BERLIN IRON WORK (sometimes called by the French name ‘Fer de Berlin’) was first produced in 1806 by the Royal Berlin Foundry. It was considered to be mourning jewelry and in the beginning it would not have been worn by anyone who wasn’t in mourning. The castings were coating in linseed cakes which gave the jewelry its black color. They were also lacquered which prevented them from rusting and gave them an inky matte finish.
However, Berlin Iron Work jewelry’s fortunes changed. During the years 1813-1815, people contributed their gold and silver towards the War of Liberation against Napoleon. In return, they were given pieces made with sand-cast iron, sometimes replicas of the pieces they gave. These pieces bore the inscriptions: old gab ich für Eisen (I gave gold for iron), or Far das Wahl des Vaterlands (For the welfare of our country / motherland) or had a portrait of Frederick William III on the back. Suddenly iron work jewelry was all the rage as it became a symbol of patriotism and selflessness.
Iron work jewelry remained very popular until around 1850 and was bought by consumers all over the world. The popularity of Berlin Iron Work was at the highest in the 1830s, when Berlin alone had 27 foundries and manufacture even spread to France and Austria. Ironically, it was Napoleon who took first took patterns of Berlin Iron Work from the Berlin foundry to Paris. It was no longer necessarily associated with a war effort but the association with valiance and patriotism remained. It was still produced until around 1900.
The styles that were produced in the very beginning, before 1810, tended to be Neo-Classical and included replicas of cameos, acanthus leaves and palmettes. From around 1810, Iron Work jewelry tended to have a decidedly Gothic revival feel as people looked to the Medieval past for style inspiration. There were also many naturalistic touches, including leaves, flowers and butterflies. Berlin Iron Work jewelry is characterized by being very fine and lacy; even though it is made from iron, it is very intricate and detailed and is surprisingly light. Very occasionally, small amounts of gold, silver, steel and other materials were added. There were other bolder and less complex designs around also, such as simple iron wrist chains, which are not considered as desirable.
Berlin Iron Work jewelry is made with delicate wires and cast pieces that are connected with loops. In spite of the lacquer, Berlin Iron may show signs of rust. It was never soldered as the wires were too delicate, so be wary of soldered pieces. It is cool to the touch and magnetic. Pieces may be stamped with the manufacturer’s name (Geiss and Edward Schott were two of the best-known).
Germany, c.1820, Iron and Steel necklace.
In 1916, to fund the 1st world war, the German government again promoted the idea of exchanging gold jewelry for iron. These pieces bore the inscriptions: Gold gab ich zur Wehr, Eisen nahm ich zur Ehr (I give gold towards our defense effort and I take iron for honor). However, this attempt was not as successful. Perhaps people weren’t as patriotic or perhaps the vogue for iron work jewelry was just not ready to make a return. It could also have been because these more modern pieces were often not created in the same intricate or hand-worked way as those that had come before and were simply chunky iron jewelry.
Today, Berlin Iron Work can be very valuable, particularly the older finely made, Gothic pieces. Berlin Iron Work is very much considered a collector’s item. Most of the surviving early Berlin Iron Work Jewelry is kept in museums or has already been snapped up by collectors. There are many replica pieces around so caution is advised if you are intent on finding a genuine antique piece.
It is interesting to consider what the original donors of gold would say if they’d knew that the cast-iron jewelry they were given would nowadays usually be more valuable than the gold equivalent.
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