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).

 

 

 

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.

 

What’s in the Jewellery Muse’s box of tools?

UV torch jewelry

As you learn more about vintage jewellery, there are a few tools that can really help you develop your knowledge and make identifying your jewelry a lot easier (I call them my basic essentials).  Most of the following are inexpensive, and can be easily purchased over online..

1.  Jeweller’s loupe.  Aim for either  x20  or  x30 magnification.  Not just for reading hallmarks, these mega magnifiers can help you identify materials such as coral or bog oak, inclusions in gemstones, and damage that wouldn’t be seen with the naked eye.  

2.  Book of gold and silver hallmarks.  Beginners to United Kingdom gold and silver identification can’t go wrong with Bradburys Book of Hallmarks.  An easy to use pocket size booklet, yet very concise and in-depth. 

3.  Diamond tester.  If you want to start collecting fine jewellery a diamond tester is an absolute must.  These are quite expensive to buy but are an essential investment, especially as there are so many fake diamonds around. A good quality basic one is between £50 – £80, with specialist Moissanite/ diamond testers going into £100s of pounds  (Moissanites are the best quality imitation diamonds).

Diamond gemstone tester
Though an expensive outlay, a good quality diamond tester could end up saving you a lot of money if you want to venture down the gemstone jewellery path. There are lots of fakes out there!

4. UV torch light.  Some glass stones and natural gemstones will glow under ultra violet light, so this special type of torch can really help you on the way to identifying objects. Prices start from as little as £5.

5. An unglazed white tile.  Certain materials such as jet will stain the tile when gently rubbed on it, helping you in identification.  

6. A pure wool garment/ strip.  Organic materials, such as amber will often create static electricity when rubbed on wool; rub the amber on the wool vigorously, then hold a human air to it – real amber attracts the hair to it like a magnet.

What tools are in your jewellery box?

Tests for identifying jewellery materials, from Amber to Whitby Jet

Buying and collecting vintage jewellery can be so addictive once you get started, so it pays to make sure what you’ve bought is the genuine article.  Here are some tricks of the trade to help you get started!  Though these tests aren’t 100% conclusive, they can guide you in the right direction when investigating what a material is.  

***WARNING: The tests marked ‘invasive’ are here for historical information only – do not use them – they can seriously damage jewellery. ***

Tests for antique mourning jewellery materials such as Whitby Jet can be found at the very bottom of the page.

How to test amber gemstones jewelry real fake tips
Testing amber

AMBER

Amber is fossilized tree resin which is millions of years old.  It can come in a variety of colours, from light yellow and green to dark brown-red and even rare glowing blue amber from the Dominican Republic.  One of the first items used to make jewellery thousands of years ago, Amber has captivated us ever since. Unfortunately fake amber and the real thing can feel and look the exactly same, and your best bet is to get it tested by a proper expert, such as a long time amber collector (online gemology/ mineral forums are a good place to find some), registered auctioneers or fully qualified gemologist.

Test 1: There’s a lot of fake amber around the internet at the moment.  The safest and least invasive test is the static test.  Rub the amber vigorously against wool for a few seconds, then place next to a piece of paper, or a strand of hair.  Real amber creates static electricity, and should gently pull the paper or hair towards it.

Test 2: Genuine amber usually floats in sea water, so try the salt water test (only works on amber without settings ie plain loose pieces or beads).  Mix about 20-25 grams of salt into 200ml of water until it’s dissolved.  Real amber generally floats, imitations tend to sink to the bottom.

Test 3: Invasive:  The acetone test (try some brands of nail polish remover).   Put some acetone on a tiny bit of cotton wool and rub it in an tiny inconspicuous area of the amber – acetone should not affect it. Copal or some plastics become slightly tacky.  This test can massively decrease the value of you copal or plastic jewellery.

Test 4: Invasive: Hot needle test.  Heat a fine sewing needle and gently pierce the amber with it (in an inconspicuous place so it will not be seen).  Plastics will emit a chemical smell, amber will emit a sooty pine smell, with white smoke.This test can massively decrease the value of you amber jewellery.

Some amber will glow gently under UV light – but this isn’t a good test, as some plastic fake amber glows under UV light too.

How to test coral gemstones jewelry real fake tips
Coral

CORAL

This organic material comes in a variety of colours, though mainly red and sought after salmon pink.  It can be carved into cameos or polished into beads, and has a long and distinguished history in jewellery. It was poular in Victorian jewellery as it was thought to ward off illness and disease.  Coral is still popular today, and good quality vintage coral jewellery always demands a high price. 

 Test 1:  You’ll need a good jewellers loupe.  Inspect the coral closely with the loupe – it should have tiny ‘grains’ to it, similar to a grain of wood.

