Natural Materials

Natural Materials

The wide variety and beauty of the natural materials used in vintage and antique jewellery is staggering. It seems jewellery designers never cease in their inventiveness. Here is a list which I believe is comprehensive or almost comprehensive (there is bound to be something I have left out).

I have excluded metal as that seems to deserve it’s own separate list.



Animal parts (ie Rabbit Foot)

Bog Oak


Butterflies and insects



Flower and Plants

Gems & Gemstones








Sea Shell

Stone (Mosaics)

Tortoise Shell





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Types of coral used in jewelry

In a previous post, I discussed the colors of coral; in this post I will discuss the types of coral used in jewelry. Most fine coral jewelry is made from ‘precious coral’ (‘Corallium rubrum’ or ‘Corallium Secundum’).

There are three basic kinds of precious coral that are commonly used.  These are:

Branch Coral

This is when the coral is left in it’s natural state.

Coral cabochon or beads

Antique Coral Gold Earrings 8 karat k Salmon 333 Austrian Antique Vintage Pierced Classic Simple Drop


Carved or faceted coral

Non-precious coral jewelry

Because of the rightful protection of coral in contemporary times, the vast majority of modern coral jewelry is not made from ‘precious coral’. These are different kinds of coral altogether and have only been in use in recent times (with the exception of ‘synthetic coral’ and ‘reconstituted coral’ which both appear to have been around for longer.)  Although they are not relevant to the study of antique jewelry, it is worthwhile becoming familiar with these other corals for the sake of identification.  In a future post, I will discuss ways to test coral for dyes and treatment.

Sponge coral

Can be treated and dyed in a variety of ways.

Bamboo Coral

Usually dyed red, in natural state it is marbled green and brown.

Reconstituted coral

This is made from small pieces of coral or coral powder soaked in binding agents then pressed into a solid piece and then re-cut to form beads and shapes. It is usually dyed red and has a uniform appearance.

Synthetic coral

This can be made from wood, plastic, resin, bone, glass, crushed stone with resin or ceramic.

Coral Dyed Synthetic Stone Rhombus Beads

Sources / further reading:

Pearl Basics

And my pearls are pure as thy own fair neck,
With whose radiant light they vie.


There is such a lot to say about pearls that I am just going to attempt to cover a few basics here and I will revisit this subject a lot more in the future. It really is a very extensive and truly fascinating subject. For example, did you know that pearl necklace lengths have their own individual names unique to pearl jewelry only? I am going to be exploring this soon as this is very relevant to us when looking at antique pearl necklaces.


Brooch, openwork gold, enameled in black set with diamonds and pearls, with pearls and diamond pendants
Paris, c. 1860-70
V&A Museum

Here are the ways in which pearls are commonly referred to and evaluated:


Natural pearls.

These can be freshwater or saltwater. The best known kinds are the saltwater oyster, the freshwater mussel and the freshwater conch.  It is very rare to find contemporary natural pearls for sale, particularly a matching set.

Cultured pearls.

These comprise the vast majority of pearls sold today.  They are ‘real’ pearls but created in controlled environments and grown at much faster rates that can occur in the wild. The only way to tell the difference between a cultured and a natural pearl is with an X-Ray

Types of cultured pearls commonly used in jewelry are:  Southsea and Tahitian or Black Pearls, Saltwater Akoya and Freshwater

Imitation pearls. 

Some imitation pearls are made of mother-of-pearl, coral or conch shell and are referred to as ‘shell pearls’.  Others are made from glass coated with a solution containing fish scales called essence d’Orient. Yet others are made from plastic, resin or stone. ‘Mallorca’ pearls are imitation pearls.

Color of Pearls

Pearls  can be all colors from black to white.  Commonly, pearls are white, champagne, aqua, green, golden or black. Some cultivated pearls can come in exotic colors such as brown.

Overtone of Pearls

Within each color group, the pearl will have a particular overtone. Generally, the overtone of pearls are referred to in the following way: Silver, Ivory, Rose, Silver Rose, Light Silver, Dark Silver, Green, Peacock and Copper

Shape of Pearls

The ideal pearl is perfectly round.  Few meet this ideal.

Pearl shapes are referred to in the following way: ringed, baroque, drop, button, off-round and round.

Size of Pearls
Pearls are measured by their diameter in millimeters. They can vary from smaller than 1 mm (referred to as ‘seed pearls‘) to as large as 20 mm.

Surface of Pearls

The highest quality pearls have a mirror-like reflection.  The level of perfection of the pearl surface is referred to as the ‘cleanness’.

