• Antique Animal Jewelry

The Cut Steel Craze

This week's blog looks at the advent of cut steel in jewelry, a type of metalwork that became very fashionable between the late-18th and mid-19th centuries.

Made to shine and reflect light beautifully like diamonds - and used on anything from earrings, necklaces, and brooches, to buttons, shoe buckles, and sword hilts - cut steel was a huge trend in the Georgian and Victorian-eras. Spreading quickly from its origins in Woodstock, near Oxford, it soon took hold in other English cities, and then France, Spain, and beyond.

Cut steel framed button set with a jasper plaque showing the signs of the Zodiac. Made in the Josiah Wedgwood factory and possibly set by Matthew Boulton. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cut Steel Jewelry

So, what actually is 'cut steel' jewelry?

In short, cut steel jewelry is jewelry set with small steel studs or beads. Each stud was faceted, polished, and often carefully riveted in place through tiny holes in a base plate. They were faceted and mounted to catch as much light as possible, providing a brilliance to rival that of diamonds. Early examples of these steel studs could have up to fifteen facets, making them shine and sparkle beautifully. In fact, as a general rule, the finer and older the piece the more facets the studs are likely to have.

The facets on the steel studs were produced using a method called 'chip carving', which was an ancient technique traditionally used on bone and wood. Initially, cut steel was seen as a more affordable alternative to diamonds - an imitative product that emulated the same kind of sparkle very effectively. But, as the popularity of cut steel grew, it became a desirable and fashionable material in its own right, sometimes even almost outpricing its gemstone inspiration. The workmanship of steel at the time was also time-consuming and highly specialized, meaning that there were only a few particular places you could get cut steel wares from.

It is believed that the production of cut-steel ornaments started as early as the 1600s, in Woodstock, near Oxford. But, it wasn't until the mid-1700s that demand started to grow exponentially and cut steel jewelry really started to take-off. The steel for these beautiful diamond imitations was often sourced, quite unbelievably, from horseshoe nails - which could be found strewn about the muddy lanes of English villages in the eighteenth century.

In the 1750s, in France, King Louis XV publicly requested that France's wealthier members of society donate their precious gems and jewelry to help fund his military campaigns during the Seven Years War. In need of substitute jewelry for what they donated (or hid), cut-steel jewelry began being exported in a big way from England to France. The production of cut steel jewelry in England boomed. By 1760, London, Birmingham, and Wolverhampton had all joined Woodstock in becoming important centers of the trade.

(One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between early Woodstock-produced cut steel and cut steel produced elsewhere in England is in the switch from screwed studs to riveted studs. Woodstock screwed studs could be removed, polished, and screwed back in, while riveted studs could not.)

Cut steel parure of early work c.1785, possibly made in Tula, Russia. From Georgian Jewellery: 1714-1830 by Redington Dawes and Collings.

From left to right: cut steel and green foiled glass cabochon drop earrings, cut steel drop earrings with foil backed red-tinted glass cabochon centers, earrings with cut steel tops and molded bottoms. All Victorian or earlier. Via Morning Glory Jewelry.

Pair of Bracelets, steel sequins with cut steel clasps. Three openwork links of flat polished units joined by lateral strips, terminating at each end with oval clasps embellished with steel bosses. These bracelets were once mounted on silk ribbon to prevent the wrists being scratched by the sharp links. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pair of bracelets, bands of cut steel sequins; oval clasps decorated with circular and shuttle-shaped faceted steel studs. The two can be joined together to make a necklace, c. 1780-1800. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Georgian/Early Victorian cut steel daisy flowers motif necklace. Faceted polished steel studs riveted to a steel backing. Each tiny stud has 12 facets. Via Morning Glory Jewelry.

Important cut steel necklace, early 1800s, from Georgian Jewellery: 1714-1830 by Redington Dawes and Collings.

Fine cut steel necklace c.1800, from Georgian Jewellery: 1714-1830 by Redington Dawes and Collings.

Fifteen-piece cut steel parure in leather case, c.1810. This parure, includes a necklace, a tiara, earrings, a bodice ornament, a lorgnette, cuffs, and a pair of bracelets. Napoleon presented a cut-steel parure to his second wife, Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria, and King Louis XVIII acquired a similar set at the Paris Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie of 1823. Via MetMuseum.

