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Berlin Iron Jewelry: From Prussia with Love

This week's blog offers some insight into the trend of Berlin Iron, the dark, lacquered metal that became internationally fashionable in the early 1800s, during the Napoleonic Wars, and remained fashionable - at least to some extent - until the end of the century.

Necklace, iron, with classical figures in silhouette, with vine and acanthus decoration, Germany, c. 1820. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The origins of the fashion

So, what was so great about jewelry made from an inexpensive, dark, and dull material like iron?

Well, at the very beginning of its production at the turn of the 18th century, Berlin iron was popular as a material used in mourning jewelry. With a matte black lacquer finish - used to prevent rust - it presented an appropriately somber and affordable choice for those grieving the loss of loved ones.

The process involved molding wax which was then pressed into sand, creating a mold into which molten iron could be poured. The pieces were then hand-finished with the black lacquer. Berlin iron is said to have first been made in the Gleiwitz Foundry in Silesia, Prussia, in the 1790s, but production was soon taken over by the Royal Berlin Foundry (Königliche Eisengiesserei bei Berlin) in 1804, also situated in Prussia at that time, and from which it takes its name.

The origins of Berlin iron in Prussia plays an important role in the rise of Berlin iron to a position of international fashion. For a bit of context, Prussia at its peak included much of modern-day Germany and western Poland, as well as various parts of what is now Belgium, Czechia, the Netherlands, Russia, and even Switzerland. Prussia became a huge force throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries: waging war and seizing land across Europe to grow its kingdom.

Photo from Britannica.com

However, Prussia was not alone in its attempts at expansion at this time - in Russia, Alexander I was accruing a sizeable landmass of his own, and in France, Napoleon I was bulldozing his way across Europe in pursuit of his dream of becoming the Emperor of the world. In 1806, Prussia went to war with Napoleon I in France and lost, facing overwhelming defeat. In the treaty that followed, the kingdom of Prussia was enormously reduced in size and was made to pay an exorbitant amount in acceptance of the French occupation of much of its territory. As a result of the occupation of Berlin, molds were 'confiscated' from the foundry, and the manufacturing of 'Fer de Berlin' spread to Paris - though it remained a primarily Prussian specialty.

Now, here's where Berlin iron really comes into the spotlight. In 1812, Napoleon I's French grande armée was defeated in Russia, and occupied Prussia was faced with a choice: cooperate with Russia and go to war with France, freeing themselves from French occupation, or remain occupied by Napoleon I's dwindling forces. In 1813, Prussia went to war, in what was known as one of the Wars of Liberation.

Severely lacking in money after paying so much to the French occupation, the Prussian Royal family asked the aristocracy and upper classes to donate their precious jewelry to help fund the war, particularly gold. In return, those who contributed were given iron jewelry (an inexpensive replacement) for their loyalty, many of which were inscribed with the phrase, 'Gold gab ich für Eisen' (I gave gold for iron), or 'Für das Wohl des Vaterlands' (For the welfare of our country/ the fatherlands), and some of which are also dated 1813 or feature a portrait of the Prussian king, Frederick William III.

This was the making moment of the fashion - in this action, Berlin iron became more than just a mourning material or cheap metal - it became a material imbued with patriotism, loyalty, and resistance (against Napoleon's forces), giving it a huge amount of symbolic weight.

Iron Cross, with a medallion head of Frederick William III of Prussia on the obverse. The reverse inscribed 'Unvergeslich 1813' (unforgettable). Voided Maltese cross with an oval medallion on the intersection of the limbs. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Wedding ring "I gave gold for iron", Berlin 1813 Museum of the City of Dortmund, via Wikipedia

'I gave gold for iron in 1813' Berlin iron ring, via The Prussian Correspondent

The peak of the fashion

After the Wars of Liberation made Berlin iron into something extremely desirable to be seen wearing in Prussia, and once France (the European 'center of fashion') had started producing their own pieces of 'Berlin' ironwork, the trend took off around Europe, and Berlin iron became internationally in demand. The production of Berlin iron peaked in the 1830s when Berlin alone had 27 foundries.

