Marcasite jewelry is actually made from iron pyrite or ‘fool’s gold’. There is a gem stone called marcasite which is normally considered unsuitable for jewelry making so this can result in some confusion when discussing marcasite jewelry. For the purposes of this posting, when I say ‘marcasite’, I mean marcasite jewelry made with iron pyrite (you can assume this is the case just about everywhere that you see ‘marcasite’ referred to).
Marcasite jewelry is nearly always made with silver settings. Marcasite jewelery was worn as early as 1700 or even before, but gained popularity particularly during the mid-Victorian era as it was appropriate for mourning wear. It continued to be worn throughout the Art Deco period as a less expensive alternative to diamonds. Even into the 1980s, it was considered appropriate jewelry for young women as it gave some glitter and glamor at a low cost.
Vintage Marcasite Earrings
Things to consider when looking out for old marcasite jewelry are:
1) Is it hallmarked? If it is a quality piece it should have a silver stamp of some kind. If it is not stamped as silver, the chances are it is not a quality piece.
2) Many pieces were made in Germany before the Second World War for export. If it is marked GERMANY, it might well be prewar.
3) Marcasite jewelry is either set with prong or bead settings (just like gemstones) or glued pieces of pyrite. The properly set pieces are far superior to the glued. Setting the tiny pieces of pyrite by hand would have been a time consuming labor and gave much more durability. In order to tell if the pieces are set or glued, examine closely with a jeweler’s loupe. If you see any little overlapping claws or edges from the silver, it is set (unless the piece is cast and has just been made to appear as though it is set and is still actually glued, investigate thoroughly to check if the pieces are actually held in place by the overlaps or not).
4) Pyrite for marcasite jewelry is usually cut in tiny pieces with a flat bottom, similar to a Dutch Rose Cut. Cut steel can also resemble marcasite jewelry and unfortunately most contemporary ‘marcasite’ jewelry is actually just cut steel or is glued in pieces of pyrite. To tell the difference between cut steel and pyrite, look at the back. Cut steel pieces will be attached with rivets on the back of the piece.
Other things to consider are:
Are there any missing pieces of pyrite in the piece? If so, this can lower the value. Also, remember that just because it is old it doesn’t mean it is high quality. Many Victorian pieces were glued and also made with cut steel. However, if the pieces are set properly and not glued, the chances are it is quite old (although not necessarily of course).
Today, old marcasite jewelry is considered collectible and is also very easy to wear and enjoy with contemporary looks. I expect marquisite jewelry will always be popular.
Sources / further reading: