Modern micromosaic pieces just can't compare to the laborious and painstaking art form that was 19th-century micromosaic-making. They were a particular specialty of Rome, coming to the height of their popularity around 1800-1870. In those times, a micromosaic could be composed of anywhere between hundreds and thousands of tiny pieces, each applied skillfully by hand using a pair of tweezers, to create impressively intricate and beautiful scenes.


A brooch with silver-gilt filigree resembling spiraled string, set with an octagonal Roman micromosaic of a bird on a branch, possibly a pheasant, composed of minute tesserae, c.1820-30

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London




The Making of Micromosaic Jewelry


Micromosaics are miniature mosaics made using what is called 'smalto' or 'smalti' - opaque vitreous glass or enamel that comes in a wide variety of colors and replicates the appearance of a non-reflective painted surface. The material is melted and pulled into rods or threads, called 'filati' (spun enamel). Once these rods or threads have cooled, they are cut into hundreds of tiny cubes, known as 'tesserae'. The tesserae are then arranged in a copper or gold tray into the desired scene or image.


The base of a micromosaic piece is usually made of either metal or stone (with black Belgian marble, 'Noir Belge', being a popular choice). These are then filled with mastic or cement, and the tesserae are carefully arranged on top of this using a pair of tweezers and a great deal of skill and patience. Once the mastic or cement has hardened, the gaps between the tesserae are filled with colored wax and the whole picture is polished to achieve a smooth and even surface. Micromosaic pieces intended for jewelry were often oval or circular plaques set into pendants, necklaces, earrings, brooches, and rings. The pieces were often made in Rome and then exported to London or Paris to be mounted in jewelry.


Finger ring with a rectangular swiveling gold bezel, its cut corners inset with a micromosaic plaque depicting an antique urn, Rome, c.1800. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



Italian micromosaic gold ring of two birds, c.1810. The ring is marked with 18ct French marks

From Peter Szuhay



A rectangular, gold-mounted micromosaic snuffbox with canted corners, the cover with a mosaic depicting a polar bear and a hound playing with an apple under a tree, the base with a mosaic of a stag and a hind and a chariot, probably Rome, c.1800

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



The art of micromosaics is said to have originated at the Vatican. When some of the famous paintings in St. Peter’s Basilica began to deteriorate due to damp clouds developing, thoughts turned to the mosaics of ancient Rome that had retained their color and impact for thousands of years. Vatican artists began to experiment with ways of replicating the damaged paintings using mosaic techniques, eventually managing to create some 28,000 different hues of tesserae to do so. By 1770, nearly all of the paintings in the basilica had been replaced with almost indistinguishable mosaic copies, built to last. Soon afterward, some of the artists who had been involved began to apply their skills to making miniature mosaic art using teeny tiny pieces of tesserae - portable artworks that could be sold to the private market and set into jewelry.


Mosaic interior of the dome of St Peter's Basilica

Via Walks in Rome



It's believed that micromosaic jewelry went out of style in the late 19th century when the huge demand for such pieces saw an influx of workers to Rome who weren’t skilled in the art and began making poor quality versions. These low-quality pieces flooded the market and damaged the industry significantly.





Pietra Dura


While micromosaics in their traditional sense originated in Rome, another kind of micromosaic known as 'pietra dura' - literally 'hard stone' - was becoming popular in Florence. Although they are often included under the umbrella of micromosaics, the key difference between Florentine pietra dura and micromosaics from Rome is the use of bits of polished and thinly sliced stone, carved into specific shapes and fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, instead of glass or enamel tesserae. These were often set into marble and framed with metal. Artisans would use semi-precious stones like agate, lapis lazuli, jasper, and chalcedony as well as stones like malachite, carnelian, and quartz, which mimicked the delicate webbing and color shifts of wings and petals - creating stunning visual illusions.


Victorian pietra dura earrings with mirrored birds, set in 18k yellow gold Etruscan revival frames, c.1870

Via 1stdibs



Beautiful and rare late Victorian Pietra Dura set by 'Pierre Bazzanti Et Fils', a famous workshop in Florence that specialized in Pietro Dura and fine stonework. The set comprises earrings, a bracelet, studs, and a brooch/pendant. The subject - Entomology

Antique Animal Jewelry



19th-century Italian gold Pietra Dura bracelet depicting butterflies and other insects, Italy c.1875

Via 1stdibs



A yellow gold, polychrome enamel and multi-gem butterfly motif Pietra Dura swag necklace

From Leslie Hindman via diamondsinthelibrary.com



When Florentine micromosaicists began to favor more brightly colored and striking materials like turquoise and mother of pearl, the pieces lost a lot of the depth and realism that they had been loved for, and soon fell out of fashion. That's why the materials used in pietra dura pieces can often be used to date them and determine their value.




The Grand Tour


With the end of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, and the revolutionary wars surrounding this, it was finally safe to travel again to the Continent. This also coincided with an increase of wealth across Europe and a growing merchant class, meaning that travel to Europe was no longer limited to the upper classes and aristocracy. Soon, British and American tourists flocked to Europe's cultural capitals - Paris, Rome, and Florence - on what was known as the 'Grand Tour'.


The 'Grand Tour' became a kind of right of passage for nobility seeking to improve and expand their education. They went to these places in order to soak up the culture and history there, and it soon became extremely fashionable to send or bring back souvenirs and mementos from these lengthy trips. A particular favorite for Grand Tourers were beautiful, portable pieces of micromosaic jewelry, many of which were made expressly for this purpose. By 1817, the Scottish traveler Charlotte Eaton recorded that there were 'hundreds of artists, or rather artisans, who carry on the manufactory of mosaics on a small scale' around the Piazza di Spagna.


With the origins of micromosaics in the Vatican, some particularly wealthy tourists could even gain themselves custom micromosaic pieces from the papal jeweler if they made a substantial enough donation to the Catholic Church.




Motifs


Some of the most common pieces of micromosaic jewelry featured famous Italian landmarks such as the Colosseum and St. Peter's Basilica, as well as figures from ancient Roman mythology and scenes of bucolic Italian peasant life. Many were also inspired by famous paintings by the Old Masters or contemporary landscape paintings. However, the most sought-after and possibly the most impressive pieces (in my opinion) are those depicting flowers, birds, and other animals.



Motifs from Antiquity

Pair of gold and micromosaic bracelets and a brooch, each depicting Cupid in a chariot drawn by deer, lions, or doves, surrounded by frames of gold cannetille, joined to clasps of rose motif in silver, rose, and yellow gold, c.1800-1830. Via Sotheby's



Micromosaic chariot pulled by butterflies, c.1800. This high-quality micromosaic was most likely the top of a metal box and was later turned into a pendant. The lid is marked J.COLA for Giacinto (Jacinto) Cola, one of the best mosaicists active in Rome at the beginning of the 19th century. Butterflies are a common representation of Psyche, while Cupid is frequently shown with wings and his symbols are the arrow and torch, "because love wounds and inflames the heart." This depiction is unusual because Cupid is represented by a bird, but the torch in the chariot would be symbolic of Cupid

Via Collectors Weekly



A Roman micromosaic plaque depicting a putto in the guise of Bacchus with an attendant holding aloft a basket of grapes within a circular black ground, set within a square giltwood frame, c.1860-70

Via Christie's



A gold and micromosaic locket depicting a putto amongst swans and flowers within a gold rope-twist and beaded frame, with hairwork in a compartment on the reverse, c.1865

Via Bonhams



An antique micromosaic and gold bangle with a multi-colored mosaic of cupid in a border of red and blue flowers, c.1860. Via Bonhams





Doves of Pliny


An important early inspiration for micromosaics, both in terms of subject and technique, was the 'Doves of Pliny'. This was an ancient mosaic made of marble tesserae, discovered at Hadrian’s villa outside of Rome in 1737, and is one of the finest examples of an ancient mosaic ever found. It was actually a Roman copy of an even earlier work by Sosos, a Greek artist (2nd century A.D.).


Left: The Doves of Pliny by Sosos - The Capitoline Museum via Lang Antiques. Right: The Doves of Pliny by Giacomo Raffaelli (1753-1836) - © Trustees of the British Museum



Antique Victorian Pliny's Doves lapis pietra dura 14k gold pin brooch

From Ruby Lane via Pinterest



Brooch and matching earrings with pietra dura mosaic depicting the 'Doves of Pliny' and gold settings decorated with applied wirework - by Messrs Giocondo Torrini, Florence, c.1860-1870

© The Trustees of the British Museum


Victorian pietra dura mosaic brooch of Pliny's Doves set in lapis lazuli

From 1stdibs via Pinterest




Other Birds


Micromosaic of two lovebirds

From Ruby Lane via Pinterest



Micromosaic brooch of a white dove with a green branch in its beak against a red groud bordered with dark blue. Gold and black enamel setting. Inscribed on back 'CLWF; Septr. 10, 1863.'

Via the Museum of Fine Arts Boston



Three Italian gold-mounted micromosaic buttons, probably made in Rome, workshop of Giacomo Raffaelli, c.1785. Via Christie's



An Italian 14kt gold ring with an octagonal micromosaic on copper of two birds on a branch with a dark blue background, c.1790-1800. From galleriatanca via Pinterest



A pair of drop micromosaic earrings each depicting a bird on a branch with a butterfly on a black background set on red porpurine glass with gold mounting. The top part is decorated with a micromosaic of a flowers baske, Rome, c.1820. From galleriatanca via Pinterest



Gold and micromosaic bracelet composed of six graduated oval micromosaic plaques, each depicting doves, connected by curb link chains, c.1800s. Via Sotheby's



Micromosaic brooch, earrings, and pendant, c.1850-70

Museum of Fine Arts Boston



19th-century Italian gold hexagonal cut micromosaic ring depicting a bird on a black background within a reeded bordered later rose gold mount, c.1860s

Via 1stdibs



An early 19th-century micromosaic brooch of a hen with her five chicks, in a gold surmount with a scrolling engraved foliate motif. Via Bonhams






Insects


Italian gold-mounted bonbonniere set with a micromosaic of two butterflies by Giacomo Sirletti (1755-1837), Rome, c.1800. Via Christie's



Italian Micromosaic brooch, c.1870

Via pbs.org





Cats & Dogs


Micromosaic of a spaniel using curved tesserae to create the texture of fur, c.1830s

Via Collectors Weekly



Victorian hardstone micromosaic depicting a pair of King Charles spaniels, set within a rectangular-shaped black onyx tablet measuring and framed by 18k gold. Property of the Cecilia H. Caldwell Trust. Via jewelry.ha



Rare Georgian micromosaic Halley's comet gold brooch with two dogs, c.1790s

From Ruby Lane via Pinterest



Micromosaic dog from 1stdibs via Pinterest



An early 19th-century micromosaic brooch depicting a King Charles spaniel, seated in a landscape setting, to mount with stylized laurel wreath border, back possibly re-mounted with a later brooch fitting

Via Bonhams



A micromosaic of a poodle, Italian, c.1850

Via Hamshere Gallery



A round micromosaic in a golden copper frame, depicting a hunting dog, Rome, c.1810-20

Via Sotheby's



An Italian bonbonniere set with a micromosaic plaque by Pietro Belli, with the micromosaic by Pietro Belli, Rome, c.1785-1800. Via Christie's



An oval tortoiseshell, gold, and copper snuffbox, the cover set with an oval micromosaic depicting a black and white spaniel dog sitting in a field with a landscape in the background and the trunk of a small tree to the left. The image is signed by the artist in tesserae

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



Oval micromosaic panel, probably from the top of a box. Italian, c.1810

From Peter Szuhay



Micromosaic demi-parure in the style of Antonion Aguatti - earrings and pendant, the earrings each with a butterfly and birds in the hearts, all different, the pendant in the shape of a heart with a dog surrounded by flowers and the text "fidelité", Rome, c.1830

From Inez Stodel via Pinterest



A 19th-century Italian polished slate micromosaic paperweight depicting a cat chasing a ball in a garden

Via Invaluable.com





Other ANimals



Micromosaic brooch depicting Cupid in a chariot drawn by a pair of stags on a black background, c.1800

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



Oval micromosaic set in black glass with a gold frame in the Neo-classical style. The micromosaic depicts a stag running across a patch of foliage, its figure silhouetted against the black glass background, c.1825

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



Gold micromosaic earrings depicting a rabbit, ladybug, dog, and cat, c.1875

From Louis Wine Antiques via Ruby Lane



Antique gold and micromosaic cuff bangle set with symbolic Christian imagery. The kneeling deer, represents piety and devotion, faces towards a lamb holding a white flag with a red cross, symbolizing Agnus Dei, a representation of the triumph of Christ. The red cross symbolizes the blood shed by Christ, juxtaposed by the lamb, representing Christ's purity and holiness. Via Doyle



Victorian 18k yellow gold micromosaic bracelet with Vatican hallmarks, mid-19th century

Via 1stdibs



A micromosaic brooch depicting a pouncing leopard, c.1800

Via Bonhams



Micromosaic depicting a rat, which is part of a micromosaic and garnet silver necklace

Via Pinterest






Famous Makers & Buyers


Although the names of many mosaicists were never recorded, there are several notable mosaicists who became fairly famous during the height of micromosaic popularity. One of these was Castellani, a jewelry firm that specialized in archeological jewelry, inspired by the archaeological discoveries being made at the time, particularly mosaics found in early Christian and Byzantine churches. Many of their pieces incorporated Greek or Latin inscriptions and were set in lavish and ornate gold work.


A circular micromosaic depicting a green and red parrot on a branch with a blue and white enamel border stamped CC for Castellani

Via Christie's



Victorian Medusa micomosaic brooch with gold and glass tesserae, by Castellani and Sons, Rome

Via victorianweb.org



Victorian micromosaic brooch with Hand of God by Castellani and Sons, Rome. Gold and glass tesserae

Via victorianweb.org



Giacomo Raffaelli (1753-1836) was also a notable mosaicist and is considered to be one of the founding fathers of micromosaics. He was amongst the first to incorporate them into jewelry and is particularly well known for being commissioned by Napoleon I in 1809 to create a mosaic copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. It actually wasn't finished until after Napoleon's abdication in 1814, so was sold instead to another prestigious buyer - Francis II of Austria. Micromosaic jewelry enjoyed great popularity across Europe, and both of Napoleon’s empresses are said to have owned micromosaic parures.


A late 18th-century 'Grand Tour' micromosaic medallion depicting a finch seated on a branch on a rocky outcrop, by Giacomo Raffaelli, dated 1788 and later mounted as a brooch

Via Bonhams



A late 18th-century double-sided micromosaic ring, possibly by Giacomo Raffaelli. Depicting a butterfly to one side and a goldfinch to the other. From Woolley & Wallis Jewellery via Instagram



Circular agate box and cover with gold rims and a micromosaic of a greyhound sitting against a pale blue sky. Engraved inside with Prince of Wales's feathers, motto, and AE. Gifted to Edward VII when Prince of Wales in 1888, c.1800-30, attributed to Giacomo Raffaelli

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021



In England, a group of artisans led by the sixth Duke of Devonshire (William Cavendish), tried their hand at making Florentine pietra dura which the Duke had seen in Florence during his Grand Tour. They used local colored marble and other local stone such as feldspar and black Derbyshire marble to make cross-or-oval-shaped brooches and pendants decorated with floral or insect motifs. These pieces were often bought by tourists visiting the area, including a young Princess Victoria, who bought such a piece when she traveled there in 1826.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861), the famous British poet who lived out the latter part of her life in Italy, loved micromosaic jewelry. It's said that her favorite treasure was a micromosaic brooch which featured prominently in her portrait, painted in Italy in 1858.


In the 19th-century, laboriously and lovingly crafted micromosaic pieces fitted into jewelry were the perfect souvenir. To bring one back from Italy or France and show it off on your finger, neck, or ear was practically a guarantee that you would exude an air of culture, sophistication, and historical knowledge.