Luster of Pearls

This is the measure of surface reflection.  A good quality pearl is bright and you can see your reflection clearly.  Less high quality pearls will dull and chalky. If it is too white, it is low quality.

The luster or quality is referred to as either: A, AA, AA+, AAA

Nacre of Pearls

This is the natural iridescent material that the mollusk secrets.  Pearl nacre is only measured in salt-water, bead nucleated pearls.

Sources / further reading:


Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.
Kurt Vonnegut

Amber is the fossilized resin of a variety of ancient conifer trees from approximately 25 to 60 million years ago. Originating primarily from the Baltic region, these deposits of resin found their way to the surface and to the sea, from where they found their way across the world to distant shores.  What could be a more romantic origin for a precious material to use in jewelry? Amber is beautiful, soulful, mysterious and full of light. Good amber, warmed in the hand, can emit a faint perfume of pine. Rather than shine, like gemstones, amber glows with an inner radiance.

Amber was particularly popular in jewelry from the 1890s -1917s.  By the 1920s, amber was the second only to diamonds in U.S. gem imports. Long, beaded necklaces of amber were popular throughout the Art Deco period. Inclusions were not considered desirable as they are today and often amber was treated to create clarity.

Art Deco Amber Flapper Beads

Art Deco Amber Flapper Beads, sold by ‘The Three Graces’


Vintage gold faceted Baltic amber earrings from my personal collection.

But every era has loved amber and for very good reason.  Amber is lightweight and can be carved, made into cabochons or faceted or made into beads. The color of amber varies from white to very pale yellow to brown and red and even black.  Blue and green amber is also possible, but not at all common. (‘Jet’ is sometimes referred to as ‘black amber’ but is of course not amber at all).

Amber is valued for its clarity. Today, the most valued and sought after amber is that with well preserved flora, feathers, fauna and insects. Fine greens and translucent reds are the most valuable.  Transparent, flawless, intense yellows are the most desired of the more usual colors.

‘Portrait of a Young Lady with Amber Necklace,’  Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1814

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Amber is known as one of the ‘organic gemstones’.

One way to evaluate the age of antique amber is to understand that amber darkens gradually with age, becoming reddish or brownish. (However, amber can be made to appear aged by immersing in salt water so this should not be the only criteria).


Amber and gold pendant, mid. 18th century.
V&A Museum
The amber has darkened with age.

Amber is referred  in the following ways:

TRANSLUCENCE can be described as:

CLEAR Highly transparent (the most sought after)

CLOUDY or BASTARD The appearance of cloudy material is caused by a multitude of small bubbles. The clarity is sometimes increased by heating or by injecting with oils (sometimes colored oils). 

FATTY or FLOHMIG – This type resembles goose fat and is full of tiny bubbles; however, it is not as opaque as cloudy amber.

FOAMY- An opaque, chalky amber. Will not take a polish.

BONE OR OSSEOUS –  contains many bubbles, white to brown in color, resembles bone or ivory. Doesn’t take a polish.

COLOR can be described as:

‘cognac’, ‘butterscotch’, ‘cherry’, ‘whiskey’ , ‘honey’ and a variety of other names.

TYPES are described as:

Natural or raw Baltic amber – gemstone which has undergone mechanical treatment only.

Modified amber – gemstone subjected only to thermal or high-pressure treatment.

Reconstructed (pressed) amber – gemstone made of amber pieces pressed in high temperature and under high pressure. This is also called ‘amberoid’.  It can be stained to various colors, but the color distribution is generally uneven.

Bonded amber – gemstone consisting of two or more parts of natural, modified or reconstructed Baltic amber bonded together.

ORIGIN – amber is also described in the following ways:

Sea Amber this is Amber found in the sea or shore. It is also referred to as “seastone” or “scoopstone.”

Pit Amber- This is mined. Most Baltic amber is mined


Platinum and gold with opaque amber, jadeite and stained chalcedony. c.1930-1935
Georges Fouquet
V&A Museum

Amber comes from the following locations:

BALTIC AMBER is referred to as succinite.

It is the most likely to contain fauna and insects.

Different colors of Baltic amber

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC. This is the only place to produce a rare blue amber, which can appear yellow or blue depending on the light.

Dominican Republic Blue Amber

SICILY.  Sicilian amber is known as simetite and is red to orange. Sicilian amber is in particular demand by amber collectors.

ROMANIA.  Roumanite amber is a dark yellow-brown and can even be black.