Bracelet, iron, probably made in Germany (Berlin), designed about 1820-30. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Locket bracelet, cast iron, lozenge shape of filigree foliage with a central rectangle design, Berlin, c.1820s. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Necklace, iron with polished steel mounts. It consists of sixteen links alternating foliage and rosettes surrounded by tracery. The rosettes are set on burnished steel. A quatrefoil of tracery completes the design of each foliage link, Germany, c.1820s. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cast iron earrings, Berlin, c.1830. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pair of Earrings, Royal Prussian Iron Foundry, Berlin c.1820-30. Via Birmingham Museum of Art.


Throughout the early 1800s, neoclassicism was very much the fashion of the times. A revival of Roman, empirical style jewelry was popularized in France by Napoleon I and Empress Josephine, and the new classical style spread across central Europe (much of which was occupied by France). The occupied German Kingdoms lent towards a more Hellenic image than Napoleon I's Roman one, with the beautiful Prussian Queen Louise (wife of Frederick William III) amongst the most influential trendsetters of this neoclassical Greek style. Because it was so much in fashion at the time, many pieces of early Berlin iron jewelry are neoclassical in style.

Favorite subjects depicted in early Berlin iron pieces included ancient Greek warriors, Cupid (god of love), and Psyche (goddess of the soul), often depicted on cast-iron copies of cameos. James Tassie's glass pastes and Josiah Wedgwood's jasperware were used as the source for many of these copies. Using motifs such as acanthus leaves and palmettes was also very popular at this time.

Necklace in cast-iron with nine neoclassical 'cameos' in gold collet settings, linked by festoons of fine iron chain. Germany, c.1805. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Necklace, iron cameos on polished steel mounts set in gold on steel mesh ribbon, Germany, c.1815-20.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Berlin ironwork necklace, possibly from Berlin, c.1815. Via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bracelet of openwork cast 'Berlin' ironwork with five classical figures in medallions, Berlin, c.1820.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

This necklace is a remarkable example of the caster's art. The individual narrative elements are encircled by ovoid frames that were cast separately and then joined to create a silhouette effect. Necklace, iron openwork plaques of classical subjects alternating with flowers, set in gold; intermediate links with gold griffins' heads, Germany, c.1820-30. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Berlin iron bracelet of cast-iron openwork in oblong links with stylized foliage and cameo of warrior's head, Berlin, c.1820-1830. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Berlin Iron Collier, blackened, gilded, with steel elements, Germany, c.1820-40. Photo via Very Important Lot Auctioneers

This piece reflects both the virtuosity of the foundries and the upper range of their clientele, as only women in the highest level of society would wear such an object. This splendid piece combines a Neo-classical cameo with Gothic Revival ornamentation. Comb, iron with a cameo of Iris set in the gallery, Germany, c.1820. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gothic Revival Style

In this last piece, you might notice that there are elements of the Gothic Revival style sitting, unusually, alongside a neoclassical cameo. While the neoclassical style dominated from the late 1700s until it died-out around the 1820s or 30s, Gothic Revival styles began to take over by the 1820s, lasting until the end of the century. The Neo-Gothic movement actually began around the mid-18th century, but it took almost sixty years for it to reach mainstream thought.

Berlin iron craftsmen began incorporating motifs found in Gothic architecture - like trefoils and quatrefoils (plants with 3 or 4 leaflets such as the clover), and pointed arches like those seen in cathedrals - into their works of jewelry. Neo-Gothic Berlin ironwork became very popular in fashion, especially because the look of the black metal complimented the Gothic style perfectly. Since the two styles overlapped, however, some makers incorporated both classical and gothic elements into their pieces.

The Gothic Revival was not only an aesthetic movement but took hold of the European imagination as a way of thinking that stood in direct opposition to a lot of neoclassical thinking. It was used as a way to combat classicism and the industrialization of society, with its opposing reflection of 'proper Christian values'. While neoclassicism had been born from a kind of liberalism - idealizing the pursuit of knowledge and individualism - the Gothic Revival supported conservatism, the church, and the God-appointed bloodlines of the 'true' monarchy.

In 1815, after the Allied victory at Waterloo, travel to England from elsewhere in Europe was once again open, and it didn't take long before iron jewelry was being cast in Great Britain. Following Napoleon's defeat and the success of the Wars of Liberation, and as Napoleon I's influence began to fade across Europe, so did the fashion of neoclassicism. People sought to distance themselves from Napoleon I and his ideologies, and what better alternative existed than to embrace an opposing one? A great push to the Gothic Revival style in England has its roots in this.

Berlin ironwork necklace with cross pendant, German or French, c.1830.

