Monday, 26 November 2012

Behind the Sun: Sarah Morgan & late Georgian jewellery

What I'm Reading: Mr Chen's Emporium by Deborah O'Brien; Netherwood by Jane Sanderson; There's a Riot Going On: revolutionaries, rock stars and the rise and fall of '60s counter-culture by Peter Doggett; and Fair Game: Australia's first immigrant women by Elizabeth Rushden & Perry McIntyre.

Following on from my last post, the third main character in my latest book Behind the Sun is 16-year-old Sarah Morgan, who has no family, except a father she despises. Clever, stubborn, mistrustful and self-sufficient, Sarah is a trained jeweller but has lost her position with the business to which she was apprenticed. Unable to find another job in London, she's been surviving as a pickpocket in a crew overseen by flash man Tom Ratcliffe. She's also skilled at breaking into houses and cracking safes. When the law finally catches up with her, she meets Friday Woolfe and Harrie Clarke in Newgate gaol, though, due to her prickly nature, their initial encounter isn't entirely positive.

Five-colour gold ladies' watch, inscription is [18]87, so the
 white metal will presumably be silver, or grey gold.
As a jeweller, Sarah would have used silver, and yellow, pink, red and green gold in the jewellery she made, though not white gold, which didn't appear commercially until after WWI (after Karl Richter of Pforzheim was issued a patent in 1915, followed by David Belais in New York in 1917)). Platinum was seldom seen until the late 19th century, becoming increasingly popular during the 1920s and '30s. Prior to 1854 in Britain, the only carats of gold permitted were 18 and 22. Pure gold is 24 carat, and too soft to work with. After the 1854 Birmingham Assay Office Act, carats of 9, 12 and 15 were allowed. In 1932, the 15 carat measurement was lowered to 14.
So if you're considering purchasing those lovely, genuine, 14 carat gold Georgian  earrings off the internet, you might want to think again.

Most coloured gemstones were set in gold, while diamonds were often mounted in silver, as silver was believed to complement the sparkle. Settings could be closed or open, and sometimes backed with foil to enhance the colour of the gem. Many 18th and 19th century diamonds were 'rose' cut, or 'brilliant' cut, the most common example of the latter being the 'mine' cut. Paste, or 'strass', gems (made from lead glass) were also popular, and quality examples could command a high price.

Other materials used in jewellery at the time include steel (British centres of cut steel jewellery manufacture were Woodstock in Oxfordshire, and Birmingham), iron (frequently imported from Silesia in Prussia, when there was a Prussia, and from Berlin), bog oak, and human hair (which was not, as commonly believed now, exclusively used in mourning jewellery).

Cut steel earrings
In 1720, during his quest to turn base metal into gold, alchemist Christopher Pinchbeck discovered a very good imitation of gold, which he named pinchbeck, after himself obviously (unlike Lord Percy Percy in Blackadder, who only managed a nugget of purest Green).

Apart from the well-known diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires, a wide range of other precious and semi-precious gems and materials were used. The list includes all the varying colours of aquamarine, beryl, chrysoberyl, topaz, spinel, garnet, tourmaline, peridot, jacinth (zircon), and the quartz group, which includes, amethyst, citrine, aventurine, chalcedony, onyx, jasper, opal, and agate. Add to that coral, pearl, turquoise, jade, jet, lapis lazuli, vauxhall glass, iron pyrite, malachite, shell, ivory and lava, and you can appreciate the allure of antique jewellery today.

Competently trained jewellers like Sarah used a very wide range of techniques. Enamelling was common, as were piqué, repoussé, granulation, filigree, engraving, cannetille, and, for some jewellers, mosaic work and cloisonné. All jewellers learnt to draw their own gold and silver wire, hammer and cast metal, use the oil lamp and blow pipe to solder, and handle a vast array of tools.

Pink topaz and cannetille brooch
Fashionable in Sarah's era were parures (a boxed suite of matching jewellery, occasionally up to a dozen pieces), drop earrings, rivières (necklaces of graduated stones, the largest in the middle), 'en tremblant' jewellery (usually brooches and hair jewels, on which gems were designed to wobble and becomingly reflect candle and firelight), and, of course, mourning jewellery, which I'll come back to in a later post.

An excellent book on jewellery, for researchers or anyone who just likes to look at pictures of beautiful bling, is Georgian Jewellery: 1714 - 1830 by Ginny Redington Dawes with Olivia Collings, photographs by Tom Dawes. 

Watch for an introduction to Rachel Winter.


  1. I love the cut steel earrings as you mentioned in your blog, this is different from others.

    Carat Jewellery London

  2. Hi Stuart - thanks very much for your comment. The cut steel jewellery is very striking, isn't it?


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