Gilding the Way: Metal Finishes in Antique Jewelry
In antique jewelry, there were several different types of metal finishes for gilding or silvering jewelry that were frequently used to achieve the look of solid gold or silver without costing quite so much. From fire-gilding to mercury mixes and mechanical bonding, each method is unique in the technique used and the effect achieved, producing products of varying quality.
Ormolu pinchbeck chatelaine incorporating scissors case, needle case, etui and two thimble cases, probably England, 1730-35 - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Pinchbeck, invented by London clock and watchmaker Christopher Pinchbeck in the early 18th century, is a form of brass (copper and zinc alloy) mixed in the right quantities to resemble gold. Since the gold for sale at that time tended to be 18-carat quality, Pinchbeck could be made to look very similar to gold jewelry and was just as durable while costing a lot less. It's also known as 'poor man's gold'. Sometimes, pinchbeck was specifically used to make traveling or "stagecoach" jewelry so that if it was stolen while someone was traveling, which was not uncommon in those days, it was not such a costly loss.
Original Pinchbeck was made by the Pinchbeck family until the 1830s. Gold was scarce in the 18th century and early 1800s so Pinchbeck became very desirable, but Christopher kept the formula for his invention - 87% copper and 13% zinc - a secret, passing it on to his son who continued the work for a short time. After this, crooked jewelers tried to pass pinchbeck off as gold to make more money from it, and began using other cheap gold alternatives like gold casing and gold plated or gold filled to imitate Pinchbeck, never quite equalling its quality.
The name Pinchbeck was eventually used to indicate tacky or cheap imitation gold, though it never began as such. Good Pinchbeck pieces should really be Georgian, dated no later than the 1830s, and there should be no evidence of gold coming off (which would indicate plate or gold filled). With the legalization of 9 karat gold in 1854, Pinchbeck soon fell out of use completely.
Pinchbeck chatelaine chased with figures probably representing Apollo and Minerva in a shagreen and fabric case, England or Germany, c.1730. Contains scissors and a pencil holder. - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Pinchbeck 24" chain necklace embossed with tiny stars on every link and with a 200-year-old patina, c.1800-1820. The barrel clasp of this chain is a late Victorian addition but matches the color of the chain perfectly - From Aesthetic Engineering Fine Jewels and Antiques via RubyLane
A Prince of Wales twist chain, c.1820 - Antique Jewellery Company
Georgian Pinchbeck Guard Chain with small colored paste stones adorning the clasp - Antique Jewellery Company
Georgian era pinchbeck spiral woven necklace, English, c.1830 - via 1stDibs
An antique pinchbeck necklace of interlocking oval and circular ringed links with half-ball spacers, completed by a heart-shaped padlock clasp decorated with emerald, ruby, and white paste atop a filigreed pattern, c.1830 - Via 1stDibs
An engraved pinchbeck heart with a locket fitting to the reverse, c.1820 - Antique Jewellery Company
Incredibly detailed antique Georgian bracelet made of Pinchbeck with four hand-painted porcelain portraits framed and inset on elaborately decorated panels, c.1820 - via 1stDibs
Georgian matching wide twin Pinchbeck bracelets - From @madamebrocante via Instagram
Georgian Pinchbeck bracelet with a heart padlock - From @madamebrocante via Instagram
This type of gold plating goes by many names: vermeil, gold vermeil, silver gilt, or gilded silver. As is perhaps obvious from its name, this involves coating silver with a light layer of gold. Before the use of electrolysis in gilding, the fire-gilding method was used. This involves applying an amalgam of gold and mercury to an object of silver. The mercury evaporates when the piece is fired in the kiln, leaving a gold deposit on the surface. After this, the piece is often burnished.
It was often done using 14k yellow gold, as the gold needed to be at least 10 karats and 2.5 microns thick, on sterling silver or fine silver. Imitations of vermeil sometimes used yellow lacquer on silver leaf. To identify vermeil, you must know the base metal, gold thickness, and gold quality of the piece. The marking number "925" can also be a good identifier - if you spot this on a gold piece it means that the jewelry is 92.5% silver, so you can assume that it is vermeil.
Gold ring, formerly enamelled, the hoop decorated with oval reliefs depicting Christ as the Man of Sorrows and Instruments of the Passion, England, 1500-50. - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Coronet, silver-gilt. The circlet is inscribed 'MISERERE. MEI. DEUS. SECUNDUM. MAGNAM. MISERICORDIAM. TUAM'. (Pity me, Lord, according to thy great mercy), England, early 18th century - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Silver-gilt girandole earring of pierced floral design, set with white pastes, Italy, 1800-1850. - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Three silver-gilt scent cases. Left: Silver-gilt in the form of a snail, Germany, 17th century. Middle: Silver-gilt, in the form of a crowned heart, Germany, 18th century. Right: Silver-gilt in the form of a frog on a leaf, Germany, 17th century. All - ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Antique late 19th-century vinaigrette, sterling silver with gold vermeil on the head, fins, and interior - via 1stdibs
Late Victorian silver gilt bracelet studded with turquoises - From @goldhatpin via Instagram
Ormolu, from the French "dorure d'or moulu", which means “gilding with gold paste”, was widely used in decorative arts across 18th and 19th century Europe. As a way of achieving the unique appearance of gold without such an expensive price tag while still creating something of high quality and durability unlike cheap faux-gold, Ormolu's popularity persisted over hundreds of years. The earliest examples of French Ormolu are from the mid-17th century, and France remained at the center of Ormolu production throughout its usage, though some very fine examples were being manufactured in other countries by the 19th century.
