Black became big in the 1800s both as a fashion statement and as mourning jewelry, a term referencing pieces deemed appropriate to wear during the long period of tribute to a dearly departed relative. Jewelers used many different black substances to create these pieces and often they're hard to distinguish, especially as some were developed deliberately to imitate rare natural materials.
This feature explores a number of varieties of Victorian black jewelry, with tips on recognizing them, compiled with the help of Lisa Stockhammer, president of The Three Graces (www.georgianjewelry.com), and Pamela Y. Wiggins, an antiques expert and author of Warman's Costume Jewelry.
Berlin iron consists of wires of sand-cast iron, often lacquered in black, which gives them an inky, matte finish. Characterized by large but finely-wrought designs that have a lacy or cobweb-like look, "it's also magnetic and cool to the touch," Stockhammer said. Sections are connected with loops or rings, never soldered, as the wires were too delicate (so be wary of a piece with obvious signs of soldering). Pieces may be stamped with the manufacturer's name (Geiss and Edward Schott were two of the best-known), and despite the lacquer, may show signs of rust.
This type of jewelry was developed in Germany around 1800 and primarily made there, though also manufactured in France, Austria and what is now the Czech Republic. It first became popular as a patriotic symbol in 1813. As part of the Prussian war effort against Napoleon I, women were encouraged to exchange their articles of gold and precious stones for pieces made of iron (some of which were even inscribed "I gave gold for iron" in German). Jewelry in the early decades of the 19th century was made in Neoclassical or Georgian style (cameos, foliage, motifs from Greek or Roman mythology). In ensuing decades, iron jewelry was often used for mourning jewelry and changed stylistically to reflect the current Gothic Revival tastes (pointy arches, trefoils, quatrefoils).
Like jet, bog oak is wood (actual oak, fir, pine or yew) that has been fossilized in peat marshes or bogs so that it turns hard and black or very dark brown in color. It's also lightweight and warm to the touch, but it usually has a matte finish, as opposed to jet's usual gleaming polish, according to Stockhammer.
Usually from Ireland, bog oak was used for jewelry beginning in the early 1800s but became more popular in the mid-19th century. This is especially true after 1852 when techniques to mass-mold and decorate it (applying hydraulic or heated pressure to the dried wood) were invented. Although used for mourning jewelry as an economic substitute for jet, it was also worn to support Irish crafts, with pieces often carved or stamped with Gaelic motifs like harps or shamrocks (which would not be considered mourning jewelry). More elegant articles might be studded with pearls or gold.
Cut steel (actually more dark gray than black in color) pieces consist of cast-steel studs and beads that are pierced or faceted, then arranged in patterns and packed closely together, and finally screwed or riveted, onto a metal back. The "backs appear to be honeycombed with tiny pins," as Stockhammer puts it. Cut steel feels cool to the touch, and should have grayish sparkle. There also may be signs of rust.
This technique was developed in England in the early 1600s, originally for buckles and buttons. Cut steel began assuming other forms by the 1760s, including rings, brooches, bracelets, and frames for Wedgwood medallions and cameos. Matthew Boulton was an early famed maker of cut steel jewelry. Later pieces feature the riveted construction as opposed to having the studs screwed into place, both steel and copper were used for backings.
Though obviously less expensive than pieces made with precious stones, cut steel jewelry wasn't simply a substitute. The well-to-do often wore it, especially in the latter half of the 19th century, when its subtle glitter made it ideal for "second mourning" (a later, less intensive stage of mourning dress). By the 1880s, the French had assumed the lead in cut steel jewelry manufacture, turning out intricate pavé-set pieces.
French Jet is black, or extremely dark red, glass rather than a natural substance like true jet. It feels cool, heavy and hard, and has a highly polished glitter. Stones made of this material are often backed with metal foil and glued, fused or soldered onto a metal setting.
French jet beads are sometimes roughly molded or hand-faceted to look like jet, but will be heavier in weight and cold to the touch when compared to the warmth of genuine jet. "If you have a loupe, and detect any chips, they will be curved, striated and almost oval in shape—like a chip in a mirror or glass," Stockhammer noted of French jet.
Developed in the early 19th century and perfected in the 1860s, this type of glass was manufactured in France—hence the name—though also in Austria, England, Germany, and what is now the Czech Republic. Because it was much cheaper to produce than authentic jet, French jet became the premier source of modestly-priced mourning and fashion jewelry, like the sash pin shown here, during this period.
Gutta Percha is a rubber-like gum made of the resin derived from trees in Southeast Asia, mainly Malaysia. Like its synthetic cousin, vulcanite, it is brownish-black in appearance (but tended to hold its black matte color over time better) and is molded rather than carved—so, "sometimes you can detect mold lines, with the eye or a loupe," Stockhammer notes. It will give off an acrid, rubber smell when rubbed briskly.
Highly flexible yet durable, it was first used in the 1840s for jewelry. In the latter 19th century, it was employed as a less expensive substitute for jet in mourning jewelry.
Jet, a type of fossilized wood, was perhaps the rarest and most prized black material used to manufacture Victorian jewelry. It is light in weight and soft and warm to the touch.
Seen under a loupe, it often has tiny, distinctive fissures or chips that differ from French jet (glass). Natural jet can be carved or faceted, but even when precisely cut, it shines rather than sparkles. Keep in mind, however, that jet jewelry meant for first mourning will be matte black rather than shiny, and not all jet jewelry was made for mourning. Victorian fashion jewelry was also made of jet.
Black onyx is a type of quartz or chalcedony. It "can be confused for French jet," Stockhammer says, as it too is a bit heavy, cool to the touch and highly polished to a very glossy finish. Jet which can also have a shiny surface, in comparison, is light in weight.
Most black onyx in jewelry is actually dyed black so the color is very even, which can be noted when it is studied with a jeweler's loupe.
Vulcanite is a type of vulcanized rubber formed by combining sulfur and India rubber, then heating the mixture for several hours. Charles Goodyear is credited with developing the process, which he patented in 1844. Vulcanite can be white or of various colors. As a result, in the mid- and late-19th century, the hard substance was often used to imitate coral, tortoiseshell, and jet—especially the latter, as dark pieces became more popular with the prevalence of mourning jewelry.
Like jet, it's lightweight and warm or room temperature to the touch. But while it can be polished to a nice sheen, vulcanite is never quite as glossy as actual polished jet. Most vulcanite pieces are molded, as opposed to carved, and might seem more espresso-colored than black—the material turned brown over time and exposure to sunlight.
Stockhammer offers this tip: When rubbed against unglazed tile or the bottom of a piece of porcelain, vulcanite leaves a brown streak (but such tests should be performed carefully to avoid damaging the surface of a piece of jewelry). This method is not foolproof, however, since jet can behave similarly. Look at all the attributes of a piece before assuming it is vulcanite.