begins when people try to pass them on as real.


Cameo Themes, Valuation and Starting a Cameo Collection


Putting a value to cameos can be daunting if you’re new to the subject. Many factors have to be taken into account, including materials used (eg shell, volcanic lava or gemstones), quality of the carving, and if subject matter is rare or not. A big factor is also condition. Hold a shell cameo up to the light and you may see lines and cracks. This is not desirable, and any damage to a cameo can affect its value (unless the subject matter is rare or sought after).  Some cameos are set into solid gold or silver, though confusingly if the carving quality of a gold set cameo is poor, then it’s often not worth as much as a highly detailed top quality carved cameo in plain base metal.


Portrait Cameos

Most cameos are portraits. Right facing is most common, then left facing after that, and very occasionally you may see a forward facing portrait. Beautiful women are the most common subject, with male profiles being less available and more sought after. The rarest are blackamoors, and these are the most collectable (and expensive).



Mythological Cameos
Cameos depicting scenes from Roman mythology were made up until the early 1900s, and are always highly sought after. Popular themes are:


1.The Three Graces ( three dancing women side by side)

2. Hebe and Zeus ( a swan swooping down from the sky towards a lady)

3. Diana the Moon Goddess ( has a moon crescent in her hair)

4. Bacchus the God of Wine/ Intoxication (has grapes in the hair)

5. Athena/ Minerva Goddess of Wisdom, Warriors and the Arts (female warrior with helmet)

6. Peace- Psyche & the Dove (beautiful woman with dove bird)

7. Poseidon/ Neptune (holds a pronged trident)

8. St George and the Dragon

9. Apollo (laurel wreath in his hair)

10. Venus and Cupid (Venus is always a beautiful lady, sometimes playing a harp and if you see a small winged cherub it’s Cupid).

How to tell real from fake cameos jewelryABOVE: A Victorian cameo depicting Hebe and Zeus (as an eagle). Note the fine quality carving of the brooch. Unfortunately, this one has a crack down one side, which in most cases severely affect the price. However, this cameo was quite special; it had a secret glass compartment at the back which could hold a keepsake – almost unheard of in cameo jewellery.



Other subjects in cameo jewellery.


Cameos of flowers are popular when beginning a collection as they can still be purchased quite cheaply. Occasionally you’ll find cameos depicting rural farm scenes, or animals such as horses. These were often private commissions, and can be highly detailed. Value depends on the theme and quality, and will usually in the same price region as the mythology cameos.

 

How to tell real from fake cameos jewelry How to tell real from fake cameos jewelry

ABOVE: Two rural scene cameos. The one on the left is tiny (less than an inch), and dates from the Georgian period. The right one is from the 20th Century, and shows a cheeky peeping tom boy looking at a girl bathing in the river.



Dating Cameos


Nothing beats personal experience when it comes to learning how to date a cameo. Go to antiques fairs and vintage jewellery shops and handle as many as possible. Get a feel for them – look at the metal settings, quality of carving and subject matter. Some guidelines below may help:


1. Look at the clasp. This is always a good indication of age. ‘Roll over clasps’ are modern, and won’t really be seen on pre 1920s jewellery. A plain ‘c-clasp’ (ie the brooch pin loops under a c shaped piece of metal with no ‘roll over’ fitting) are a good indication of a possible old/ antique brooch.The pin is a giveaway too. Pre 1920s pins were set in a T-shape.

2. What is the subject? Mythology shell cameos usually date from the 18th Century to the very early 20th Century. Portraits can give hints of age too, and here I’m going to share with you a dealers secret! Look at the persons nose. A strong ‘Roman’ nose indicates pre 1860s. Straighter noses are Victorian, while tiny pert noses are contemporary 20th/ 21st Century. Chunky rounded ladies are generally Victorian in origin Cameos made from Whitby Jet or lava are usually Georgian or Victorian.


Modern vintage (ie after the 1930s) cameos are usually portraits of pretty young dainty ladies, with flowers on their hair. Some cameos wear necklaces which are set with sparking stones such as diamonds. These are known as habille cameos.

 

How to tell real from fake cameos jewelry
ABOVE: This is a T-bar pin attachment, only found on pre-1930s jewellery.

Modern laser cut agate cameos are easy to identify, having a vivid background colour (usualluy blue or pink) and white portrait . The portraits are incredibly detailed – often too detailed! Hair is let loose and swirly, and the whole cameo has a wispy, almost Art Nouveau dreamy feel. This type of cameo also can feel slightly ‘gritty’ when gently rubbed across your teeth, whereas the old agate cameos feel much smoother like glass.


Caring For Your Cameo Jewellery


Shell cameos need a little TLC once a year. Simply wash them gently in weak soapy water and dry thoroughly. Rub a little mineral oil all over front and back and leave to soak in for a couple of hours, after which you can wipe away all the access. By treating (called feeding) the cameo in this way once a year you are protecting it from drying out and cracking, preserving it for future generations to enjoy and admire.

Ten jewellery stones that are totally cool (and not a diamond in sight!)

Bored of bling?

Fed up with playing it safe?

If it’s amazing character and a touch of the unusual you’re after in your jewellery, then check out these eye-catching stones  ..

 

Vintage Scottish agate and silver brooch with citrine gemstone jewellery deco
Citrine  is the official name bestowed upon orange to yellow colour quartz gemstone. When it’s this size, and bursts with this much fire, it blows other gems out of the water.

 

9k yellow gold blue topaz trilogy ring jewellery 9ct
If you want big statement rocks that ooze quality, but are also on budget, then topaz is your best friend! With its huge variety of colours and almost pure water like clarity (even in big stones – few inclusions with this baby!), topaz is the perfect go-to all rounder gemstone.
art deco foil backed glass opal pink paste ring vintage jewellery
Is it an opal? Is it a rare rock crystal? Nope, this beauty dates from the 1930s,  is made from good old glass.
vintage 60s butterfly wing earrings jewellery morpho
Though not everyone’s cup of tea, butterfly wing jewellery is made from yep, you’ve guessed it .. the real butterfly wings of the Morpho butterfly.  Before recoiling horror too much, the butterflies involved passed away naturally before being collected up and used to create stunning jewelry. There are surprising conservation aspects to this type of jewelry too – areas of South American rainforests have been saved and even re-planted for the sole purpose of encouraging the breeding of Morphos butterflies for jewellery.
Art Deco carved agate hardstone cameo ring in 9ct gold vintage jewellery
Cameos are one of the oldest forms of jewellery in the world. Get a good quality one, and it’ll be a talking point (and heirloom) for years to come.
Antique Victorian Pietra Dura micro mosaic brooch jewelry
Pietra Dura jewellery involves placing carefully selected thin slivers of real gemstone such as Malachite and Lapis Lazuli, and setting it into carved out onyx to create stunning pictures. Most examples date from the 1800s, like this exquisite Pietra Dura brooch, which originates from Italy, circa 1870s.
vintage art deco pools of light rock quartz crystal onyx gemstone undrilled bead necklace silver jewelry
Pools of Light necklaces are made from undrilled and highly polished natural water-clear rock crystal orbs wrapped in patterned sterling silver, and are sought after around the world, both by jewellery collectors and crystal healers. When one these beauties catches the light, you’ll know about it! The necklace shown has the added bonus of being made with an unusual mix of clear rock crystal and black onyx gemstone-  some crystal healers believe onyx enhances the effect of any gemstone it is placed with.
18ct gold alexandrite russian gemstone colour change jewellery 18k
Often called the stone of true gem connoisseurs, Alexandrite has a stunning quality which means it changes colour (from emerald green to ruby red) in different light conditions.  It is also very rare, and was the favourite gemstone of Russian aristocracy.
vintage blue john quartz silver drop earrings jewellery
Did you know that England has it’s very of internationally sought after gemstone? Deep in the hills of Derbyshire is a gemstone called ‘Blue John’, noted for it’s beautiful blue-purple colour and vivid golden veining.
Victorian Scottish Agate plaid pebble brooch, vintage antique jewellery
With its infinite variety of colours and one of a kind range of patterns, the humble yet beautiful agate is found all around the world. This antique Victorian brooch was made in Scotland circa 1870s, and displays the types of agate found around the Scottish coast – agate experts are able to immediately identify the exact part of Scotland each slice came from!

 

Further reading:

More info about butterfly farming and conservation:

Papillon Belle

Meet Me On The Bright Side

A blog post I wrote about about butterfly jewellery can be found here

 

The Blue John from Derbyshire, England:

Blue John on Wikipedia  – great article

Blue John mine tours can be found here and here

Here’s a past blog post I wrote about Blue John.

 

Types of gold plating .. what do those letters on gold tone jewellery mean?

RG…..GF…… gold HGE……Gold bonded……GP…..Vermeil……Gold layered.

Have you ever looked at gold jewellery on a website and come across the above words and initials in the description? Do you wonder what they mean?

identifying initial letter stamps on gold plated jewellery fakes GP HGE tips
Read on for tips on how to identify your gold coloured jewellery!

You’re not alone. I’ve had quite a few emails over the years which have asked for my help in explaining the letters on gold looking jewellery that someone has purchased. Virtually every time I’ve had to be the bearer of bad news; they’ve been conned and their expensive ‘solid 18kgp ring’ is actually gold plated costume jewellery.

Sadly, some unscrupulous sellers give a rather ‘creative’ description of their jewellery for sale, which tries to gloss over the fact that their jewelry is not real – it’s gold plated.

So today, look no further than the Jewellery Muses’ quick glance guide to identifying letter stamps and initials on jewelry which are used to describe gold-tone/ gold-plated metal …

~ RG – means rolled gold.  This is gold sheet (usually 12K or 14k) that is rolled into a tube, and then filled with a base (ie non precious) metal such as brass.  This process gives a longer lasting gold colour than normal gold plating, and is often stamped on jewellery: 1/20 12kt GF or 1/20 14kt RG for example.

vintage rolled gold pink deco glass bead necklace
Many old vintage glass bead necklaces were threaded on rolled gold wire, which is most commonly slightly square shaped and thicker than normal wire. Rolled gold wire also develops a nice patina like normal low grade gold (eg 9k), and is not prone to wear.