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Imagine, it's early in the 18th-century and all the latest diamond-studded jewels are coming in from France. You stare at them longingly and think to yourself, how in the world could I ever afford so many diamonds? Well, the answer is, you wouldn't have needed to - by the 1730s, paste had arrived on the scene. Replicating the brilliance of diamonds often at a fraction of a cost, pastes became hugely popular in Georgian jewelry. These weren't just cheap diamond imitations, mind you, they soon became sought after in their own right. Being more malleable than tough diamonds, jewelers could do imaginative and intricate things with paste that they never could have pulled off with diamonds, all while sparkling just as brightly.


A Georgian necklace with a cross pendant, made from leaves and stylized flowerheads set with brilliant-cut pastes in silver, backed with gold, England, c.1810

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London





What Is Paste?


Paste is, essentially, glass - a material that has been used to imitate gemstones for thousands of years. More specifically though, Georgian paste is a highly reflective kind of hand-cut glass that has been hand-polished with metal powder until it gleams brilliantly.


In 1674, an English glassmaker called George Ravenscroft created a new kind of glass to try and imitate the appearance of diamonds, with a higher lead oxide content meaning it had a higher Refractive Index (RI) than before. Although the material was clearly more brilliant, his creation wasn't all that successful, as it was still very soft and didn't stand up well to cutting or polishing. For that reason paste, as we know it in its glorious Georgian incarnation, didn't really become popular until the 1730s, when Georges-Frédéric Strass added an even higher content of lead to glass. This made the material stronger so that it could handle the pressure of high polish, opening up the possibilities of what could be achieved with paste. Strass, having moved from Strasbourg to Paris a decade earlier, became jeweler to the King Louis XV of France in 1734, and particularly fine-quality paste jewelry was sometimes known as 'Strass'.


A pair of closed-back silver earrings set with green and colorless pastes, English, c.1760

© The Trustees of the British Museum



Georgian paste earrings, each designed with a pear-shaped cluster drop with a bow center and circular cluster top, mounted in silver, English, c.1760. From Simon Teakle via The Jewellery Editor



Boxed ribbon tie choker in silver and paste with bow and drop, c.1770

From Georgian Jewellery by Ginny Redington Dawes and Olivia Collings



A Georgian-era pendant with pastes set in silver, decorated with enameled gold enclosing a depiction of wheat sheaves in gold wire, and with a suspension loop in the form of a bow. Wheat sheaves (a symbol of fertility and prosperity) are repeated in hair on the reverse of the pendant, Swiss, c.1790

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



Ornamental pin in the form of a spray of flowers. Silver with a closed-back and set with brilliantly colored red, blue, yellow, and green foil-backed pastes, English, c.1750-1800

© The Trustees of the British Museum



Late 18th-century brooch with a pendant. Pastes set in silver-gilt in the form of a shell, the pendant with a suspension loop in the form of a bow, made in Western Europe

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



A pair of earrings with symmetrical bows, characteristic of neo-classical Portuguese design of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They form part of a demi-parure - a half set of jewels. The stones are a mix of white topaz and paste, set in silver to enhance their whiteness, Portuguese, c.1780-1800

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



Late 18th-century finger-ring with a broad flat hoop. Gold set with rose and calibré-cut pastes in an oval

© The Trustees of the British Museum



Late 18th-century brooch in the form of a harp surmounted by a crown. Made in silver and set with pastes

© The Trustees of the British Museum



Late 18th Century paste hoop earrings

Antique Animal Jewelry



Georgian paste pendant in a crowned oval shape with a carved micro scene depicting The Battle of The Nile, set over a foiled background, with a chunky beveled crystal face, c.1798

Antique Animal Jewelry



Georgian drop earrings fashioned in silver with a large teardrop-shaped gallery, encrusted with old-cut, foil-backed pastes that sparkle like diamonds, c.1800

Via Laurelle Antique Jewellery



Magnificent highest quality white paste pansy necklace with oversized pendant drop all set in silver and backed in gold, c.1800. From Georgian Jewellery by Ginny Redington Dawes and Olivia Collings






The Popularity of Paste


Despite the lower price of such imitation jewelry appealing mostly to the less wealthy upper classes, paste jewelry became an art form in itself and was therefore also very popular in high society and amongst royalty. Many believe that because it was softer than diamond, it was harder to work with, and therefore required more skill. Some pieces are so fine and bear so much rich history that they have even sold at auctions for higher prices than their diamond counterparts. With the origin of paste-making being in Paris, high-quality paste jewelry was even worn by the likes of Madame du Barry and Marie Antoinette. Paste was used in everything from men's shoe buckles, to the most magnificent of tiaras. Soon after it became popular in France, the fashion spread to England, Spain, Portugal, and beyond, attracting a great many people for both its beauty and its price.


Paste jewelry also served a more practical purpose for some of the nobility. When traveling at night between estates, house parties, or the properties of various family members, wealthy women were often fearful of being robbed of their most precious jewels or family heirlooms. Instead of forgoing wearing jewelry altogether, they would have replicas of their expensive jewels made in paste, so they could still show them off at the ballrooms without worrying too much if they got pinched on the way.


Paste jewelry would remain popular all through the Georgian era, into the Victorian era, and even for a time after that. That said, 18th-century Georgian paste is usually of a higher quality than 19th-century Victorian pieces. This is partly due to the political climate of the time, but mostly because earlier pieces would likely have been made by a single jeweler who dedicated themselves to the craft and highly valued the material. Later pieces of paste jewelry tended to be set in less refined mounts and were often mass-produced.


