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.
Nearly every country has its own systems regarding precious metals. In the UK and many parts of Europe we have detailed hallmarking systems. In other countries (for example the USA) no such systems exists, and a simple ’14K’ or ’18K’ stamp is the norm. This article is a quick-glance new buyers guide to jewellery in the British system only. For further information on hallmarking please contact your local Trading Standards, auctioneers or Assay Office. Please note this guide doesn’t cover bullion or high purity coins or gold objects, just jewellery.
British hallmarks – the basics
In the United Kingdom we have a system of protection when buying gold, silver, platinum or palladium jewellery called hallmarking. This means that in general, any precious metal to be sold in the UK must be stamped with a series of tiny ‘hallmarks’ somewhere on the item. It is one of the oldest laws in the world regarding consumer protection, dating back to the 14th Century. Hallmarks tell you who made the piece, which Assay Office it was tested at, what purity the metal is (eg – 375/ 9ct gold) and usually what year it was made in (will be represented by an alphabet letter).
Generally speaking, a simple 9k…..375…..14k…..585…..18k…..or 750 stamp on its own is not a legal hallmark in the United Kingdom on modern gold jewellery (unless the gold jewellery is under 1g, which doesn’t need to be hallmarked). Always ask a seller about its full UK hallmarks (or equivalent if outside the UK) for your own protection. Also, 8k…10k… 21k stamps are not legally recognized in the United Kingdom, and it is against the law to sell jewellery as ‘gold’ with 8k, 10k or 21k stamps (instead it’s called yellow or white metal, depending on the colour).
Purities of precious metals
GOLD: In the UK gold comes in four legal purities for jewellery: ..9ct (375 parts gold to 1000 parts alloy)….14ct (585 parts gold)…..18ct (750parts gold)……22ct (916 parts gold). All modern gold jewelry over 1 gram must be properly hallmarked by an Assay Office. Occasionally you may see ‘990’ as part of the hallmark; this is also recognized finesse amount, though is rarely used for jewellery, and must be accompanied by the normal Assay Office hallmarks. Any gold jewellery stamped ’10k’ is not legally recognized in the UK.
SILVER: In the UK, silver comes in three legal purities used for jewellery….Britannia (958 parts silver to 1000 parts alloy)……Sterling (925 parts silver to 1000 alloy)…. and 800 (800 parts silver to 1000 parts alloy). All silver over 7.78 grams must be properly fully hallmarked by an Assay Office. Silver under 7.78g doesn’t need to be hallmarked, and may have a simple stamp (eg, ‘925’).
PLATINUM: In the UK, platinum comes in three legal purities used for jewellery:…950….900….850. All platinum over 0.5 grams must be properly hallmarked by an Assay Office.
PALLADIUM: In the UK, palladium comes in two legal purities used for jewellery…..500….950. All palladium over 1 gram must be properly hallmarked by an Assay Office.
|ABOVE: A well detailed set of Sterling silver British hallmarks on a silver pendant. From the top; the makers initials, below this is a leopards head (meaning it was tested/ assayed in London), then below is the Lion Passant (meaning the item is 925 Sterling Silver), then the italic letter ‘C’, meaning the year it was made was 1977, and finally a special mark bearing the Queen’s head; 1977 was the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, so Assay Office’s created a special stamp to celebrate this.|
Always try to confirm with any jewellery business, jewellers or pawnbrokers (both real world and internet) that the gold you wish to purchase is fully British hallmarked. Avoid sellers who refuse to do this, or claim a UK hallmark isn’t necessary (unless the gold is under 1 gram). Also avoid shops that claim 10K gold is legally recognized in the UK – it isn’t, and if you decide to sell your 10K stamped jewellery item at a later date you will legally have to describe as either white or yellow metal, not gold. You’d be surprised how many sellers and shops don’t know or care about hallmarking law, and will tell you anything so they can simply sell the item. This goes for for both ‘real life’ shops and internet shops.
ABOVE: This 9ct gold ring has hallmarks to the back of the band, on its underside. Hallmarks will often be seen as tiny dark squares to the naked eye, like in this photo.
ABOVE: A simple ‘number’ stamp like this is not a legally recognized hallmark in the United Kingdom, with the exception of a proven antique. This is a big area of fake gold jewellery, with sellers claiming a stamp like this on their modern gold jewellery is a hallmark – it isn’t.
