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:
Bog Oak = usually only seen in brooches. Look under a magnifying glass to see wood grain texture. Often depicts Irish scenes, castles and motifs.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
ABOVE: 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.
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).
ABOVE: 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.
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.
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.
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.
Agate jewellery has been produced in Scotland for hundreds of years, though it was Queen Victoria’s love affair with all things Scottish (culminating in the purchase of Balmoral Castle in Aberdeenshire around the 1850s) which propelled this distinctive type of jewellery to public view. Back in the 19th Century, the aristocracy were a major influence on fashion, and soon people began following the Queen style, which included wearing Scottish jewellery. Popular designs were ‘plaid’ brooches (ie agates laid together in a kind of mosaic), and carved agates set into silver bracelets, complete with carved agate buckles, heart clasps and charms.
Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 signaled a general decline in the popularity of Scottish agate jewellery. However, it became fashionable once again in the 1950s – 1970s when the old Scottish designs were re-created in bold costume jewellery, which used cheaper glass instead of real agates. Famous companies who made this type of jewellery include Miracle, Jacobite and Jem. By the later 20th Century, the beauty of genuine old antique Scottish jewellery was being quietly being rediscovered. Nowadays it is incredible sought after, and antique Scottish agate work can command high prices.
The beautiful country of Scotland is home to an amazing array of chalcedony quartz gemstone, also known as agate, which comes in a huge variety of colours and patterns. It was this quality that attracted the skilled craftsmen of the ancient past to experiment with slicing and placing them together to form colourful mosaic patterns. This agate work was then set into metal (usually solid silver, though occasionally solid gold too). The best antique Scottish jewellery often shows different slices of agate which have been slotted, plaided and polished together into patterns to almost form one stone – some jewellery even resembled multi-coloured tartan patterns. When it came to wearing Scottish agates, it was the brooches which were the most commonly worn as they were both beautiful and functional, holding those heavy Victorian garments, capes and kilts in place. Bracelets, earrings and rings were slightly more unusual. Occasionally Scottish agate necklaces were made, though these are rare and generally only seen in museums or specialist collections.
Jewellery symbolism played an important part of Victorian life. Certain motifs were popular, such as horseshoes, anchors, axes, flowers, thistles, daggers, shields and knots. Buckle motifs were especially loved by the Victorians, and jewellery which displays a buckle piece in its design is still sought after today. Occasionally you’ll see household objects such as kettles, or musical instruments like harps and violins, as canny Victorian jewelers sought to tap into more sentimental designs.
It’s the simple beauty, variety of designs, exquisite workmanship and of course the amazing colours of Scottish jewellery which makes it so desirable. It’s still made today, though in general it tends to be quite different from its ancestors, with greater emphasis on modern metal-work Celtic knot-work patterns rather than creating a mosaic of agate stones.
Scottish Costume Jewellery Reproductions
As with most fine antique jewellery, you will come across modern and more affordable takes on this old genre. The skill that was involved in creating the real Victorian Scottish agate work was huge, so nowadays it’s too time consuming to recreate accurately. Therefore modern ‘Scottish–inspired’ jewelry is quite easy to spot with a little practice. Collecting Scottish costume jewellery is a hobby in it’s own right.
The most common indication of a modern reproduction is glass being used instead of agate. This can be difficult to identify at first, because they both are hard, cold materials. However, the modern stones tend to be set into much chunkier metal than agates, and the metal work will often show crude patterns. A good magnifying glass or jewelers loupe is a must – agates often have bits of natural surface wear and some can be slightly matte, while glass is usually ice smooth and more reflective.
I’ve set up two Pinterest Boards which show what antique Scottish jewellery and then modern Scottish jewellery looks like:
Collecting modern Scottish inspired costume jewellery is a popular hobby in itself, but occasionally even second-hand jewellery sellers and antique dealers can’t seem to tell the difference between the modern costume jewellery copies and genuine antique agate work! Always ask sellers friendly questions before you buy if you’re unsure of a piece, and make sure they accept returns if you are unhappy with your purchase.
Buying tips for Scottish all types of jewellery (modern and antique):
~Signatures: Costume jewellery from the 1950s onwards often had company name stamps (aka ‘signatures’) on them. These signatures can be hard to find at first – study the back carefully with a magnifying glass, and if you see words such as ‘Miracle’…’Jem’….’Jewelcraft’….’Hollywood’ you have a mid to late 20th Century Scottish inspired costume jewellery piece.
~Workmanship: Modern Scottish brooches tend to have ‘chunky’ metal frames (almost always with crude engravings or thick Celtic patterns), thick prongs, and chunky raised ‘stones’. Antique Scottish jewellery usually has superb fine workmanship, flush flat stones,exquisite prong settings and occasionally delicate engraved Victorian scroll work on the metal (but no Celtic patterns).
~ Condition Condition Condition: In all cases, these should be no stones missing – these are almost impossible to replace. Also avoid cracked and badly chipped stones, unless you are genuinely in love with the piece of jewellery. Tiny nibbles (also called ‘flea bites’) to the stones are generally acceptable in antique jewellery. Check all clasps work, and there is no rust, verdigris or damage to the metal work.
~Does it have atwo-tone mix of coral red and green malachite style stones? Watch out – I’ve witnessed some well known antiques dealers fall for this one! You may occasionally come across some Scottish style brooches which at first look to be genuine antiques – usually round brooches, or occasionally 3-leaf clovers or a horseshoe. However they are not old – they are modern mid to late 20th Century reproductions. These brooches are set into solid silver (stamped plain ‘925’), closed at the back (ie full silver backdrops rather than open or slate backed), and have small ‘agate’ tiles of malachite and coral red. But these stones are not agates – they are very good glass copies.
~ Other tips:A good way to identify these modern repros is that they usually have roll over clasps rather than the old ‘c’ style clasp (you can learn more about dating brooches by their clasp type in my Five Tips For Vintage Dating Brooches guide.)
Looking after your antique Scottish Agate Jewellery
A simple and very occasional light clean in mild soapy water is all you need to do to keep you jewellery clean and bright. Dry immediately and very thoroughly so the water doesn’t affect any cement which may be holding in the agates .
Value of Scottish agate jewellery.
Over the years I’ve personally come to the conclusion that there’s generally no fix price for second hand jewellery – it’s worth what someone is prepared to pay for it! Here’s what I’ve sold my jewellery for (or seen others sell their’s for) in the past at auction.
1960s to 1990s Scottish costume jewellery glass brooches/ pendants: £5 to £20
1960s to 1990s Scottish costume jewellery glass bracelets and necklaces: £8 to £25
Circa 1930s – 1950s sterling silver Scottish brooches, with real agates and large central quartz stones: £20 to £40
Small and very basic old antique Victorian Scottish agate brooch: £10 to £25
‘Single slab’ agate old antique Victorian Scottish agate brooch (ie, made from one piece of agate) £20 to £50
Carved buckle antique Scottish agate brooch: £30 to £70
Fancy ‘plaid’ antique Scottish agate brooch, with a variety of agates in silver: £40 to £200, depending on the quality and workmanship
Antique Scottish agate bracelets and bangles £150 to £600 plus
Antique Scottish agate necklaces £300 to £1000 plus
The above are not insurance prices, and not to be taken as any type of valuation or price advice – I’m simply sharing what I’ve witnessed items generally sell for at auction over the years.
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.
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’.
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.
You can learn how to identify jewellery materials such as Vulcanite and Whitby Jetin 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.