Test 2: Invasive: Take some lemon juice and a good magnifying glass/ jewellers loupe for this.  In an inconspicuous place, place a tiny pin-head sized drop of lemon juice on the coral.  Look at the area with a magnifying glass – tiny little bubbles should start to form from the coral if it is genuine.  Thoroughly wash the item immediately after it happens to remove all traces of lemon juice – if you don’t this test will completely ruin the coral.  This test can massively decrease the value of you coral jewellery.

How to test diamond gemstones jewelry real fake tips
Testing diamands

DIAMONDS

The only real way to test diamonds yourself is to purchase a top quality diamond tester, which includes the Moissanite test (moissanite is a type of imitation diamond).  It’s always best to take possible diamonds to your local jeweller or auctioneers for proper appraisal,because even if your jewellery is made from diamonds it can vary widely in price.  The following are only stepping stones, and must not to be used as conclusive tests.

Test 1: Breath on the stone.  A real diamond disperses the ‘breath’ mist immediately, while fakes usually remain misty for a few seconds

Test 2: Diamonds will scratch glass (though many other gemstones will too!)

Test 3:  If the stone is loose (ie, not in a setting) then try reading a word in a newspaper through it – it should be impossible to make out.

Test 4: The cost – real diamonds are not cheap!  If the price is too good to be true it usually is. 

Test 5: Colour. Fakes such as Cubic Ziconias, Diamoniques(TM) and glass are usually much ‘whiter’ in appearance than a diamond, especially when they catch the light. Diamonds can vary in colour  –  some being an almost almost translucent grey.

Test 6:  Some diamonds glow when held under black light (also known as UV or ultra violet light). 

How to test pearl gemstones jewellery real fake tips
Pearls

PEARLS

Genuine pearls feel slightly gritty when rubbed lightly against your teeth, while glass pearls or plastic pearls always feel smooth.  Plastic pearls are light to the touch.  Both glass and plastic pearls have a pearl coating which  scratches or chips off – this cannot happen with real pearls. Real pearls are often slightly mis-shapen (unless very expensive).

How to test gold gemstones jewellery real fake tips
Gold

GOLD

The best way to see if gold is real is to find its hallmarks.  However, some antique gold isn’t hallmarked, and you can buy cheap testing kits which use a special acid to test and grade the gold.  Please use these kits with extreme caution – I’ve seen dreadful damage done to antiques by well meaning people trying to test their gold.  Take your jewellery to a local jewelers or auction house for proper appraisal without damaging potentially valuable items.


Test 1: With a strong magnifying glass or jewelers loupe study the gold. Look at its edges, and the parts that come into direct contact with the skin closely.  What kind of wear can you see? Can you see any fading, or another colour showing through underneath?  If the item is scratched, can you see the colour of the metal inside the scratch – is it the same colour?   Gold is always uniform throughout its depth ie any scratches or dents to gold should only reveal more gold underneath – never another colour.

Test 2:  Grab a magnet, and hold it to the item.  Precious metals are not magnetic.

As you become used to handling a lot of gold, you’ll develop a ‘feel’  for it.  Many professionals can privately tell a good quality gold plated piece from a solid gold piece just by looking and briefly holding it, though this takes a time and practice!

How to test glass jewellery real fake tips
Testing glass

GLASS

Glass has been used as an imitation for gemstones and in costume jewellery for hundreds of years.  It is always cold and hard to the touch.  It can be opaque or clear, and molded into impressive shapes and designs.  A hot pin test will never damage glass.  When rhinestones (also called ‘pastes’) are used to imitate gemstones, they have often been coated at the back with a gold or silver coloured foil, and have a more ‘flat colour’ compared to the real thing.  Glass can also be scratched, cracked and chipped quite easily. 

The term ‘paste’  or ‘glass paste’ is the correct term used to describe any imitation stones made from glass.  French Jet is another term you may often hear- this is simply fancy name for black glass. 

How to test mourning jewery real fake tips jet glass gutta percha bog oak vulcanite
Testing old plastics

PLASTIC

Plastic is softer and warmer to touch than glass or gemstones.  It is a specialist collectors area in its own right, with Bakelite in particular attracting a huge following and prices to match.  Plastics come under ‘costume jewellery’, though many plastic Bakelite pieces can fetch over a thousand pounds at auction. 

Plastics are most commonly used to imitate Amber, Jet or Tortoise Shell.  It often has ‘seams’ where it has been joined or molded together during manufacture, where as genuine items don’t have these seams. 

Bakelite jewellery in particular is flooded with fakes, and many sellers don’t know how to test for it properly.  If you see an item of vintage Bakelite for sale always ask the seller how they know it’s genuine Bakelite.  I always use the respected Simichrome test (along with my sense of smell) to make sure any Bakelite I have is genuine.