The technique of Ormolu involves applying powdered high-carat gold mixed with mercury to an object of bronze. The piece is then fired at a temperature that evaporates the mercury, leaving behind a gold deposit that can then be burnished or matted to create an impressive and highly durable coating. In French, the technique is known as "bronze doré", in English, it's called "gilt bronze". Master artisans working in Ormolu include Jean-Jacques Caffieri, Pierre Gouthière, Pierre-Philippe Thomire, and Matthew Boulton of Birmingham, who produced English ormolu pieces in a Neoclassical style without much financial success, but they are now known as some of the finest examples of English ormolu ever produced.
Before electroplating was invented, using mercury amalgams was the best choice for producing a smooth, thick coating of gold or silver on a three-dimensional object. However, by 1830, concerns over the health impacts of working with mercury meant that legislation in France soon outlawed its use. The life expectancy of most gilders was only 40 years. This didn't seem to present quite enough of a deterrent though, as Ormolu production continued using traditional processes well into the 1900s. A substitute made to look like Ormolu was later developed in France, called pomponne, though the mixture of metals (copper, zinc, and sometimes tin) is technically a type of brass.
Glass pendant with sulphide and ormolu mount depicting Alexander I, Emperor of Russia. France, made by Bertrand Andrieu for Desprez factory, 1815. - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Enamel miniatures on copper with ivory backing in ormolu frames with mother of pearl, depicting William, 7th Baron Brooke (left) and Lady Mary Brook (right), c.1716, Christian Friedrich Zincke. - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Ormolu was more commonly used in other decorative arts, particularly for mounts. Here is a Chinese porcelain vase with the royal arms of France, painted in underglaze blue, famille verte enamels and gilt and mounted with French and English ormolu - Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022 - and two bowl stands made of marble and ormolu, c.1798 - © The Trustees of the British Museum
There is a common misconception that gold-filled jewelry is less valuable than other gold plating, but it is actually much more valuable than most. Gold filled refers to a base metal (often sterling silver) with a thick layer of solid gold rolled out into a sheet and then mechanically bonded to it using heat to melt the gold into the base metal. Gold-filled metal has the thickest and highest quality coating of any gold coating, as the gold layer must make up at least 5% of the item's total weight, which can be anywhere from 50 to 100,000 times thicker than gold plating. As a result of this, gold-filled jewelry can last anywhere from 5-30 years, depending on how it's cared for.
For identifying gold-filled pieces, common stamp marks include:
1/20 14K (meaning 1/20 parts, or 5% 14k gold)
Antique Victorian gold-filled cane top or walking stick handle in the form of a muzzled bear with cropped ears - via 1stDibs
19th-century gold-filled amethyst intaglio fob, c.1840, depicting a small hare or rabbit jumping across the top of the piece near the bale. - Via 1stDibs
Victorian Tri Color Gold Filled Bangle. Late 19th Century with tri-colored gold applications on Etruscan work base - via 1stDibs
Victorian Gold Filled Garnet Brooch from the late 19th Century. Scrollwork etched motifs and leaves surround 3 flat-cut oval garnets. c.1880s, USA. - via 1stDibs
Antique Victorian 10K Rose Gold Filled Ornate Wide Bangle Bracelet - From @sweetrosevntg via Instagram
Like gold-filled pieces, rolled gold is created through mechanically bonding a layer of gold onto a base metal (often brass or copper), but while gold-filled pieces require the gold to make up at least 5% of the item's total weight, rolled gold only requires 2.5% gold content. That said, these pieces were still much more durable and high-quality than most gold-plated pieces.
Patented in England in 1817, rolled gold became a very popular choice for high-end costume jewelry in the Victorian era. Being virtually indistinguishable from solid gold, designers could create lasting and highly intricate rolled gold statement pieces without accruing the steep cost of solid gold. Some 19th-century rolled gold pieces might be stamped with the word "Gilt", other common rolled gold stamp marks include:
RG (Rolled Gold) or RGP (Rolled Gold Plate)
1/40 14K (meaning 1/40 parts, or 2.5% 14k gold)
Stamped rolled gold (copper alloy with gold plating) brooch with pearl, France, about 1880; made by and marked 'FIX' - ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Victorian era dendritic moss agate link bracelet, c.1880, crafted in rolled gold and comprised of seven agate links that form a bracelet. Surrounding each agate stone is a golden bezel and an ornate frame with etched details. - Via 1stDibs
Victorian rolled gold watch chain with orb charm/fob - From @strangeandreclaimed via Instagram
Miniature antique rolled gold leaping boar charm - From @doyoulikemyring via Instagram