MYANMAR. Burmite or ‘Chinese’ amber comes from present-day Myanmar.

Copal is another substance that can be confused with amber; it is basically a younger amber.  To tell the difference between copal and amber, use a little bit of acetone.  Amber will have no response at all.  Copal also gets sticky when rubbed vigorously. Copal is also used as an incense as well as in jewelry.

Other substances that can be confused with amber are plastics, paste and glass. There are many fake ambers on the market as it seems amber is very easy to fake and modify.  People have even been known to add fake insects to real amber to increase value. There are many fake ambers with fake insects and fauna inside. Amber is static when rubbed vigorously and also will float in salty water.

Amber colored glass will often be referred simply to as ‘amber’. The word ‘amber’ also refers simply to the color that we are all familiar with.

Russian. silver, seed pearl and amber paste (glass) earrings
V&A Museum

Sources / Further reading (please look at the drop down menu above for my principal sources):

Pearl jewelry in art

Pearls have been worn throughout history and have rarely fallen out of fashion. Real pearls have a sublime beauty that is unrivaled. Unfortunately, there are so many imitation pearls on the market, that many contemporary women have a false impression of pearls as they have never actually experienced real quality pearls.  They are truly something to behold up close; women who have worn or owned good pearls will understand exactly what I mean. Sensual, mysterious and delicate, real pearls are a feminine treasure every women should have.

One of the things that I love about studying jewelry worn in old art is, not only can we enjoy the beauty of the great works, we can also get a good sense of how jewelry was worn and use this information for assessing pieces in the future. I think what is really interesting, in studying these old works, is looking at the lengths of pearl necklaces and styles of pearl jewelry in general through the ages.  This is something I will talk about more in the future, along with much more information about pearls in general. 

For now, here are some beautiful portraits of ladies with pearls. 

A diamond and pearl brooch captured in a portrait by the leading 19th Century artist John Singer Sargent is among a collection of Duke of Portland family heirlooms that are to be sold at auction for an estimated £6 million.

A diamond and pearl brooch captured in a portrait by the leading 19th Century artist John Singer Sargent is among a collection of Duke of Portland family heirlooms that are to be sold at auction for an estimated £6 million.

 Gustave Jacquet painting: An Elegant Lady with Pearls

Gustave Jacquet painting: An Elegant Lady with Pearls

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Johannes Vermeer

Portrait of Empress Maria Fiodorovna in a Head-Dress Decorated with Pearls
Portrait of Empress Maria Fiodorovna in a Head-Dress Decorated with Pearls
Kramskoi Ivan Nikolayevich
Location:     Hermitage Museum

Rosalba Carriera (Venice 1675-1757) Portrait of a young woman, bust-length, with a pearl necklace and earrings.

The Colors of Coral

Coral is considered to be one of the ‘organic gemstones’ (the others being amber, jet and pearls).  It was highly prized by the Victorians and throughout history. It is actually one of my absolute favorite materials used in antique jewelry.  There is so much that I’d like to say about coral in fact, that I’ve decided rather than trying to tackle it all in one post, I will be breaking it down into several future posts. (It seems that every time I start to write about antique coral I get so overwhelmed with enthusiasm that I have to stop myself from saying too much!)

In this post, I will simply write about how the different colors of antique undyed or unbleached precious coral (corallium rubrum) are usually defined and how to recognize each. Angel skin and oxblood are generally considered the most valuable today.  The more solid the color, the more valuable it is. There are some other colors (black, gold, lavender, blue) that are so rare I am not going to discuss them here as it is so unlikely to come across them in antique jewelry.

It is interesting to note that neither Christie’s or Sotheby’s or the V&A Museum generally refer to coral pieces by their color.  It also appears that the more reputable dealers on the Internet tend to try and describe the nuanced color of each piece rather than simply labeling the colors with one of the labels I’ve put below. I am wondering how ‘official’ these definitions I have put below actually are.  It has been said that coral experts can classify over one hundred shades of red! Nevertheless, it seems that these are practical ways of describing the colors that are generally agreed upon elsewhere.

I have also added the Italian names here which although the are not generally used in the Anglo world seem relevant as Italy is and was the center of the precious coral industry. (When I’ve put the French name it is because that is sometimes used in the Anglo world.)

White coral

Italian: bianco

This is pure white or somewhat beige coral.  If there is some hint of pink it will be sometimes be called blush.