A note about 12ct gold and 15ct gold jewellery
There used to be other recognized purities of gold on old vintage jewellery, namely 12ct and 15ct gold. In 1932 12ct and 15ct gold was replaced by a new 14ct gold purity. As long as 12ct or 15ct jewellery are stamped on pre-1932 jewellery the hallmarked is legal. It is not legal on post 1932 jewellery.
Also, if you come across an item of gold jewellery which is stamped ’12ct‘ or ’12k’ you need to check if there is are any initials nearby that look like ‘RG’ or ‘GF‘. This means the jewellery is actually Rolled Gold or Gold Filled, which are both a type of gold plating and not solid gold. Again, ask the seller to photograph or list all the hallmarks if necessary.
Now it gets complicated! Antique jewellery made from precious metals
The hallmarking rules for old vintage and antique jewellery can be quite different to modern precious metal jewellery, and hallmarks are possibly not always needed if it is a proven antique or made before a certain date. I strongly recommend that you seek the advise of a professional jeweller, dealer or auction house if you believe you have a valuable un-hallmarked item of jewellery and they can help you further.
Many antique gold or antique silver items for sale by dealers are offered as un-hallmarked ‘acid tested’. This ‘acid test’ is often poorly carried out and can badly damage jewellery, lowering the value of a piece. Also, antique jewellery was often very heavily gold plated, meaning the many acid tests won’t be able to give reliable results anyway. If a seller has acid tested a piece then have a friendly chat to them as to how and why they’ve come to the conclusion the item is antique to begin with. Nicely ask them to photograph the area it was tested (to see the possible damage), and finally make sure they offer a full money back guarantee if the jewellery is not as described on further investigation. If the seller refuses any of these requests then simply avoid them. Genuine sellers are always happy to help any way they can, and will not take offense to questions if asked in a kind, genuinely enquiringly and friendly manner.
The law on precious metals is called the UK Hallmarks Act 1973 (with amendments). Breaking this law it is a criminal offense, punishable with a heavy fine or even jail. If you believe a shop has broken this law you should contact your local trading standards office. Anyone who sells precious metals (including fine jewellery) must also have a Dealers Notice on display – these are prominently displayed posters which have hallmarking information on them.
This article is for general information purposes only, and not be be used for or as any kind of legal advise. While every attempt has been made to verify the information provided in this report, the author cannot assume any responsibility for errors, inaccuracies or omissions. If any type of advice is needed (legal or otherwise), the services of a fully qualified professional should always be sought, such as Trading Standards, a professional auctioneers or a UK Assay Office. This article is not intended for use as a source of advice.
A brief history
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 a two-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 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.
I adore jewellery.
Whether a fabulous vintage brooch, a gold diamond ring or a new artisan charm bracelet, if it’s well made and has that sparkle of thought and creation you can guarantee it’ll give me goose pimples
But I have a naughty little secret to share with you. I know I’m an all round jewellery enthusiast, but………..I have a favourite type of jewellery.
I can’t help it. I’m in love, and it’s my first love at that. Oh, other jewellery comes and goes. I’ll get a desire for a certain genre of period. I’ll go crazy for a coloured gemstone, a well carved cameo or antique Scottish agate. But time and again, I’ll go back to my first little crush.
The glass bead.
Of all the jewellery in the world that I come across, the humble glass bead continues to be my firm favourite.
Because glass beads can be made into some of the most creative, expressive, accessible and beautiful jewellery. The sheer variety of beads is breathtaking. From the rainbow lustre’s of aurora borealis crystals, shimmering carnival glass, glowing Uranium glass and bold millefiori beads, to the beautiful creations of Murano, and hand made artisan lampwork beads which have been made to your own specifications, glass beads design and manufacture has almost infinite possibilities.
|Vintage 1950s faceted carnival glass bead necklace.|
|A Uranium glass bead necklace under UV light.|
Nothing feels the same as wearing a glass bead necklace. I can’t put my finger on it – glass just feels wonderful when worn…..almost like you can sense the quality and workmanship without even having to look at it – you just feel it.
So there you have it – I love glass beads. And I’ll share with you one final secret; jewellery should always be about what you like. Not what society says you should aspire to own, or some jeweller (or sales-person) says is a good investment.
Jewelry is about you, and that is what makes it truly special.