Via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cross pendant formed of lozenge-shaped filigree tracery at each end of the cross. A flower device covers the central pin, Berlin (probably), c.1820-30. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Berlin iron necklace, formed of nine large links each formed of three panels of gothic tracery joined to foliage in the angles and a rosette backed with burnished steel. Smaller lozenge-shaped links of similar work are hung between the larger links, Berlin, c.1820-30. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pair of earrings, cast iron, in the gothic style. The lanceolate style is formed of pointed arch tongues filled with Gothic tracery taken from architectural details, Germany, c.1820-30. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cross from the Royal Prussian Iron Foundry, Berlin, or possibly made by Geiss. Similarly taking details from Gothic architecture. c.1820-30. Via Birmingham Museum of Art.

Famous Makers of Berlin Iron

Johnn Conrad Geiss was a notable Berlin iron artist-craftsman believed to be the first designer to use both classical and gothic motifs on the same piece. He was a pioneer of many innovative techniques in casting and his ideas were widely copied.

This vine leaf motif was originally designed by Johnn Conrad Geiss. Brooch, iron, decorated with vine leaf motifs and with a central rosette, Berlin, c. 1820. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bracelet, iron with gothic tracery, and classical acanthus foliage. The central link of foliage springs from an oval rosette with links alternately formed of two trefoils and an oblong panel of gothic tracery with foliage sprouting from either end. Marked with the inscription 'GEISS BERLIN', c.1820-30. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Berlin Ironwork Suite in Gothic style, designed as a series of trefoil and quatrefoil links decorated with floral and acanthus leaf motifs, accompanied by two bracelets, an additional bracelet link, and a pair of earrings en suite, c.1830, by Johan Conrad Geiss. Via Bonhams.

A group of early 19th century Berlin ironwork jewelry: a bracelet of scrolling panels to a cartouche design clasp with flowerhead center, signed Geiss A Berlin; a necklace of scroll panels with floral centers; a pair of cagework design articulated ear pendants. Via Christie's.

Other renowned Berlin iron artist-craftsmen of the time included the likes of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who was famous as the main maker who introduced the gothic style to Berlin iron, as well as Lehmann, Hossauer, and Devaranne (who won an international reputation for the delicacy of the casting of his iron jewelry.).

Waist-buckle in cast-iron openwork with scroll ornament patinated black, inscribed, 'Deveranne Ac. Kunstl. a Berlin', c.1850. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The manufacturer of this clasp, August Ferdinand Lehmann established himself in Berlin as a manufacturer of fine cast goods in 1830. Iron belt ornament made up of five plaques of floral design linked with iron rings. Marked 'A.F. Lehmann a Berlin', c.1820 (designed). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bracelet, iron, the clasp signed by A.F. Lehmann, Berlin. The back formed of four long plaques of tracery and foliage, five smaller plaques of vine-foliage, and a clasp of cusped tracery with an applied rosette, Berlin, c.1820s. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Iron buckle signed 'Devaranne Ac. Kunstl a Berlin', probably by Siméon Pierre Devaranne, Germany (Berlin), c. 1820. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pin, iron, by Siméon Pierre Devaranne, Germany (Berlin), c. 1833. This example was probably shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Simeon Piene Devaranne, goldsmith and manufacturer of cast iron, was, like Geiss, recognized as an artist-craftsman by the Berlin Royal Academy. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Iron bracelet, probably by Siméon Pierre Devaranne, Germany (Berlin), c. 1815-1820. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pair of earrings, Berlin iron, openwork butterflies with drops set over polished steel, probably made by Siméon Pierre Devaranne in Germany (Berlin), early 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pair of Berlin ironwork bracelets, each formed of seven openwork links. The catches depict a spray of flowers within a border of flowers. Four links display rectangles held top and bottom by an arch of three scrolls lined with scrolls and trefoils, the other two depict a flower in an acanthus and fleur-de-lys cross, with more acanthus above and below. The middle link shows scrolls centered by the same floral spray as on the catch. Made by Devaranne, Berlin, c.1820-30.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Floral and naturalistic Motifs in Berlin Iron

You may also notice that, across both styles and also existing separately to each, many Berlin iron pieces depict intricately embellished floral motifs and natural forms such as vines, leaves, flowers, and other foliage or natural forms. In the emerging age of sentimentality - where plants and animals held such symbolic significance - they provided a great and meaningful accompaniment to any design.

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