In 1777 the government introduced a tax on paste glass. All though not as valuable as gemstones, these jewels remain important historically because while much real diamond jewelry was broken up over the decades, to be remade and reset in the latest fashions, paste jewelry has often survived intact, in its original form, and is therefore a valuable indicator of changing fashions.



Aigrette in the form of a crescent and trembler spray. Silver and set with pastes, c.1790-1810

© The Trustees of the British Museum



A comb with 33 teeth and decorated with oval and round 'Stras' pastes, arranged in flowers of increasing size towards the center, with a pattern of leaves and stems with smaller stones, c.1804 - 1815

© Palais Galliera, Paris City Fashion Museum



A jewel in the form of a flower, set with brilliant-cut pastes in silver and colored gold, England, c.1810-20

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



Silver and white paste tiara, c.1820

From Georgian Jewellery by Ginny Redington Dawes and Olivia Collings



Georgian foil-backed paste brooch, set in silver with a sinuous floral design, with the larger pastes set in typical Georgian crimped collet style. From Corvidae Antique via Ruby Lane



Georgian paste earrings, which most likely started out life as waistcoat buttons, foiled and pavé set, closed-back in silver. Pie-shaped pastes have been placed in the center around a small round paste, and a surround of 18 round-cut pastes line the perimeter. From The Three Graces via The Jewellery Editor



Early 19th-century pendant miniature of a lady under glass in a gold frame with foil-backed pastes in silver claw settings. The reverse is engraved. Brooch pin

© The Trustees of the British Museum



Two rare Georgian paste eternity rings, possibly worn as ‘keepers’ on either side of the wedding band

Antique Animal Jewelry



Part of a silver openwork pendant set with facetted clear pastes, made in Bruges (Belgium), c.1800-1870

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



A gold ring set with one large rose-cut white paste, with three smaller rose-cut white pastes on either side in closed settings, arranged like a trefoil, Italy, c.1800-1860. This shape is called 'a fiocco' in Italy because of its resemblance to a bow, and the cut and settings are typical of traditional Italian rings from the 19th century, particularly those worn in the area around Rome

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



Georgian paste jewelry pieces from @vintage_jewelry_hoarder via Instagram





Paste Rivières


While colored gemstones like garnet, topaz, emerald, and ruby were abundant in Georgian daytime jewelry, the evening was dominated by diamonds and pastes that glittered dramatically under candlelight. They were often showcased as big stones delicately linked together in a rivière necklace (river of light), shimmering around the neck.


Georgian foil-backed colorless paste rivière necklace in silver, each accented with a painted black dot to simulate a culet, with minimal spacing between each link, c.1830

From Beladora



Georgian foil-backed rivière necklace in silver and 14k yellow gold, each paste accented with a painted black dot to simulate a culet, with minimal spacing between each link, c.1830

From Beladora





Colored Paste


Often, paste gems are set using a method called 'foiling', where they are backed in foil or colored foil to add depth, shine, or hue to the clear glass. When done well, under candlelight it was almost impossible to tell the difference between paste jewelry and jewelry made from real gemstones. Diamonds and gemstones were also often foiled so this added another level of imitation to paste, where the light would reflect and bounce around the stone in much the same way as the real counterparts. By backing paste in different colors - brilliant red for ruby, green for emerald, pink foil beneath a milky blue glass for opal - any kind of gemstone could be replicated. Colored foil was also used with real gemstones to enhance their color and make, say, a citrine look more like a topaz.


A Georgian necklace of faceted opaline and colorless pastes, set in silver, made in France, c.1740-50

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



A necklet with blue and white pastes set in silver floral openwork and with a pendant dove. Fitted with loops for ribbon ties. French, c.1760. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



A French necklace of sliver, hinged panels, set with colorless and opaline pastes, c.1760. Before Australian opals became accessible they were very rare, so here opal is replicated by pink foil beneath milky blue glass. This necklace would have been worn close around the neck like a choker

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



A necklace of opaline (a variety of paste imitating opal) and white pastes set in silver, with rosettes alternating with leaf devices and a pendant with bow and drop, possibly French, c.1760

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



Both pendants are set with opaline and colorless pastes in silver, and are in the form of a bow with a drop. Left: Western Europe, c.1750. Right: Probably France, c.1760

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



Large foiled blue paste stomacher set in gold, c.1770

From Georgian Jewellery by Ginny Redington Dawes and Olivia Collings



Both are pieces with opaline and colorless pastes set in silver. Left: a jewel in the form of flowers held by a bow, English, c.1770. Right: A bracelet clasp made in Western Europe, c.1790-1800

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



Mens' paste shoe buckles with an inner gold rim, the pastes set in silver, worn by Admiral Sir Rupert George, c.1780 - 1790. Knee buckles of pastes set in silver, early 19th century

From Jewels and Jewellery (V&A) by Clare Phillips



A selection of fine emerald pastes set in gold, c.1800

From Georgian Jewellery by Ginny Redington Dawes and Olivia Collings



An early 19th-century memorial ring, set with amethyst pastes and a neo-classical funeral urn on a white enamel background. Inscribed behind GEO/ NASSAU/ ARM/ OB:18. AUG 1823/ AET: 66. The ring commemorates George Richard Savage Nassau (1756-1823), a country gentleman and book collector from Suffolk. His library, described as 'choice, curious and valuable', contained over 1600 important seventeenth and eighteenth-century books when it was sold at auction in 1824

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London





Black-Dot Paste


Georgian paste from skilled craftsmen often had a black dot painted on the culet – the tip at the bottom of the gem. This helps give the paste a greater illusion of depth and is a mark of careful craftsmanship.


