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:
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 platingand 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 provenantique 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 enquiringlyand 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 jewellerymaterials such as Whitby Jet can be found at the very bottom of the page.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A fancy name for black glass. Cold and hard to touch, and will not be damaged by a hot pin test.
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.
Reading British hallmarks on gold jewellery isn’t as difficult as it first appears. Firstly, you’ll need a couple items.
A jewellers loupe. This is a type of hand-held powerful magnifying glass. Nowadays you can pick these up for under £3 off Ebay, and it’s worth its weight in gold (pardon the pun). Don’t bother with other types of magnifying glass as they can’t get into those nooks and crannies, nor are they really powerful enough. Aim for between 20x to 30x magnification – any higher and the hallmark starts to distort and blur.
A proper British hallmarks book. This is a must, and my personal preference is for Bradburys Book Of Hallmarks, which is pocket size and easy to use.
Once you have your jewellers loupe and book of hallmarks (I use Bradbury’s so will go according to this) you can start to identify your jewellery. Let‘s go!
Hallmarks on jewellery are tiny, and because they aren’t meant to be seen easily (so they don’t detract from the jewellery), they are stamped in an unobtrusive places.Be prepared to do some searching for them! In general, a ring is usually hallmarked on the inside of the band. Necklaces are normally stamped on or near the clasp, or on the pendant part if it has one. Earring hallmarks are often stamped on the piercing wire part, but this isn’t a rule and they can be marked anywhere. On charms they can absolutely anywhere, and it can take some deep investigation to find them; I once came across a highly detailed motorbike charm, and eventually found the hallmark on its license plate!
2.Once you’ve found what looks like your hallmark, hold the jewellers loupe up to you eye, along with the jewellery in your other hand. It will need a bit of practice to get the image clear, and may mean twisting your arms and head to get the magnified vision clear enough to see. Good lighting is a must too.
3. Once you can see your hallmarks, try and work out what they look like. This is the part that takes a lot practice, and can be done in a variety of ways. My advise would to be to firstly figure out the Assay Office stamp. The Assay Office is the institution which ‘Assayed’ (ie hallmarked) the precious metal, and is represented by a simple symbol. The most common ones are:
Sheffield (a round rose symbol)
London ( a leopards face symbol)
Birmingham (an anchor)
Edinburgh (a castle)
(There are many other British Assay Office stamps/ symbols which can be found on antique jewellery. These offices no longer exist but are still recognized by UK Law, including Chester, York and Glasgow. Bradburys Hallmark book has much more info about all British hallmarks, along with detailed images and symbols of all the Assay hallmarks).
You can see what hallmarks look like on this latest Jewellers Dealers Notice (this link opens a PDF file and is from the Sheffield Assay Office).
4. Say for example, you see an anchor symbol – this is the Assay Office mark for Birmingham. Look in your Bradbury hallmarks book and find the chapter headed ‘Birmingham‘. You’ll see pages of hallmark lists that look bewildering, but trust me, they’re easy to use with a bit of practice.
5. Now you’ve found the Birmingham section, bookmark this, go back to your jewellery and take a look at the letter stamp. Memorize this as much as possible, and go back to the Birmingham section of your hallmark book and search through the hallmarks, seeing which typeset letter looks like the one on your jewellery. As a general rule, work backwards from modern times to older. To find out the finesse (ie type of gold) of the jewellery, look for a stamp with numbers in it. In this rings case, it’s ’375′, meaning the ring is 9ct (9k) gold.
Gold finesses on British gold jewellery are:
9ct gold: 375
14ct gold: 585
18ct gold: 750
22ct gold: 916
You may occasionally come across 12ct and 15ct British hallmarks on genuine antique jewellery; this is where hallmarks can get complicated, so for the beginner it’s best to get proper advise concerning this from a professional such as an auctioneers.
6. Finally, you’ll always see some kind of initials on a proper British hallmark. These are the Makers Marks, which means the person or company who actually made the jewellery, and is a requirement of British Law. There are now many websites dedicated to exploring Makers Marks, so a quick Google should help you on your way in this area.
(On some older gold jewellery, you may also come across a crown symbol, called the Crown Standard. This stamp meant that the item was gold, though along with the date letter, it’s now optional on modern jewellery).
And that’s how you read a basic gold British hallmark. You can use this exact method given here for reading silver, the only differences being that the Standards are different:
Gold is represented by a crown
Platinum is represented by an Orb
Sterling Silver(925) is represented by a lion
Britannia Silver (958) is rare, and is represented by the lady ‘Britannia‘
Palladium is represented by ‘Pallas Athene’ie, the head of Athene, the Greek Goddess of War (whom palladium was named after).
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. Please always confirm with any business, jewellers or pawnbrokers (both real world and internet) that the item you wish to purchase is fully British hallmarked.
Avoid sellers who refuse to do this, or claim a UK hallmark isn’t necessary. 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.
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:
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.