How To Spot Genuine Georgian or Victorian ‘Cut Steel’ Jewellery

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Little known and often mistaken for marcasite, cellery was first made in England in the early 1700’s although some records show it started much earlier, in the 1500’s.  But there is no doubt it started here in England.

victorian cut steel button missing a rivet - front

victorian cut steel button missing a rivet – front

Whilst there are many opinions as to where this type of personal adornment was first made in England, opinion places the first main production being from a town called Woodstock, Oxon, some time in the 1650’s.  Other sources say that Clerkenwell in London was one of the most important centers of production for cut steel.

Back of victorian cut steel button showing hole where rivet is missing

Back of victorian cut steel button showing hole where rivet is missing

 George Wallis in his chapter on Jewellery in G. Phillips Bevan, ‘British Manufacturing Industry’, second edition,1878 states :

 “There is good authority for stating that ornamental steel work, which proved so early an item of industry at Wolverhampton, was also carried on in Clerkenwell.”  

 As an interesting footnote by the author adds:

 “One of the most eminent steel workers of Wolverhampton in the last century, a relative of my own, (an aged man when I was a boy), told me that he began his career in Clerkenwell about 1770, with his uncle who was a silver buckle maker to the Court.  From 1780 to 1792 he had himself supplied large quantities of steel ornaments to the Court of England, France and Spain”.  

star shaped cut steel victorian brooch - front

star shaped cut steel victorian brooch – front

 Popular from 1700’s through to Victorian times and a little beyond, cut steel is best described as a ‘mushroom’ of steel, the top of which is faceted and polished to a very high shine. Each ornately cut and individually polished stone then has  individual facets. The more facets each ‘stone’ has, and the more tightly packed together they are, the better quality the item.

back of star shaped victorian cut steel brooch

back of star shaped victorian cut steel brooch

 The faceted and cut ‘mushroom’ (often cut in the same way as old diamonds), were then riveted or screwed on to a sheet steel backing plate.  Evidence of the stalk of the mushroom on the back of a cut steel item is proof of what you have.  This does not apply to the better made pieces of Georgian or Victorian jewellery which have a heavy back plate riveted in place.

 Marcasites (which mostly came from Switzerland and are actually a mineral called iron pyrite), are flat backed and could never be riveted.  They were usually claw set or glued into slight dish forms within stamped metal.

The most popular items of cut steel were buttons (often the only ornament people could afford), followed by shoe buckles.  Buckles were a high fashion trend and at one point amazingly were considered by some to be of even more importance than the shoe itself.

cut steel victorian buckle

cut steel victorian buckle – front

 Given this development of a reflective and inexpensive object came at a time before electricity was discovered; light of any kind (whether from sun, moon or candle), would be reflected beautifully.  Indeed, the cuts or facets on cut steel were referred to as ‘diamond cut’.

shoe buckle cut steel front

shoe buckle cut steel front

 The rest of Europe soon picked up the techniques of making cut steel.  Cut Steel jewellery became so popular in France that the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, is reported to have commissioned a complete suite of cut steel jewellery for his second bride Marie-Louise upon their marriage in 1810 in Paris.

shoe buckle oval cut steel back

shoe buckle oval cut steel back

 Whilst there were plenty of manufacturers of cut steel jewellery, one was considered the best of all steel workers.  His name was Mathew Boulton.  Mr Boulton had workshops  in London and in Birmingham and was extremely successful in designing and producing the finest craftsmanship possible in cut steel jewellery.  He worked closely with Josiah Wedgwood, and his portrait is shown here.

portrait of mathew boulton

portrait of mathew boulton

 Being made of steel, it is important that cut steel jewellery does not become damp.  So keep your items in a damp and moisture free environment.  Rust is the enemy of cut steel and is also the reason that so few items have survived.   When you are out hunting for cut steel pieces, notice the size of each ‘mushroom’ and how many facets each stone has.  Generally, the higher the number of facets a stone has and the smaller each ‘mushroom’ is  –  then the earlier the piece the piece was made.

The brooch featured below, has two circles of cut steel rivets.  The inner circle is smaller than the outer circle.  The inner circle of steel ‘mushrooms’ each has a minimum of 22 facets on each stone.  The outer circle has around 26 facets per stone.  This is extraordinarily high and a good indicator of the quality.  A really close picture showing this is above this text.

Top Quality Cut Steel Brooch Attributed to Mathew Boulton - front

Top Quality Cut Steel Brooch Attributed to Mathew Boulton – front

This last brooch is of such fine quality, with so many tiny rivets having a very high number of facets plus a heavy backing plate which is also riveted into position, is attributed to Mathew Boulton.

Cut steel Victorian brooch attributed to Mathew Boulton - back

Cut steel  brooch attributed to Mathew Boulton – back

The attention to detail is remarkable.  This is an extremely rare example and you will not usually find cut steel which has a backing plate like this. I hope this article also illustrates to potential sellers of vintage and antique costume jewellery, how very important it is to show the back of the piece, as well as the front.

Victorian cut steel brooch attributed to Mathew Boulton - front

Cut steel brooch attributed to Mathew Boulton – front
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Butterfly Wing Jewellery

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During the 1920’s – 1930’s a particular type of English jewellery was popular.  It was made from sterling silver and enclosed, as its background, the delicate (usually blue) wing of  the Morpho tropical butterfly.  This particular butterfly is to be found in South America.

 

Tropical scenes were painted on the inside of the glass covering the wing and the whole thing sealed to prevent moisture from getting in and discolouring the blue wing.  If you see any of these where the wing has light purple or a rust coloured patch,  that is most likely caused by damp penetrating the brooch.

 

The most popular pieces of Butterfly Wing jewellery produced seems to be brooches, followed by pendants, and rarely, necklaces.

The jewellery became extremely popular following a show called “The British Empire Exhibition” in 1924 in London, England.  The English company of Thomas L. Mott exhibited this type of jewellery widely and interest took off from there.  Mott were previously best known for their enamelled charms.  The painting on the reverse of the glass covering the wing was always done by hand on these early pieces.

Great for collectors these days is that the Thomas Mott company almost always signed the back of their pieces “TLM” and “sterling silver” or “England”.  They rarely used a golden coloured butterfly wing for the background and since these are far rarer, they usually attract a higher price.  You will occasionally see a patent number on the reverse of the piece – this was granted to a different company in earlier years although is sometimes used by Mott.