Cut-steel tiara from Spare Room Antiques. Photo via The Jewellery Editor

Brooch of cut steel in the form of a scallop shell, c.1840.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Famous Makers

The most famous maker of cut-steel jewelry in England at the end of the 18th century was the manufacturer and entrepreneur, Matthew Boulton, who was based in Birmingham. By using both cutting-edge technology and women as cheap labor, Birmingham (under Boulton's supervision) eventually overshadowed Woodstock, becoming the primary source for cut steel in England. Among Boulton's most successful wares were the mounts he made for English potter and 'jasperware' producer, Josiah Wedgwood.

Boulton and Wedgwood were good friends, alternately cooperating and competing, and in the combination of their crafts, they brought a unique use of color to cut steel designs: an attractive combination of blue and white jasperware cameos or plaques with cut steel mounts, borders, or other elements. Cameos were a prevalent part of fashionable neoclassical jewelry, as we have discussed in some of our previous blogs, and this bringing together of two prominent trends proved very popular.

The three items are probably a clasp for a bag, a cut steel buckle with a blue jasper medallion depicting Leopold 11 - the Austrian Emperor - and a necklace made from cut steel beads mounted with a blue jasper medallion, all by Wedgwood. Wedgwood had an agent in Russia, and his ceramics were very popular with Russian nobility. c. 1790-1800. Via National Museums Liverpool.

A tiara made from cut steel beads mounted with blue jasper medallions and pearls, by Wedgwood. It is very likely that this tiara was made at Boulton's Soho manufactory, c.1790. Via National Museums Liverpool.

Fob by Josiah Wedgwood and Matthew Boulton. Cut steel (Boulton) with blue jasperware (Wedgwood) depicting Apollo, c. 1785-1790. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Left: cut steel mounted with a jasper plaque showing Libra, a sign of the Zodiac (c. 1775). Right: Brooch with a cut steel frame, set with a blue jasper plaque showing Hercules and the Arcadian stag (c. 1780-90). Both by Josiah Wedgwood and very likely Matthew Boulton.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Left: A circular blue dip jasperware frame showing the signs of the zodiac, mounted in a cut steel beaded frame with suspension ring and backed in orange silk (c.1770-1800). Right: An oval jasperware plaque depicting the Greek figures of Hygeia and her father Aesculapius, set in cut steel bezel with suspension loop and fitted with a bombé glass cover. Josiah Wedgwood (& Sons). © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

One of Matthew Boulton's other very notable partners was James Watt, known for his 'rotative steam engine', which was installed in Boulton's Soho Manufactory in Birmingham in 1788. Also known as the 'Lap Engine', it was one of the most modern production techniques available at the time for grinding and polishing steel wares, and allowed Boulton to mass-produce his cut steel ornaments - making them cheaper than those of his competitors in Woodstock and London.

Buttons and Buckles

Buttons were thought to be the most popular items of cut steel being manufactured at the time (being the only ornament many people could afford), followed closely by shoe buckles and belt buckles. Cut steel buttons and buckles were both functional and fashionable, as well as being worn by both men and women, increasing their popularity enormously.

By the late 18th century, however, cut steel was so sought-after and the designs so intricate that even buttons became very expensive. The business was big enough and demand so high that it was often considered to be more valuable than gold. In 1777, the 'Earl of W' was charged 28 guineas (almost £30!) for a set of buttons, and it is known that customers were supplied with cards of designs to choose from by reputable cut steel jewelry makers for similar prices.

'Steel Buttons/ Coup de Bouton' - a cartoon advertising the 'dazzling' quality of fashionable cut steel buttons (1777). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Cut steel button, the outer circle of beads individually riveted in place on a cast plate c.1795. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cut steel button, the outer circle of beads individually riveted in place on a cast plate c.1795. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A pair of buttons made from cut steel, perhaps later adapted for use as cuff-links. Individual faceted steel studs are attached to a backplate through a series of carefully spaced holes, c. 1800. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These buttons are from a set for a man's waistcoat and would have been worn under a matching formal coat with larger buttons of the same design. Buttons of blue jasperware with white relief, mounted in cut steel, c.1785-1800. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A cut steel Victorian buckle. Via Verify Vintage Jewelry.

A rectangular jasperware plaque with rounded edge, showing a putti seated on a scrolling motif with a trumpet to his lips, set into a pierced and faceted cut steel setting. Wedgwood, c. 1770-1800. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

The demand for shoe buckles in the 18th century was enormous, with dandies openly boasting of owning fifty or more different types of buckles. Fashionable fops of the 1770s were known for wearing large buckles made of gold, silver, and other faux gemstones like cut steel. Gentlemen often wore matching shoe and knee buckles. Amazingly, shoe buckles became such a fashionable trend that at one point they were considered by some to be even more important than the shoe itself!