Georgian pendant in silver and gold with an 8.5ct amethyst and black dot pastes

From @sparklingvintagegems via Instagram



Portuguese Georgian-era black dot paste brooch, crafted from sterling silver settings with 12ct gold scalloped details, the pastes backed in peach-colored foils

Via Lillicoco



A silver girandole earring with three pear-shaped drops hanging from a floral spray below a disc. The front of each element is entirely covered with white pastes of varying shapes and sizes, in closed settings, with a black spot painted on the cullet of each, Spanish, c.1800-1860

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London





ROCK CRYSTAL


Another material used to simulate diamonds in 18th-century jewelry was rock crystal - a natural, colorless quartz distinguishable from paste by being harder and colder. There were also specific kinds of rock crystal known according to where they were from, such as 'Bristowes', which were rose-cut rock crystals from Bristol, used to great effect in English and Flemish jewelry. Rock crystal was often used in exactly the same kind of jewelry as pastes, since they look so similar and both simulate the brilliance of diamonds. In fact, many pieces of jewelry use both rock crystal and paste in the same piece.


Silver and rock crystal pendeloque earrings, c.1780

From Georgian Jewellery by Ginny Redington Dawes and Olivia Collings



Brooch of rock crystal set in gold and silver, made in Western Europe, c.1760-70

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



A bodice ornament composed of a bow and a symmetrical arrangement of flowers. The large colored stones are golden-yellow topaz, sometimes described as 'sherry topaz'. The colorless stones are a mixture of colorless topaz and rock crystal. Possibly made in Portugal, c.1770

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



Pendant of rock crystal set in silver openwork with flower sprays, probably made in France, c.1750-1800

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London



Necklace of brilliant-cut rock crystals set in silver, backed with gold and decorated with leaf and bud pendants, France, c.1790-1805. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London




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This week's blog is all about the delicate, meticulous art of Essex crystal jewelry. These spectacular miniature paintings are otherwise known as 'reverse intaglio crystals' and were popular in the Victorian era and into the Edwardian era, being featured on buttons, stickpins, and cuff links for gentlemen, as well as on the brooches and pendants of ladies.

Rare late-19th century American reverse intaglio of a Boston terrier, set in a 14ct gold rope twist frame Antique Animal Jewelry




What is an Essex Crystal?


Essex crystal pieces are made from a piece of rock crystal, polished by hand repeatedly to create a domed cabochon with a flat base or back. A design is drawn on the flat side and is delicately hand-carved into the crystal, and then painted in reverse by a masterful maker. This is quite unlike normal intaglio, which is painted on the front, as everything has to be done in reverse and from the back. Painting directly into the carved inside of the dome gives the paintings an incredible three-dimensional or '‘trompe l’oeil' effect. Finally, the piece would be sealed with a backing, with early examples being backed onto gold foil, and later examples in mother of pearl and gold. These would often then have been framed by mounts made of sterling silver, 18ct or 22ct gold.


This might sound like a relatively straightforward task, but it was actually extremely difficult and required an incredibly high level of skill to achieve. The carving alone was often so small and so fine that a 'scribe pencil' and up to 250 different soft steel tools were needed to create such a piece, in combination with a special paste made out of diamond powder and oil. After the design was carved, the detail would then have to be painted on with extremely fine brushes, some of which may only have consisted of a single hair. As if this wasn't enough, the first colors to be laid on the metal support have to be the ones that need to be fired at the highest temperature. As more colors are added the enamel has to be periodically re-fired, with the colors that need the lowest temperatures going on last. This meant that the colors would not fade when exposed to light.


Given how complicated and skillful the process was, the secrets of making such pieces were often kept within particular families of craftsmen. It wasn't until cheaply produced imitations started to be made, cast in glass or later made from plastic instead of rock crystal, that the popularity of these pieces faded.




how the 'Essex Crystal' got its name


Although Essex crystal is the popular name for this kind of jewelry, it's actually a misattributed one. Essex Crystal does not, as you might've thought, have anything to do with the county of Essex. Stranger yet, it has nothing at all to do with the man who it was named after. To understand the story of the Essex Crystal, the first thing to know is that miniature portrait pieces, particularly miniature enamels, were very popular in the Victorian era. Queen Victoria herself was actually so enamored with the style that she appointed herself a royal enameler in 1839. His name was William Essex.


William Essex (1784 – 1869) was an English enamel painter thought by many to be the best enamelist of his generation, specializing in intricate miniatures. He exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1818 and wrote a treatise on the art of enameling. When in the mid-19th century reverse intaglio crystals began to appear on the market in Britain, the most famous and most skilled known miniature painter around was William Essex. It was his name that was on everyone's lips and it was assumed that these pieces, requiring such exquisite talent, could only have been created by such a celebrated miniature enamellist as Essex. This rumor was fed by the fact that one of Essex's students, William Bishop Ford, was known for creating enameled pieces set in jewelry with depictions of a fox head, which was a popular motif in Essex crystal jewelry. The name stuck, and the pieces became known as Essex crystal pieces, as they still are today - despite their having nothing at all to do with William Essex.