~ GF – means gold filled, which is simply another name for rolled gold.  RG and GF are more durable than gold plated metal.

art deco vintage pink glass opal diamante ring
A ‘RG’ stamped rolled gold art deco ring. Note how well it’s lasted; rings are notoriously prone to damage, yet this one is nearly 100 years old and is only now showing signed of wear to the metal. Rolled gold (aka gold filled) metal is a perfect bridge between costume jewellery and more expensive fine solid gold jewellery.

~ GOLD OVERLAY – again means a type of rolled gold; a gold sheet (usually 14k) that is rolled into a tube, and then filled with a base (ie non precious) metal.

~ GP – stands for gold plating, a process which involves spraying a fine layer of gold onto base metal.  GP jewelry tends to lose the gold coating with day to day wear after a while.

vintage 70s toledo damascene pendant jewelry
The back of what was once a brilliant bright gold-plated circa 1980s pendant, which has now faded and worn out

~ HGE – means Heavy Gold Electroplate, a slightly thicker coating of gold onto base metal than standard gold plating.

~ HGP – also see HGE, means a heavier gold plate, a slightly thicker coating of gold onto base metal than standard gold plating.

vintage sapphire glass paste cz ring deco (2) (640x617)
Some rings offered online have  ‘creative’ descriptions, such as ‘For sale: solid 18KHGE white gold and blue sapphire CZ ring‘, a description which in real life means nothing more than a cheap and pretty costume jewellery ring made with a sapphire coloured fake stone and white gold plated metal.

~ LAYERED GOLD – another type of gold plating.

~ GOLD BONDED – another type of gold plating, or occasionally used to describe rolled gold.

~ VERMEIL – this is genuine 925 sterling silver which has been given a thick coating of gold (normally 14k or 18k).  Base metal which has been gold plated cannot by law be described as vermeil, only genuine gold-plated sterling silver can.

vintage shell cameo brooch
If you come across a piece of jewellery that has a ‘925’ stamp on it, but it’s gold coloured, then you have a piece of true vermeil jewellery, like this vermeil frame shell cameo brooch.

~ HAMILTON GOLD – brass toned metal with gold plated finish; generally only used on watches.

~ PINCHBECK GOLD – an early gold imitation, invented in the 18th century and made from an alloy of zinc and copper.  True pinchbeck items are very rare and worth a lot of money.  Nowadays, the term ‘pinchbeck’ generally means any type of antique faux gold.

Antique victorian carved shell cameo brooch jewelry
Many dealers will describe any type of antique gold looking metal as ‘Pinchbeck’, but real genuine pinchbeck is hard to find! Always ask a seller if their pinchbeck is real, or just their general description for gold plate.

~ GOLD TONE / GOLD – COLOUR – jewellery that is gold coloured, not real gold.

vintage 80s gold tone snake chain flower necklace drop daggers (3)
A cute gold tone necklace. Gold tone costume jewellery is often described as being made from ‘pot metal’ ‘mixed metal’ or ‘base metal’, which means there is no real gold used in the item (other than perhaps a thin layer of gold-plate)

~ GOLD LEAF – a type of gold plating.

Look out for descriptions such as “fantastic genuine solid 18k HGE gold ring”, or “solid 14KGP gold ring”.  If you see any of these phrases, words or initials in the description of a jewellery item then be aware that the jewellery will not be genuine solid gold.

Two Final Quick Tips:

~ Just because something has a gemstone in it doesn’t mean it will automatically be encased in real gold. Low grade gemstones (or lab created gemstones/lab-diamonds) can be dirt cheap to buy, and might be used to make gold plated jewellery appear more ‘real’.

 

Beginner’s Guide & Info On Victorian Mourning Jewellery

One of the most fascinating areas of vintage jewellery is the genre known as mourning jewellery. When Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert died at the early age 42, she was consumed with grief for many years. One of the ways she expressed this was to wear tokens of her mourning in the shape of jewellery. Whilst ‘mourning jewellery’ has been around for hundreds of years, it was the influential Queen Victoria who started the mourning fashion craze, which quickly spread amongst the masses. It was to last until her own death 40 years later.

antique victorian coral mourning brooch with weaved hair
ABOVE: an example of an early Victorian mourning brooch, made from coral and intricately weaved human hair.

What is mourning jewellery?

In times gone by, many people died at a young age because of poor diet and unhygienic lifestyles. Deadly disease was rife, and child birth was a major risk which put both mother and baby in life-threatening danger; death played a sad yet normal part of every day life. For the status obsessed and crushingly polite 19th century Victorians, mourning jewellery was a clever way of showing people what your status was (eg newly widowed or just lost a child) without the potential embarrassment of telling them. It was also worn as a sentimental reminder of the person who’d actually passed away.

The secret Language of Flowers, and hidden symbolism in Victorian mourning jewellery

The Victorians had strict codes of behavior and etiquette. Even expressing a personal feeling was often considered rude, so when someone needed to convey a message, they did so using silent symbolism, which involved giving gifts which symbolized words. For example, floral bouquets called ‘Tussie Mussie’s’ were popular during this period. They worked by letting the sender spell out a whole sentence in flowers (eg bell flowers meant “thinking of you“) to a desired recipient. Jewellery was often given for the same reason too – forget-me-not flower jewellery was especially popular as it meant ‘true love’.

