A good convention is enhanced by having a dealer room, which sff cons have always known. Romantic Times conventions are going in the same delightful direction, which is how I came to meet Renee Huff, who had traveled down from Kansas to New Orleans to set up a jewelry booth. She had a range of styles, but of course I was drawn to the antique pieces.
In particular, I was attracted to a lovely Victorian chain unlike any other I've ever seen. Renee explained that it was called a book chain because the links were shaped like little books, and the piece was gold over brass. The links are hollow, so the necklace is very light weight, a big plus. There was also a locket with a garnet, and I love garnets. I put it on. I took it off, I considered.(Click on the image to enlarge and you'll see the wonderful detail. For all pictures, hover your cursor over the image to see a description of the piece displayed.)
I mentioned that I hated lobster claw catches, which are always difficult for those of us with klutzy tendencies. Renee said clasps could be changed, and magnetic one are much better than they used to be. I put the necklace on and took it off again. Renee started changing the clasp as she explained how the necklace had been reworked, with the clasp originally part of the locket before some thumb-fingered jeweler soldered it shut. Disapproving comments were made about whoever had done that.
By the time we were finished, I had a beautiful necklace and a groveling request that Renee consider doing a blog on historical jewelry, since I love hearing about bling, and I suspect that many of you do also. <G>
MJP: So, let me introduce Renee Huff. (Below is her very well used work bench.) Thanks so much for visiting the Word Wenches, Renee. Could you tell us how you became a jeweler?
RH: I actually started with a history degree--I thought I was going to be the next Indiana Jones. Instead I found myself saying 'Do you want fries with that?' in three dead languages. So I did the re-enactment circuit with a stage combat group in the summers and went back to school for my second love--rocks. I attended the Gemological Institute of America and apprenticed as a bench jeweler right out of school to Jewelry Box Antiques. It was the perfect match--I got to use my history degree to help authenticate the age of jewelry, and had a jeweler's appreciation for the work that went into the pieces. Some of you may have seen my old boss, Jeanenne Bell, on Antiques Roadshow.
MJP: You told me some really interesting things about the gold supply in the early 19th century, and how that affected jewelry. Could you talk more about that?
RH: As anyone can guess, war is expensive, Troops must be fed, clothed, armed, transported and paid. This created a shortage of available gold and silver in many countries (Britain was over-striking foreign currency and issuing 'token' silver coins). Even if you did have gold, it wasn't safe to travel with it. Brigands and thieves flourished everywhere. What's a noble to do? One must maintain appearances after all.
To meet the demand, jewelers did several things. One was cannetille- which goldsmiths pulled metal into very thin strands, twisted it for stability, and made large pieces reminiscent of embroidery designs (hence the name, which is French for embroidery). Some jewelers used 'gold-fill'- thin sheets of gold, fused either by heat or chemical processes to copper or brass, which was patented in 1817.
Others used no gold at all. Alloys of copper, zinc, tin and other metals appeared on the market. Perhaps the most famous of these alternate metals was Pinchbeck. Invented by the brilliant clockmaker Christopher Pinchbeck in 1720, the formula was a closely guarded secret, known only to family. Pinchbeck so closely resembled gold that it was the standard of the day. Christopher's grandson eventually felt it necessary to put an announcement in the London Daily Post to warn the populace against being gulled by 'impostures who frequent Coffee Houses and purport to sell genuine Pinchbeck.' (Modern metallurgical analysis shows that it was 83 percent copper and 17 percent zinc, but the exact formula for fabrication has disappeared.)
MJP: Are there any other characteristics of Georgian and Regency jewelry you'd like to mention?
RH: Because of the expansion of empires, wars, and that nostalgic turn toward the past that was fueled by archeological finds (such as the French excavation of Pompeii), jewelry styles ranged greatly. That said--the mainstays of the period were cameos, tiaras, and parures. Napoleon ordered the creation of the 'Crown of Charlemagne' for his coronation, which was set with cameos. He gave Josephine a similar crown, as well as a parure set with 86 cameos.
The demand for cameos far exceeded supply. It simply took too long to carve stone. Shell came into popularity because it could be carved faster, but the demand was still high. A Scottish gem engraver, James Tassie, invented a glass that could mimic any color or pattern. He used that glass to mass-produce moulded cameo copies. He would later design for Wedgewood.
I should also mention Berlin Iron, which came into fashion during the early 1800's when the Prussians needed to finance the war against Napoleon. Citizens (especially the upper classes) were asked to turn in their valuable precious metal jewelry for the war effort. They were rewarded with iron jewelry, often inscribed with "Ich gab Gold fur Eisen" (I gave gold for iron). Created at the Gleiwitz, Horovice and Berlin Foundries, the iron was cast in molds and lacquered black. The French manufactured a 'Fer de Berlin' after Napoleon looted the molds from his march on Berlin.
I could go on and on really, but I'm going stop with what was, in my opinion, the most interesting thing to happen to jewelry. All those restrictive Sumptuary Laws meant to enforce the divide between classes went by the wayside. This allowed the middle class to buy whatever they could afford, in whatever colors and materials they desired, creating a new demographic and spurring industry.
MJP: Do you have any particular pieces of antique jewelry that you've found that you'd like to mention?
RH: I've been collecting for a very long time. From the Regency era I have a Berlin Iron cameo, a Tassie in pink glass (meant to look like coral), a pair of cannetille earrings set with pearls, and a diamond, ruby and pearl brooch shaped like a butterfly that I picked up in Germany back in the '80's while visiting the Green Vaults. Speaking of which, if you ever get the chance, you should go. It's an amazing gem of a museum in Dresden.
Renee, thanks again for joining us today! Renee has an online Etsy shop called Jeweled Legacy where you can see the range of her wares, which include costumes and timepieces. Take a look and tell me which you like best. I'm eyeing the carved dragon pendant. I've also gone berserk looking at all the wonderful pictures on her Facebook page.
As Renee's special gift to Word Wench readers, one commenter between now and midnight Friday will receive a 20% discount on one item from her Etsy store. Look and enjoy!
Mary Jo, adding that the pictures are all from Renee's shop or Facebook page, except for the Crown of Charlemagne, which is from Wikipedia, which was taken by Martin-Guillaume Biennais. (
Note: Renee only ships within the US from her store. Sorry! mjp)