Miniature fox's headscarf pins, painted in enamel, made by William Bishop Ford. c.1875

Via Bonhams



Reverse intaglio crystal jewelry is a technique that is actually believed to have originated in Belgium, with the first person to sign their name to a piece being the Belgian artist Emile Marius Pradier. Reverse intaglio crystals were then developed and made popular in England by Thomas Cooke, who made crystals for Lambeth & Co, and who trained an apprentice in the art who then passed the secrets of Cooke's techniques down through his family.


The most common themes depicted on Essex crystal pieces are animals, flowers, and occasionally nautical motifs. Some of the most common animals found in Essex crystal jewelry are dogs, cats, racing horses, foxes, insects, and birds. Hunting animals and racing animals were particularly common in Essex crystal, where they would likely have been worn on stickpins and cuff links by men.




dogs


These may have included pet dogs, hunting dogs, and racing dogs, and many are commemorative pieces dedicated to animals that won races or were loved and passed away.


Reverse intaglio crystals in a dog collar design. The crystals feature from the top left: a Boxer, a Bull Terrier, a Jack Russell, a Ruff Collie, and in the center, a German Shepherd, English, c.1905

Via Hamshere Gallery



Victorian Essex crystal reverse-painted dog pendant in 14k yellow gold

Via Worthpoint.com



Gold brooch with a reversed crystal intaglio of the head of a red and white Welsh collie with an inscription on the reverse, c.1880. © The Trustees of the British Museum



Antique Essex crystal of a Pekingese dog in a diamond border

Antique Animal Jewelry


Antique Essex Crystal depicting a Dalmation

Antique Animal Jewelry



Late 19th-century reverse intaglio Essex crystal dog brooch depicting a Bull Terrier, with a mother-of-pearl background and a 14k frame with a riding crop bezel

Via 1stdibs



Antique Essex crystal French Bulldog cufflinks

Via Pinterest



Antique Essex crystal of two dogs looking up and to the left, bordered in rubies and diamonds

From Jackson Jewellers via Pinterest



Victorian Essex crystal of a ring Spaniel, (nee stickpin) converted using 18ct wide gold band Antique Animal Jewelry



A polychromed gold brooch set with a reverse intaglio crystal depicting a Yorkshire Terrier, c.1875-90

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London



Essex crystal stick pin featuring an English terrier dog, in 14kt gold

From carolmarksantiques via Instagram



Reverse intaglio box of a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, English, c.1880

Via Hamshere Gallery



Essex crystal of a spaniel, bordered in diamonds and rubies

Via Pinterest



Antique Long Haired Dachshund Essex Crystal Brooch

From Market Square Jewelers via Pinterest



Essex crystal Boston Terrier double band, shaped like dog's collars

From One Kings Lane via Pinterest



An Essex crystal reverse intaglio stick pin, featuring Miss Glendyne: winner of the Waterloo Cup 1885-6. The Waterloo Cup was a prestigious coursing event that attracted thousands of spectators

From thomasgloverjewels via Instagram



A reverse Essex crystal portrait of “Quick” the greyhound, with a rose-cut diamond surround mounted in silver and gold, c.1900. From simonteaklejewelry via Instagram




Reverse intaglio crystal 'clover leaf' brooch of three crystals, Malteses, Jack Russell, Yorkshie Terrier, 18ct gold and rose cut diamond set, English, c.1880

Via hamsheregallery.com



Antique Essex Crystal pin depicting a Hunting Dog, with a mother-of-pearI backing and set in a 14k gold

From A Dog's Tale Collectibles via Ruby Lane





Cats


Victorian 18k gold brooch set with 6 diamonds and a crystal reverse intaglio of a tabby cat, France, c.1880

From fabiandemontjoye via Instagram



Victorian/Edwardian-era Essex crystal of a Persian Cat brooch crafted in 18ct gold, set with diamonds and sapphires. From Millys Marvels Jewelry via Instagram



Antique Essex cat crystal in a border of diamonds set into a ring

Antique Animal Jewelry



Antique Essex crystal stickpin of a tabby cat

Antique Animal Jewelry



Reverse intaglio of a white cat

Via Pinterest



Essex crystal of a cat with a pearl border, suspended from a gold bow

Via Pinterest



Ginger cat Edwardian Essex crystal with rubies and diamonds

Via rowanandrowan.com




Birds


Rare Victorian Essex crystal brooch depicting a European goldfinch, c.1860

From The French Jewel Box via Instagram



Antique Essex crystal ring depicting a goldfinch against a backdrop of leaves

Antique Animal Jewelry




onlinegalleries.com



Antique reverse intaglio crystal of three birds on a branch, bordered in diamonds

Antique Animal Jewelry



Antique reverse intaglio crystal finch bracelet, set in gold with a gold beading border

Antique Animal Jewelry



Gold pendant with a reversed crystal intaglio of a robin in a snowy landscape, with a compartment on the reverse containing a tinted photograph of a bearded man in a gold locket-case, c.1860

© The Trustees of the British Museum




Edwardian goose crystal watch

From thevintagefox.com



A very rare stickpin by famed Austrian jeweler Ernst Paltscho. Made of solid 18ct gold, set with an Essex crystal of a male capercaillie or woodcock - a large grouse renowned for its courtship display, and backed in mother of pearl, c.1910. From victoriousantique via Instagram



Essex crystal of a Long Billed Dowitcher with a diamond border

Antique Animal Jewelry



Essex crystal snuff box mounted in hallmarked 18ct yellow gold and set with a single cabochon sapphire. Reverse carved & painted scene of hunting birds in a woodland setting

Via Ebay



Antique reverse intaglio / Essex crystal of a Pheasant

Antique Animal Jewelry



Late 19th-century gold brooch with a reversed crystal intaglio of two pheasants in a landscape backed with mother-of-pearl, in a gold collet setting. © The Trustees of the British Museum



Gold brooch with a reversed crystal intaglio of a cock pheasant amidst ferns and grasses with an applied gold ivy leaf in each corner and an applied gold trade label, made by John Brogden, c.1870

© The Trustees of the British Museum






Insects


Bees were a popularly depicted insect in miniature jewelry, symbolizing industriousness. They were particularly sought after for their association with Napoleon Bonaparte, who took the bee as his emblem to represent his status as Emperor.