ABOVE: a Victorian mourning flower brooch made from Vulcanite. The types of flowers shown here would have had great meaning to the original owner.
ABOVE: a 19th Century Victorian mourning flower brooch made from Vulcanite, which is a type of rubber material. The types of flowers shown here would have had great meaning to the original owner.

Materials used to make mourning jewellery

Natural Whitby jet from Yorkshire was one of the most sought after materials for mourning jewellery due to the natural high quality finish which could be achieved. However, it quickly became scarce and expensive due to demand, so ‘fake’ jets such as black glass (romantically called French Jet) became a cheaper alternative, as did dyed black horn, early rubberized materials (such as Vulcanite), and bog oak from Ireland.

The Victorian era was a period of immense change and fast moving innovation. Up until the 19th Century, jewellery was individually hand made, usually with precious metals, gemstones and glass (a.k.a ‘paste’ which was an expensive luxury), and was the preserve of the rich upper classes. Mourning jewellery was one of the first type of jewellery that was mass produced in large numbers, and was so low priced it could be worn by the general population, not just the aristocracy.

ABOVE: This necklace is made from Vulcanite (aka Ebonite), a 19th Century hard rubberized man-made material which could be mass produced. These chunky chain links were the height of fashion for Victorian ladies.
ABOVE: This Victorian antique necklace is made from Vulcanite, a 19th Century hard rubberized man-made material which could be mass produced. These chunky chain links were the height of fashion for Victorian ladies.
ABOVE: a Victorian antique Vulcanite morning brooch, depicting ivy (which means true love).
ABOVE: a Victorian antique Vulcanite morning brooch, depicting ivy (which often means true love).
ABOVE: This Victorian pendant is made from a Vulcanite base, while the grapes are made from French Jet, which is a fancy term for black glass. Grapes symbolise charity.
ABOVE: This antique Victorian pendant is made from a Vulcanite base, while the grapes are made from French Jet, which is a fancy term for black glass.
ABOVE: a typical hand carved Whitby jet mourning brooch.
ABOVE: a typical hand carved antique Victorian Whitby jet mourning brooch.
PhotobuckABOVE: a rare 19th Century Whitby Jet mourning necklace, made from hand faceted beads. Whitby Jet was believed to be the finest of all the jet gemstones, and was prized by the Victorians. It's still highly desirable today.et
ABOVE: a rare 19th Century antique Whitby Jet mourning necklace, made from hand faceted beads. Whitby Jet was believed to be the finest of all the jet gemstones, and was prized by the Victorians. It is still highly desirable today.
ABOVE: A Victorian mourning necklace, made from French Jet (aka black glass). Real jet jewellery was expensive and rare - French Jet was an affordable alternative for Victorian fashion lovers.
ABOVE: An antique Victorian mourning necklace, made from French Jet (aka black glass). Real jet jewellery was expensive and rare – French Jet was an affordable alternative for Victorian fashion lovers.
ABOVE: a black enamel and woven hair Victorian mourning brooch, made from two tones of human hair - probably the hair of the deceased and their widowed partner, woven together.
ABOVE: a black enamel and woven hair antique Victorian mourning brooch, made from two tones of human hair – possibly the hair of the deceased and their widowed partner, woven together.
ABOVE: a black enamel and blond woven human hair Victorian mourning brooch. This is a basic example of Victorian hair weaving - the more elaborate ones are breathtaking in their creation and impossibly intricate weaving.
ABOVE: a black enamel and blond woven human hair antique Victorian mourning brooch. This is a basic example of Victorian hair weaving – the more elaborate ones are breathtaking in their creation and impossibly intricate weaving.
ABOVE: a woven hair (horse tail) Victorian pocket watch chain
ABOVE: horses were highly prized in Victorian times, and this a antique Victorian pocket watch chain has been woven with the hair tail of a much loved horse. This is the only type of mourning jewellery that is still popular today,with many companies still specializing in sentimental horse hair jewellery.
ABOVE: a Victorian Whitby jet mourning bracelet, which looks and feels as new today as it did when it was first made over 120 years ago.
ABOVE: a Victorian Whitby jet mourning bracelet, which looks and feels as new today as it did when it was first made over 120 years ago.


You can learn how to identify jewellery materials such as Vulcanite and Whitby Jet in this blog post.

Collecting mourning jewellery

Original jewellery from the Victorian period was made to last, and can still be found quite easily today. Vulcanite, horn, Whitby Jet and bog oak brooches are common, though necklaces, rings and bracelets are rare and command much higher prices. The most sought after antique mourning jewellery is made from enameled precious metals and includes impossibly intricate hair weaving.

Finally, a type of jewellery called ‘Memento Mori’ (which is Latin for ‘Remember you will die’), at first looks quite similar to mourning jewellery. However, it dates back to around the 1600s, and was slightly different in that it was generally worn as a reminder of one’s own mortality and fleeting time on earth, rather than an actual mourning trinket of someone else’s death. You can recognize antique Memento Mori items straight away due to their disturbing imagery, which includes brooches depicting miniature paintings of coffins, rings set with tiny carved skulls instead of gemstones, and even pictures of rotting corpses on bracelets.

Info guide to vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

Info about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

info about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry

An introduction to Siam Silver jewellery – what exactly is it?

If you’ve ever come across big black enameled jewellery depicting dancing figures, then it might be a piece of Siam Silver jewellery. These stunning creations were hand made in Siam (now called Thailand), and the figures, buildings or animals created in the jewellery usually depict characters and scenes from Buddhist and Hindu tales and religious text. The country of Siam changed its name to Thailand in 1939, changing it back to Siam in 1945, and then was finally renamed Thailand in 1949. The above photo shows a typical “Mekkalah, Goddess of Lightening” Siam Silver vintage niello brooch. Jewellery is usually stamped ‘Made in Siam‘ on the back, though later pieces were could be stamped either ‘Siam’ and ‘Thailand’.

Most Siam jewellery you find is made from some grade of silver (often 925 sterling), with black ‘enamel ‘ style detail. The black and silver jewellery is called Siam Silver nielloware, after the black enamel style technique called niello used in its creation. Occasionally you may see fabulous coloured Siam Silver, with green, blue, red and white enameling instead of black niellowork.

 

info about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry
Most vintage Siam Silver is made from a mix of black niello and silver

 

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery
Occasionally you’ll find coloured enamel Siam jewellery, like this rare yellow enamel Siam Silver bracelet.

It’s generally believed that Siam Silver jewellery became fashionable in the Western Hemisphere between the 1930s -1970s. A popular theory is that people working in Thailand sent home this beautiful jewellery as gifts for loved ones, and collections grew from there. This is probably a true story in regards to its general recent popularity, though it’s important to note that the country of Thailand has a rich history in metal work and enameling techniques; Siam Silver nielloware has been quietly collected in aristocratic and royal circles for centuries.

 

What do we mean by Niellowork?

This is a special type of black colouring technique dating back over 3000 years. No one knows for sure who invented it, though Egypt, Cyprus, Syria and Thailand all lay claim to its discovery. Types of niello technique have been used in other countries too, including Great Britain.

Niello is more like an amalgam/ metal alloy than a true enamel, usually being a mixture of silver, copper, lead and sulfur. The term ‘niello’ has Latin origins (developing from the words nigellus, Latin for black).

To make niello jewellery, a highly trained artisan carves out the metal so the it has a raised border and raised character, picture or pattern. The hollow area (ie the bit they have just carved out) is then filled with the niello compound, and baked in an oven until hard and set. The jewellery is given a final buff and polish and any final details to the characters are added by engraving techniques. Though basic in theory, this technique can produce some truly spectacular results. Actual recipes for the niello used in Siam Silver were a guarded secret of the artisans, which may explain the difference in quality and lustre of the jewellery.

 

What is the story behind Siam Silver jewellery?

The main characters you will see in Siam Silver jewellery are Mekkala, The Goddess of Lightening, and Ramasoon, the Thunder God. I read on a Thailand holiday forum a few years ago, that they are from a mythological tale told to many Thailand children about the origins of thunder and lightening (and not from the Ramayana, as is sometimes suggested):

Ramasoon fell in love with the beautiful Mekkala, but she didn’t love him back. In a jealous rage, he threw his axe at her so he could injure and capture her, but Mekkala was able to defend herself with her famous magical crystal ball. As the axe struck this ball, it created a massive flash of light. This was the first ever lightening. Defeated, Ramasoon created darkness and rain so he could retreat undercover. He still waits for Mekkala to this day. When he sees her, Ramasoon once again throws his axe to injure and capture her, though is always thwarted by the crystal ball that defends Mekkala and flashes brightly as the axe hits it.

This story is so well known in this region of the world that in 2002 and 2008 two major tropical storms were named after Ramasoon.

 

guide to history vintage Siam silver niello jewellery
A red enamel Siam Silver brooch, showing Ramasoon on the left (with axe), and Mekkala on the right (with lightening coming from her hand).

Many other images depicted are based on characters from Ramayana legend (aka the Ramakien, which is the Thai version of this massive and complex epic). It is ancient Indian/ Hindu in origin, and tells the story of Rama, who is a reincarnation on earth, of the Hindu God Vishnu. Though Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, the Ramayana is one of the most important works of literature in the country, telling moral tales about conflicts of duty, the concept of dharma and obligations in life.

 

Characters in Siam Silver Jewellery. Characters marked

1. Mekkala(h), the Goddess of Lightening – shown with lightning bolts coming from her hand. A well known figure in Thai culture. This is by far the most common character depicted in Siam jewellery, and is the theme you normally see in Siam jewellery.

2. Ramasoon, the God of Thunder
– shown with an axe in his hand. Often shown with Mekkala. Common.

3. Nang Fa, the Fairy of Happiness – looks like she’s dropping stardust from her hand to the floor. Uncommon

4. Matcha, the Mermaid Queen – has a fish/mermaid tail instead of legs. Sometimes shown with Hanuman, she appears with him in the Ramakien. Common.

5. Hanuman, King of Monkeys – a clothed revered monkey-diety holding a sword. Sometimes shown with Matcha. This is due to a Ramakien tale of Hanuman being sent by Prince Rama to build a bridge over Queen Matcha’s Sea Kingdom, but the Monkey King falls in love with her instead. Common.

6. Thepanom, a Thailand Guardian Angel deity – sits devoutly with hands in prayer position, with a flame like motif behind the head. Common.

7. Erawan (aka Airavata), Three Headed Elephant: a multi-headed elephant king, well known in Hinduism. Erawan carries Indra (the Hindu God of rain and thunderstorms) on its back. Mentioned in the Ramayana. Uncommon.

8. Phra Samut Chedi (a.k.a Phra Chedi Klang Nam), The Floating Pagoda, a world famous temple pagoda building in Thailand (located in the Phra Samut Chedi District) which floats on water. Common.

9. Suphanahongse, The Royal Barges; a collection of ornate boats now housed in the Royal Barge National Museum on Bangkok Noi Canal. Common.

10. Lord Rama, (Prince/ Lord) – revered Hindu God who is central to the Ramayana epic; depicted with a bow and arrow. Rare.

11. Dancing Angel – depicted with a long curved garland (looks like rope) held behind the back. Were possibly warriors who were magically turned into angels (Ramayana). Common.

12. Garuda (Garunda) – a winged mythical creature – a cross between human and eagle and is found in both Hindu and Buddhism. It forms part of the national symbol of Thailand and is an emblem of the King of Thailand. Uncommon.

13. Sword dancer – figure holding up two swords. Using a sword in both hands is a method commonly used some Thai martial arts and in many traditional dances. Uncommon.

14. Kinnara (Kinnaris) – a celestial half-woman, half- swan like bird creature. Her upper body is that of a woman, her lower body and legs are that of a bird. Rare.

 

Siam Silver can occasionally show subjects such as animals (mainly elephants), signs of the zodiac, dancers (male and female), and symbols (often special commissions).

 

info about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery
White enamel Siam silver brooch shows Hanuman (the Monkey King) and Matcha (Queen of the Mermaids).
info about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery
Vintage black niello Siam shield brooch which depicts a Thailand Sword Dancer.
info about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery
Vintage black niello brooch depicting the God Indra riding Erawen, the elephant king.
guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry
Siam Silver niello cufflink which depict the Dancing Angels.
info about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery
Siam nielloware brooch shows Garunda (a.k.a Garuda), with the Hindu God Vishnu riding it. Garuda is the emblem of Thailand Royalty.
guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry
Chedi Klang Nam/ Phra Samut Chedi, The Floating Pagoda

 

 

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery
Vintage Siam Silver tie pin which shows Thepanom
guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry
Some Siam silver depicts signs of the zodiac, such as this tie pin which shows the crab of Cancer.


 

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewellery
From left, Theponom, Nang Fa, an elephant and the rare Kinnara on right of the frame.
guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry
From left, Erewan, Matcha, Hanuman and Mekkala. (with thanks to R.B for these two above photos)

 

vintage siam silver kinnera niello brooch (3)
The rare Kinnara, a mythical half woman half swan creature, who represents the feminine aspects of love, strength and courage.

 

Types of Siam Silver jewellery – beginning a collection.

One of the wonderful things about Siam Silver is the sheer variety of jewellery. No two pieces are exactly the same – each is unique. Even the most common types that depict Mekkala show her in an almost infinite variety of settings and surrounding filigree metal work.

When collecting you will mostly see brooches, pendants, earrings, cufflinks, tie-pins, and bracelets. More rare are bangles, rings and necklaces. Black nielloware is usually seen, though coloured enamels are sought after by collectors too.

 

vintage siam silver orange red brooch enamel (2)
A beautiful orange – red colour enamel brooch showing Mekkala, Goddess of Lightening.

 

guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry
Vintage blue enamel Siam silver brooch
guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry
Unusual multi-coloured Siam silver panel bracelet
guide about vintage Siam silver niello jewelry
Rare yellow vintage Siam silver panel bracelet

 

 

Price depends on many things, including the jewellery size, shape, colour, characters depicted, or jewellery type – each collector is as different as the jewellery itself! Mekkala, Goddess of Lightening niello brooches are a great starting point for budding collectors as they can still be purchased for a reasonable price, and there are a huge variety of styles to discover. Expect to pay slightly more for the pendants, earrings and bracelets. Fancy necklaces, bangles and Siam Silver accessories such as cigarette cases usually fetch the highest prices.

 

The Future of Siam Silver Jewellery

The sheer beauty and variety of designs are what makes Siam Silver jewellery popular to wear and collect.. However, many people love it because of its cultural, religious and spiritual significance too. Whatever your reason for buying Siam Silver, one thing is for sure – you’ll treasure this amazing story-telling jewellery for years to come.

No Siam nielloware article is complete without a reference to vintage niello researcher and Siam silver expert Charles Dittell and his website www.siamman.com, with thanks for sharing with the world his ground-breaking research into the genre. Please do check his wonderful website out!

UPDATE MARCH 2014: I recently purchased Charles Dittell’s eBook about Siam Silver called Survey of Siam Sterling Nielloware (which is available for download via his shop or Amazon) – and can thoroughly 100% recommend it! The eBook is packed with so much info I’d never come across before – it’s a must read for Siam lovers and collectors.

 

Further reading/ references:

Info about Kinnara:

http://www.harekrsna.com/philosophy/associates/demons/classes/singers.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinnara

Info about the Royal Barge:

http://www.thaiwave.com/benjarong/variety/royalbarges.htm

Info about the Floating Pagoda:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phra_Samut_Chedi_District

http://www.paknam.com/tourist-attractions/phra-samut-chedi.html

Info about Garuda:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garuda

Lots of info on nielloware in Thailand:

http://www.rubenvasquez.com/niello/history.htm

Info about the Ramayana:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramayana

Learning Info Guide About Vintage Micro Mosaic Jewellery

antique vintage micro mosaic pendant roma jewellery
Micro mosaics

If any type of jewellery could call itself a true work of art it would be the micro mosaic. Tiny glass tiles (called tesserae) are crafted together and placed carefully into cement to produce incredible ‘micro mosaic’ pictures, which are then set into jewellery. Micro mosaic work date back over 2000 years, and usually originates from Europe – Italy being its most famous producer. Micro mosaic work also has an established history in the Middle East too, but for this guide I’ll be concentrating on Italian mosaic work.

Antique Victorian conch pink shell cameo and micro mosaic glass brooch jewelry
ABOVE: An antique hand carved pink and white shell cameo brooch, with an intricate micro mosaic frame border. This Victorian brooch was made in Italy, which was world famous for both it’s cameos and mosaic work. This beautiful piece of jewellery is a perfect partnership between the two techniques.

A Brief History of Mosaics

The height of popularity for the micro mosaic was in the 17th to 19th Century, during a period of time called the Grand Tour era. Men and women of rich European families would travel around Europe, taking in the sights and cultures of different countries. Italy was a very popular tourist spot as it had a long and prestigious history in arts and culture – a favourite subject in aristocratic circles. It was also a famous glass wear producer, and canny Italian craftsmen quickly turned their glass making skills into making stunning miniature pictures out of glass tiles for their rich tourists.

Vintage art deco micro mosaic glass earrings jewelry 1920s 1930s clip on
A pair of vintage clip on micro mosaic earrings.

Micro mosaic work jewellery of this period usually depicted famous Italian landmarks such as Vatican Square or the Collusium, though occasionally Roman mythology was a subject too. The richest tourists would even commission their own mosaics, with flowers, animals or famous works of art being a favourite subject. The small size of the micro mosaic was particularly appealing; they could be worn on the Grand Tourists continuing journey, or sent back home to loved ones as a kind of fore-runner to our modern postcards. By the early 20th Century the micro mosaic heyday was nearing its end, with the higher quality jewellery ceasing to be made. Micro mosaics still continue to be produced, though usually in much cruder forms which normally depict simple flowers.

Vintage 1970s micro mosaic kitsch flower glass jewelry
ABOVE: A standard vintage micro mosaic brooch, dating from the 1970s

Types of Micro Mosaic


Mosaic: Also known as standard mosaic, it dates from the late 19th Century to today. These are the items of mosaic jewellery you normally see. Glass tiles are quite large and chunky, often resembling millefiori glass cabochons rather than actual individual tile pictures. Oval or round brooches are common, as are bold bracelets and simple earrings. Sometimes brooches are in the shape of guitars or crucifixes. Most people start their collection with this type of jewellery, as it is more affordable and durable enough to wear everyday.

Pendant cross micro mosaic crucifix jewelry Italian
A crucifix standard mosaic pendant, made in the year 2000 in celebration of Christ’s birth.

ABOVE: A crucifix standard mosaic pendant, made in the year 2000 in celebration of Christ’s birth.

Micro Mosaic: Also known as Roman or true micro mosaic, these are much finer quality than Standard Mosaics, sometimes having many tiny tiles per inch. The finished micro mosaic was fixed into a setting such as French Jet or Aventurine Goldstone, and would sometimes be of such high quality it could pass as a painted picture. Because of its delicate nature very few true micro mosaics are nowadays in perfect condition – small chips, cracks or odd missing tiles are quite normal. Be prepared to pay a lot of money for a high quality and good condition micro mosaic if you find one!

Pietra Dura: Also known as Florentine (Florence was a major producer of this type of mosaic work). This craft is slightly different than the others. Small and very thin slices of genuine stone (such as marble, agate or lapis lazuli) were inlaid into a larger flat stone to create a simple yet contrasting coloured design. Flowers were the most common subject, with light coloured petals contrasting with a black stone background being a particular favourite. Again, this was highly skilled work, and good quality pietra dura brooches command a high price today.

Antique Victorian 1880s Pietra Dura micro mosaic silver brooch jewelry
An antique Victorian Pietra dura brooch. Note how the slithers of green gemstone and marble have been carefully chosen for there colour gradient, which gives a natural appearance to the leaves.

ABOVE: An antique Victorian pietra dura brooch. Note how the slithers of green gemstone and marble have been carefully chosen for there colour gradient, which gives a natural appearance to the leaves.