Testing Bakelite:  Try and get hold of some Simichrome Polish, which is the easiest way to test for Bakelite.  Put a dab of the polish onto cotton wool and rub the item.  The cotton wool should turn a yellow colour.  If you can’t get hold of any Simichrome, simply rub the item vigorously until hot – it should emit a distinctive chemical odour.  Bakelite should never have any mold seams, and is very hard to the touch. 

Invasive:  Bakelite does not accept a hot needle (though a hot needle will badly damage the Bakelite by leaving a brown permanant scorch mark which decreases its value massively).  Using this test will massively decrease the value of your jewellery.

Tips on how to test bog oak jet french jet mourning jewellery vulcanite etc
How to test Victorian mourning jewellery

MATERIAL USED IN MOURNING JEWELLERY: 

  Mourning jewellery has been around for centuries and was created and worn in remembrance of loved ones.  It became hugely fashionable during the reign of Queen Victoria.  Mourning jewellery often had hidden meaning in it’s symbols (such as flowers or objects) – it could even reveal a Victorian woman’s status in life.  Many pieces were typically made from black coloured materials, such as Whitby Jet, Onyx and glass.  The richer members of society wore solid gold, sometimes decorated with fine black enamel and detailed with the loved ones woven hair.

BOG  OAK 

This is a type of beautifully carved peat, and was used mainly by the people of Ireland for creating imitation Whitby Jet.  It is usually very dark brown in colour.

Test 1:  Will leave a brown streak on a white unglazed tile.

Test 2: Feels warm and lightweight (like wood) when held. If you hold a magnifying glass up to it you should see grains, like grains and patterns in a plank of wood.  Will not usually be highly polished and shiny like Jet is.

Test 3: The actual design of the item can give bog oak away. Mourning/ Victorian era bog oak jewellery mostly came from Ireland, and usually has shamrocks, castles and harps carved into it.

Tips on how to test bog oak jet french jet mourning jewellery vulcanite etc
Whitby Jet

WHITBY JET

This fossilized coal-like material was soft to work with, could be intricately carved, and was polished to a shiny finish. Antique Whitby Jet jewellery is today highly prized and desired.  It is black in colour, and is prone to cracking and chipping with age.

Test 1: Will leave a dark brown streak on a white unglazed tile.

Test 2: Feels warm and lightweight to touch, similar to black plastic (never feels cold or heavy to hold like black glass).  Usually has a good polish and an almost oily in texture like amber. Never truly reflective.

Test 3:  Some jet creates static electricity when rubbed against wool.  Do this, and then place the jet near a strand of hair or a piece of paper – the jet should pull it slightly towards it.

Test 4: Invasive; Hot pin test.  Heat a needle and gently pierce an inconspicuous area of jet.  It should not take a needle well, and emit a coal like odour (jet is fossilized coal).  Using this test will decrease the value of your jewellery.

Tips on how to test bog oak jet french jet mourning jewellery vulcanite etc
Vulcanite

VULCANITE

One of the earliest forms of ‘plastic’, Vulcanite was invented in the 1840s by combining certain types of tree sap with sulpher.  It is usually black to mid-brown in colour, and is often in near perfect condition due to its durability (other than fading to a brown colour).

Test 1:  A simple and very reliable rub test.  Holding the jewellery, rub a part of the vulcanite vigorously until its quite hot and then smell.  It should emit a rubber like (and sometimes slightly sulfuric) odour. 

Test 2: Will leave a brown powdery streak on an unglazed white tile.

Never get Vulcanite wet – water will damage it.

GUTTA PERCHA

Again, another rubber type material used, and is not commonly seen.  Tests as for Vulcanite, though with one important and unmistakable addition – the taste test!  Touch the Gutta Percha in a tiny inconspicuous area with the tip if the (dry) tongue – it will taste incredibly salty.  Never get Gutta Percha damp nor wet as water stains and damages it. 

Tips on how to test bog oak jet french jet mourning jewellery vulcanite etc
French Jet

FRENCH JET

A fancy name for black glass.  Cold and hard to touch, and will not be damaged by a hot pin test. 

Tips on how to test bog oak jet french jet mourning jewellery vulcanite etc
Horn

HORN

Another material used to imitate Whitby Jet, horn was molded into desired shapes, and then dyed black.

Test 1:  Will sometimes leave a grey powdery streak when rubbed on an unglazed white tile.

Test 2:  When held to the light the edges are often translucent.

Test 3:  Invasive:  When gently pierced with a hot needle in an inconspicuous place horn will emit an odour of burning hair. Using this test will damage and massively decrease the value of your jewellery.