A pair of pink sapphire and diamond earrings, by Michele della Valle, and a coral and pink sapphire necklace

Christie’s Sale 7804
10 December 2012
London, South Kensington
A pair of pink sapphire and diamond earrings, by Michele della Valle, and a white coral and pink sapphire necklace

Angel skin

French: ‘peau d’ange’

Italian: ‘pelle d’angelo’

Can also be called ‘Fresh rose’

This color of coral was particularly prized in the Art Nouveau period.  Angels’ skin coral is solid pale pink or a solid pale peach color, but sometimes blush coral is referred to as angel skin.


A group of coral (angel skin) and diamond jewelry
Christie’s Sale 4000
Jewels for Hope: The Collection of Mrs Lily Safra
14 May 2012

Salmon coral (Sciacca)

Italian: ‘Rose pallido’ (pale rose) or ‘roso vivo’ (bright rose)

Salmon coral ranges from a pale orange-pink to a deep, rich dark orange.  This is the ‘coral’ color that most people associate with coral (ie coral lipstick etc).  Salmon coral was particularly prized by the Victorians.

A pair of late 19th century gold and coral earpendants

A pair of late 19th century gold and coral earpendants (salmon)
Christies’ Sale 5892
Jewels at South Kensington, including Fine Hermes Handbags
17 June 2009
London, South Kensington

Red coral or Oxblood (also known as Sardinian or royal coral)

Italian: ‘Rosso’ (red) or ‘rosso scuro’ (dark red) or ‘carbonetto’ or ‘arciscuro’ (meaning darkest red of all)

Red coral or oxblood coral is greatly prized and rare.  It ranges from very dark orange to red to dark purplish red. (If it is more orange than red then it should be defined as salmon but could also be called ‘dark salmon’.)


Antique coral bead necklace (red), Dutch mid 19th century
Christie’s Sale 3011
Amsterdam Jewels and Watches
10 October 2012

Sources / further reading:

Copeland, L. Lawrence, Coral, The Forgotten Gem, Gemological Institute of American Literary Research



A single, simple jet bead, circa 1910

Jet is fossilized wood, specifically fossilized resinous driftwood, originally from the Monkey Puzzle Tree, pressurized between layers of shale in the Jurassic period.  It has a feel like no other substance.  Smooth and mat and velvety, almost warm to the touch, it isn’t like wood or like stone or like rubber…it is unique.  Once you have handled real jet you will never forget the feeling in the hand.   Jet is considered to be one of the  ‘organic gemstones’ (the others are pearls and coral and amber).  A common misnomer for jet is ‘black amber’. Another confusion is that jet is often used to describe the color black and not just used to describe the substance.  (So if someone says that have a ‘jet necklace’ check that they don’t just mean they have a black necklace). The first piece of jet jewelry dates from 17, 000 B.C in Spain so it has truly been in favor for a long time.  It was also popular in Ancient Rome and has also often been used for rosary beads. However, in more recent times jet truly came into vogue after the death of Prince Albert in 1861.   As mourning jewelry became so popular, jet became a very favored substance and was always part of Queen Victoria’s mourning dress.

19th century polished jet mourning brooch

In the 1920s, the flapper girls favored long strings of jet beads and found them excellent accessories for dancing.

Flapper girls, circa 1927

Since the town began production in 1800, the most sought after jet has been from Whitby in Northern England.  ‘Whitby Jet’ is prized worldwide and is still a thriving production center.  Jet is relatively soft and is easily carved.  There are some stunning carved designs of Whitby jet, particularly brooches, which came in a large variety of designs.  Jet is also easily polished.


Carved Whitby jet brooch, late Victorian.  (This brooch is showing some slight damage around the edges).


Carved Whitby Jet Brooch, circa 1870.  The word ‘Mother’ as well as first names were popular, probably to remember deceased loved ones.

There are many other substances which are often mistaken for jet.  Onyx may have a similar look but is much cooler to the touch and shinier.  French jet is not jet at all but is in fact black glass.  Vulcanite or ebonite, Gutta Percha, coal, bog oak, epoxy resins and other substances have all been used in the past to imitate real jet.  It is worth becoming familiar with all of those just so you can better identify jet. One test for jet is to rub it on some unglazed porcelain; real jet will leave a brown mark. However, once you have handled a few pieces you will find this unnecessary. Jet is the most valuable of all the previously named substances apart. It is considered highly collectible, particularly Whitby jet.

il_570xN.340892961 Carved jet beads, circa 1910


Carved jet simple leaf brooch, circa 1910, German or Austrian

Personally, I believe a simple jet bead necklace and some drop earrings are the most wearable and stylish ways of wearing jet in the modern era.