Micro mosaics are most often made into brooches, though occasionally you’ll find mosaic earrings and bracelets too. Rare micro mosaic work can be found on rings, and micro mosaic necklaces are the most sought after. When choosing a micro mosaic to buy, always check to see if the tiles are all present; missing pieces can affect the price and desirability of an item. Also, study the metal – vintage micro mosaics are notorious for being infected with verdigris, which is a chemical reaction between the atmospheric conditions and copper metals in the jewellery. If you can see even the tiniest of green marks anywhere on the metal of the mosaic then you may have the dreaded verdigris, and it’s best to avoid the item. Verdigris is corrosive, will eventually eat away at and destroy your item, and may even infect any other items of jewellery that come into contact with it.

Antique Edwardian micro mosaic heart pendant drop collar necklace jewellry
Antique Edwardian micro mosaic heart pendant drop collar necklace
Vintage 1950s micro mosaic glass flower filigree pendant jewelry black
Vintage 1950s micro mosaic glass flower filigree pendant
Vintage 1970s heart flowers red micro mosaic charm glass bracelet jewelry
Vintage 1970s heart flowers red micro mosaic charm glass bracelet
Vintage 80s micro mosaic clip on drop flower earrings
Vintage 80s micro mosaic clip on drop flower earrings

Looking After Your Micro Mosaic Jewellery

Never soak your jewellery in water as this can damage the cement holding the tiles in place. If you mosaic is very dirty and needs cleaning, quickly scrub it very gently for a few seconds using diluted washing up liquid and a soft toothbrush. Rinse and dry immediately.

Five tips on how to date a vintage brooch…. with pictures to help!

Many people want to know about dating vintage and antique brooches, and how they can tell if a brooch is old. Here are a five tips to help you find out…

  • If you see a brooch, the first thing to do is to check out its clasp mechanisms. The ‘T-bar pins and c-clasp’ types were used from the 18th Century up until the around 1910s, after which they fell out of favour.
  • Check the length of the pin itself – the longer the pin, the older the brooch (this was perhaps due to clothing being much thicker and heavier in the old days, so a long pin was needed to keep it in place securely).
  • From around the 1910s to 1950s we occasionally see what we call in the trade ‘trombone’ clasps, which are tubular cylinders used to keep the pin itself in place rather than a c-clasp (though c-clasps were still very common in this period too).
  • Generally speaking you tend to only find roll-over  clasps on brooches made from the 1960s onwards. (Note: Early experimental prototype roll-over ‘safety’ clasps can be seen as early as the 1910s, though these are exceptionally rare – I’ve only ever seen a small handful made before the 1940s in the last 10 years).
  • There are no hard and fast rules to dating a brooch – things other than a pin and clasp are taken into account; the tips given here are general tips only for general guidance, and you may occasionally find a crude c-clasp on a piece of 1970s jewellery, or a long pin on 1980s jewellery (though T-bar hinges are never found in post 1930s jewellery, so that’s a help anyway!).

Picture time! You can see some examples of these  types of brooch clasps below, starting from the earliest type:

antique scottish agate victorian banded agate brooch jewellery dating tips
VICTORIAN T -BAR HINGES: A typical antique T-bar hinge and C-clasp shown on a brooch dating circa 1880s. The T-bar is named after the T shape of the hinge (left of picture), while the C-clasp is named after the c shaped hook catch the pin fits into (right). This type of brooch fixing was used throughout the Victorian period and up until around the Art Deco era.
antique scottish agate banded brooch 1a close up T- bar hinge jewelry dating
VICTORIAN T -BAR HINGES: Close up of an antique t-bar hinge, used on circa pre-1920s jewellery, with the blue ring circling a good example of one.
whitby jet brooch jewelry
VICTORIAN T -BAR HINGES: The back of a circa 1880s Victorian Whitby Jet mourning brooch shows a crude T-bar hinge and c-clasp.  Note the long pin, which stretches way over the brooch itself.
antique edwardian glass paste rhinestone brooch vintage dating jewelry tips
EDWARDIAN HINGES: In the early 20th Century the T-bar hinge was gradually replaced with a smaller rounded hinge, as seen on this circa Edwardian 1910s brooch (and like on the brooches we see nowadays). Note that the long pin is still popular.
vintage 1950s brown banded glass agate brooch green pearl rhinestones dating help jewellery
20TH CENTURY TROMBONE CLASPS: The trombone tube clasp never really became commonly used, and was generally seen on brooches from around the 1910s up to the 1950s. It consists of a cylinder tube within a cylinder – you pull the inner cylinder out to release the pin.
vintage 1970s rolled gold shell cameo brooch pendant (3)
A standard roll-over pin and clasp, which became the standard brooch fitting around the 1960s onwards to today. Note how short the pin itself has become, especially when compared to the long Victorian pins.
victorian vintage antique etruscan gold emerald green brooch glass
ROLL-OVER SAFETY CLASP:  A good close up of a modern roll over clasp. Just to confuse things, this is actually a repair job – a modern clasp fitting on a very old antique Victorian mourning brooch. Note the silver soldering, which gives the repair away  – the roll-over clasp has been put on there as the original 120 year old  c-clasp had broken off.  Dating old jewellery can be complicated!

Finally,  the most important tip when learning to date vintage jewellery is to handle as many pieces as possible. Go to auctions, antique fairs and proper vintage shops and have a really good look at what genuine vintage jewellery looks and feel like.