Saturday, 3 September 2011
A Guide to Vintage Marcasite Jewellery
Today I want to chat about vintage silver marcasite jewellery, what it is, what to look for and how to care for it.
Firstly marcasite stones are actually made from iron pyrite, a natural mineral which is a hard stable material with a bright metallic lustre that can't be scratched easily. Confusingly there is a mineral called marcasite, but this has a softer structure that cracks and crumbles easily when worked. Perhaps it is this because of this confusion marcasite jewellery is a bit of a mystery to some and finds itself sandwiched uncomfortably between costume jewellery and precious
Marcasites have been used for jewellery since the time of the ancient Greeks but gained a more common use in the Georgian period of the 18th century when cut steel and marcasite were used as a diamond substitutes. Marcasite was a much better alternative as it had a brighter lustre and didn't rust like cut steel and like diamonds twinkled beautifully in the soft glow of candlelight.
The Victorian era saw a rise again in the popularity of marcasite jewellery when craftsmanship was of high quality but the cost of production was low. A lot of the reproduction marcasite jewellery you see today is based on Victorian designs.
The popularity and production was at it's peak during the first part of the 20th century and most of the antique and vintage marcasite you see today is from that era. There is a lovely variation styles available as Victorian and Edwardian designs were reused and then the the influence of the 1920-30's machine age gave us the clean lines of what we now know as Art Deco.
Antique and vintage marcasite jewellery is set in silver although you do get cheaper imitations from the 1950's-60's set in steel. It was made in various parts of the world, England, France, Germany, America, etc, so there are different silver hallmarks to be found. Most common are SILVER, STERLING, 935, 800, 835, and the tiny indistinct French stamp.
There is a lot of modern mass produced marcasite jewellery on the market masquerading as genuine vintage. Old marcasite jewellery is used as a mould for reproducing a period looking piece, some are poor quality and fairly easy to spot, but increasingly there is a lot of higher quality reproduction that can easily catch the buyer out.
If you want to be sure you are buying a genuine older piece have a really good look at it. Firstly have a look on the back, if the silver mark is 925 ( NB not 935) that is is almost certainly a fairly modern piece. Have a look at the way it is made, modern marcasite jewellery is often less finely crafted. If you have a magnifying glass or jewellers loop look at the setting of the stones. With the older jewellery the stones are glued and set with tiny pieces of silver curled over the stone to help hold it in place. With modern examples the stones are just stuck in rather than set and the little beads of silver that imitate the setting aren't actually holding the stone in place.
Whether you should attempt to clean vintage silver marcasite jewellery is a personal choice. For myself, I don't over clean old pieces as I think it takes away the warmth and character that distinguishes it from modern jewellery. I suggest if it is very black and tarnished use a silver jewellery cleaning cloth and gently take off the tarnish, if you go over the stone setting with the cloth be careful as you can easily flick out a marcasite. Never dunk the item in silver dip or liquid jewellery cleaner as it will quickly strip it right back to a bright cold silver and you may well lose or loosen the stones.
Most importantly, enjoy buying and wearing your vintage marcasite jewellery, I think it is incredibly underpriced considering the age of it and the craftsmanship that has gone into making it !
P.S. Thanks very much for all the comments on this post.
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