Shoe buckle, cut steel mounted with jasperware plaques probably by Josiah Wedgwood. The buckles with rounded corners, decorated with rows of facetted bosses, c.1776-1820. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pair of shoe buckles, cut steel, leather, decorated with a faceted steel beaded rim and leather-covered center. Leather inserts for buckles were used from the mid-1780s onwards on men's buckles. As fastenings became more complicated black leather became a convenient covering for new mechanisms. By the 1790s black patent leather was also very fashionable for buckles, c.1792-1806. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Pair of regency antique shoe buckles made from cut steel c.1820. Via Ruby Lane.

A pair of Victorian cut steel shoe buckles circa 1870.

Via Morning Glory Jewelry

Chatelaines and Sword Hilts

The likes of cut steel chatelaines and sword hilts probably offers up some of the best examples of how cut steel infiltrated both male and female fashions with equal intensity.

As well as being used in unisex ornaments like belt buckles and buttons, cut steel was used in women's jewelry - from earrings and bracelets to necklaces and tiaras - as well as in such wonders as the housekeeper or housewife's 'Chatelaine'. A practical and decorative accessory, the chatelaine hung from the waist, and via a system of clips and chains held small tools such as watches, keys, scissors, tweezers, magnifying glasses, scent flasks and miniature notebooks or ivory writing tablets.

Cut steel chatelaine made by Joseph Banks Durham. The hook-plate inscribed on the reverse, 'Durham/ Cutler to H.R.H. Prince Albert/456 Oxford Street', c. 1850. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cut-steel chatelaine with attachments, the hook-plate formed as a crowned monogram, c. 1885.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Far from being a fashion exclusive to women, cut steel was very popular amongst men in the form of buttons and buckles, as well as sword hilts. From around the mid-17th century, 'small swords' - light swords with short, flexible, pointed blades - were worn regularly by men. Such swords were worn less as a means of self-defence than as a show of status for the well-dressed gentleman, and were also often worn by boys on formal occasions.

The small sword was very popular even into late 18th century, by which time they had become the work of jewellers and goldsmiths rather than swordsmiths. With blades tucked away in scabbards, it was the expensive and often elaborately designed hilts that bore social significance. With this in mind, cut steel sword hilts became very popular, with Matthew Boulton's pattern books containing many such designs.

A small sword with a case and scabbard, cut steel hilt and sheath mounts, c. 1775. Due to the superior polish and the screw cut steel studs, this is believed to have been made in Woodstock, near Oxford. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A boy's sword, manufactured by Matthew Boulton at the Soho Factory, c.1775. The facets were cut into the surface of the steel to improve the reflecting qualities of the highly polished surface. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A steel dress sword with a leather scabbard. Hilt decorated with cut steel beads (Boulton) and blue jasper medallions (Wedgwood). It is very likely that this sword was made at Boulton's Soho manufactory. Via National Museums Liverpool and © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Cut Steel Production in France

Eventually, the French demand for cut steel and the apparent profitability of the trade pushed the French into starting-up their own cut steel workshops. During the French Revolution, trade with England was brought to an end for a while, which also meant that an end was put to cut steel trade between England and France.

By the time the revolution was over, French workshops were able to handle their own domestic cut steel demand without needing English imports.

These butterfly earrings are typical of the cut steel goods exported from France to much of Europe and America in the second half of the nineteenth century. The cut steel earrings are in the form of butterflies with double wings and antennae. The faceted steel studs cover the entire surface of the back plate, c.1875. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Also typical of the cut steel goods exported from France. A brooch in the form of a butterfly. The wings, with curved tips, are encrusted with small faceted steel studs with three larger flat-topped studs on the upper sections and two on the lower sections. The body is made of a long tapering stud with diagonal facets at the bottom and oval and circular flat-topped studs, c.1875. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The End of the Cut Steel Craze

The cut steel craze started to come to an end in the late nineteenth century. By this time, Matthew Boulton and Watt's 'rotative steam engine' was no longer on the cutting-edge of new technology, and cut steel was being mass-manufactured everywhere. The intricacy of the original fifteen-faceted screw studs that took many hours of specialist craftsmanship to make had been reduced to five-faceted riveted studs that could be produced anywhere and were of such low quality that not many examples have lasted, as they were liable to corrosion. Demand began to fall, and cut steel went firmly out of fashion.

That said, the surviving works from earlier in the cut steel craze remain beautiful works of loving labor, polished steel, and ingenuity. They each shine with a dazzling grey-ish brightness all their own, and it is easy to see why they were once so loved.

To wrap up, here are a few of Antique Animal Jewelry's very own beautiful cut steel pieces:

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