Friday, 4 January 2013

Victorian Pinchbeck Jewelry

Invented around 1720 by Christopher Pinchbeck, this metal was intended to replace the gold used in watch cases. An alloy of copper and zinc, it looks exactly like gold, although it is lighter in weight. The quality of workability is also similar to that of gold. Although pinchbeck has early origins, it became especially popular in the 1830s and '40s but almost ceased to be made after 1854, when the prohibition on using low-carat gold was lifted. Then, rolled and electroplated gold became the most popular methods of achieving the gold look.

Pinchbeck Hair Brooch, c. 1860

 Pinchbeck Hair Brooch, c.1860

Pieces such as these date back as far as the turn of the 19th century. They were sold in “kit" form, for the customer to complete, often intricately, and would be worn in mourning or as a keepsake memento. This one contains at least three different types of hair, so would most probably have been made by a mother wishing to keep a memento of her three children.  

For the collector it is obviously important to be able to differentiate between gold, pinchbeck, and rolled or electroplated gold. Unfortunately, it is difficult to do so, even for an expert. However, the difference between pinchbeck and rolled or electroplated gold is the easiest to establish. Rolled gold is made using a thin sheet of gold placed over base metals and then worked so that the gold surface bonds with the base. Electroplated gold is a chemical process whereby gold is deposited onto a base metal. So, if white base metal is showing through a rubbed area of a jewel, then the piece is rolled or plated gold. If not, this does not mean that it is not rolled or plated, it may simply mean that it is in good condition. But you can bet that it has had others guessing too, and on close inspection of the reverse of the piece one may find a small area where somebody has filed away the surface to determine what lies underneath. This used to be very common practice, but it could also be considered a very undesirable one, which only aids in wrecking the jewel and so ruining its value.

The best method available to the collector to identify the difference between gold and pinchbeck is the “Gold Test"method.This chemical test relies on the reaction of gold with various acids. Kits are readily available at lapidary shops, though caution must be taken when using them because they involve the use of strong acids. 

Pinchbeck Lion – Head Brooch,c.1850Although pinchbeck was the most successful of the gold copies of early Victorian times, it is rare nowadays. Unfortunately "pinchbeck “appears to have become a catch-all phrase for gold-colored Victorian jewelry. But there is a large price difference between rolled/plated gold and true pinchbeck, the latter being very collectable.

Pinchbeck Lion-Head Brooch, c. 1850

This is a very intricate brooch, highly reminiscent of ancient Etruscan forms and styling. The serpentine form, fine metalwork, and lions' heads are inspired by the ancient civilizations of the Middle East. This brooch is made up of hollow-stamped pinchbeck rings, which overlap and are hard-soldered together. The intricate metalwork that adorns these rings is applied afterwards. The lions' eyes are simulated rubies.  

Victorian Heart, 1880s


Victorian Heart, 1880sThe heart motif was very popular in Victorian jewelry, and was typical of the sentimental themes of the time. A single heart or one with an accompanying cross and anchor signified faith, hope, and charity. They were commonly used in mourning jewelry, but this example on the right is a lover's keepsake, which was probably used as a pill box. It is from Switzerland, as is suggested by the lady's dirndl skirt, and is surrounded by a twisted-rope frame in pinchbeck. The scene was transfer-printed on hard-paste porcelain and the details were hand-painted then fired in a kiln. It is valued at £150-200 ($255-340). Although this is a pill box, the design and decoration are not dissimilar to those on brooches and pendants worn by young ladies. These would also have gilded or pinchbeck frames and pin mechanisms where appropriate.

  Writer - Steven Miners
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