A gold brooch with a reversed crystal intaglio of a bee set in gold ropework and beading with a hair compartment in the reverse, photographed alongside bee stick pins, c.1870

© The Trustees of the British Museum



Essex crystal reverse intaglio Bumblebee brooch, set in high-carat gold with granulated decoration, c.1880

Via Rowan and Rowan



Victorian 18kt reverse intaglio Essex crystal Bumblebee pin, c.1880. Backed in mother-of-pearl and set within an 18kt yellow gold frame, etched with vertical lines

Via A. Brandt and Son



Essex crystal reverse intaglio butterfly set in 18ct gold with a natural ruby and rose-cut diamond border converted from a pin to a pendant, c.1880

From elizabethroseantiques via Instagram



Antique 18kt gold and reverse-painted crystal brooch, depicting a butterfly and bellflowers, with an enamel border. Via Skinner




gentlemen's Edwardian crystal spider cufflinks www.1stdibs.com



Foxes


A wily reverse intaglio fox set inside a golden hunting horn brooch, c.1900

From Lang Antiques



A reverse intaglio crystal tie pin depicting an open-mouthed fox, set in 14k gold, made by Wilkens & Danger in Bremen, Germany, c.1940

From Beck Antiques and Jewellery via Etsy



Antique Essex crystal fox ring

Antique Animal Jewelry




1stdibs.com



Horses


Antique Essex crystal yellow gold stickpin with a racing horse in full gallop, straddled by a jockey

From matthew.weldons via Instagram



Reverse intaglio crystal stickpin depicting a horse within a rose-cut diamond horseshoe, platinum-topped, 18kt gold mount. Via Skinner



Reverse intaglio crystal brooch depicting two horses mounted in a 14kt gold stirrup

Via Skinner



Reverse intaglio crystal of a horse set into a gold money clip

Antique Animal Jewelry



Three reverse crystal horses heads, set into gold hunting horns with stirrups between to create a bracelet

Via showstableartisans.com



Antique horse and carriage Essex crystal stick pin

Antique Animal Jewelry



Antique Essex crystal horse and carriage with gold beading border

From @ishyantiques via Instagram



Reverse painted crystal brooch set in a gold hunting horn

From 1stdibs via Pinterest




Other Animals


Edwardian 14k gold reverse intaglio Essex crystal Antelope pin

From Kirsten's Corner via Ruby Lane



Essex crystal 14kt brooch/pendant

From Ruby Lane via Pinterest



Victorian gold-mounted Essex crystal pendant of a stag on a rocky ledge, backed with mother of pearl and with a border of Etruscan revival wire and bead-work with a glazed locket compartment to the reverse

Via Bonhams



running hare stickpin conversion ring from antique animal jewelry





Flowers


Possibly used as a watch fob, this die-shaped charm has six Essex crystals including a ladybird, a four-leaf clover, and white heather, which can be seen here. Made in 15k gold and dating to the Victorian era

From Fellows via chatsworthlady.com



A Victorian die-shaped Essex crystal parasol handle made of gold and accented with diamonds, displaying six different flowers. From this angle, we can see a daisy with a bee on it, an iris, and a red carnation

Via chatsworthlady.com



A Victorian Essex crystal parasol handle displaying a single white rose, with a second crystal on the reverse (not photographed) showing a red carnation

Via chatsworthlady.com



An Essex crystal bouquet of lily of the valley on a gold pendant with milgrain edge and bale trim

From Peter Wilson Fine Art Auctioneers via chatsworthlady.com





Nautical pieces


Nautical Essex crystal scene set in a gold ship's wheel

From 1stibs via Pinterest



An Essex crystal sailing ship mounted in 14k gold accented with deep blue and crisp white enameling, hallmarked Enos Richardson & Company, an American jewelry manufacturer (1890s - Art Deco era)

Via Skinner



Reverse crystal intaglio Sailfish cuff links

From Lang Antiques



14k gold mounted Essex crystal reverse intaglio Trout pin, in a fly rod border

From Ruby Lane via Pinterest



Pair of earrings each formed of a double reversed crystal intaglio, mounted back to back, in a gold setting, depicting goldfish in round bowls, made by William James Thomas, c.1870

© The Trustees of the British Museum



A pair of Victorian reverse intaglio crystal ear pendants, c.1870

Via Christie's



18kt gold and reverse intaglio crystal fishbowl ear pendants, each in a cylindrical bowl with a ruby and pearl fringe, suspended by ribbed batons from disc surmount with applied ropework accents, c.1870s

Via Skinner




To wrap up, here are a few more of Antique Animal Jewelry's Essex Crystal and Miniature enamel pieces:



For more rare Georgian and Victorian jewelry, follow Antique Animal Jewelry on Instagram.

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