Simple faceted jet bead necklace, circa 1865, Germany


Carved ‘Jugendstil’ jet and red gold earrings, circa 1900, Germany

Further reading / sources:

Coral Jewelry in Artwork 1619 -1939


Louis Édouard Rioult – Portrait Of A Lady Wearing Coral Jewellery

Antique, untreated coral is one of the most loved of materials in antique jewelry.  It is considered to be one of the ‘organic gemstones’ (the other two being amber and jet and pearls). Women who first own a piece of old coral jewelry soon become addicted to it and tend to become collectors.  There is something truly sumptuous and almost edible about antique, untreated coral.  It has long been worn as a talisman and later for its pure beauty; it was considered by the Victorians to promote good health and vitality, and you can really believe that it does once you experience wearing it.

One of the wonderful things about coral is that it tends to adapt over time to the woman who is wearing it and will subtly change color in a very organic way.  Many women have reported a feeling of ‘rightness’ about their particular piece of coral jewelry, as though the piece is actually part of them. Coral ranges from white, to ‘Angel Skin’, to ‘Salmon’, to ‘Oxblood’ and every nuance in between.

Since ancient Rome, coral has been considered to be protective for children and in the Georgian and Victorian era children were often given carved coral rattles. Children were also given coral earrings, bracelets and necklaces to wear. There are many works of art from Regency, Victorian and the early 20th century that show coral being worn by both women and children.  Looking at old works of art can be a truly wonderful way of understanding antique jewelry. I really got quite carried away finding these beautiful images on the Internet and had to make myself stop! (If I haven’t put the artists name it’s because I don’t know; if you do know please do send me a message or make a comment so I can add it).  I would like to share some of these truly lovely art works with coral jewelry here:
Robert Lefevre.
School of Andrea Appiani, Elisa Bonaparte
regency children 2
Regency children, John Hoppner, 1796.  Girl on left is wearing a coral necklace.
Generally, girls only wore very simple jewelry until about ages 15 or 16.
Young Regency woman in coral necklace
 Lady in coral earrings, oil painting circa 1820, currently for sale here
Nicolaas Rubens Wearing a Coral Necklace, Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1619
Jane Elizabeth, Countess of Oxford, by John Hoppner 1797
Portrait Miniature
Christies Sale 7817,
The Manolo March Collection From Son Galcerán, Mallorca
28 – 29 October 2009
London, King Street
Lady Maria Hamilton, Thomas Lawrence, 1802
Little boy with dog and coral necklace (it is unclear if dogs were sometimes given coral collars or if the child is giving the dog his own necklace) – Martin Drolling.

Portrait of a German Princess, 1828, François-Joseph Kinson


Nude with coral necklace, 1910, Auguste Macke, Sprengel Museum Hanover

Portrait of a Lady with a Coral Necklace, Charles Webster Hawthorne, 1872-1930
‘Coral Earrings’ by Frederick Carl Frieseke (1874-1939)

Seed pearls

Enlarge photo 98

‘Lover’s eye’ miniature, circa 1900, set with seed pearls.

A seed pearl is a tiny pearl, weighing less than a quarter of a grain.  Often imperfect, these tiny treasures required great precision from the jeweler.  Some of the holes were so tiny that horsehair had to be used to string them, silk being too thick. (I wonder if the labor required in working with seed pearls is one of the reasons they are not used as much today. Seed pearl jewelry was relatively inexpensive in the past because of the low cost of labor.) Arranged delicately around colorful enamel, painted miniatures, gems, corals, larger pearls or other natural materials and set in gold or silver, the pretty, delicate and sensual luster of seed pearl jewelry is a delight and one of my absolute favorite materials used in antique jewelry.


Carved horn hair comb with seed pearls c1905, Louis Aucoc

Pearls and seed pearls of course have been sought after throughout human history. In the Georgian era (1714 to 1830), seed pearls were particularly used in cluster rings, combined with precious or semi-precious stones.  Seed pearl jewelry was particularly popular in the early Victorian era (1840 to 1860) and continued to be used until the Edwardian era.  Seed pearl jewelry fell out of vogue somewhat when the bolder styles of the Art Deco movement came in around 1920, but has near truly gone out of fashion to this day. Victorian seed pearl jewelry was generally sold in sets of a necklace, two bracelets, earrings and a corsage. Interestingly, much of the work in seed pearl jewelry manufacture was done in Germany, although it was sold in England and elsewhere. Because people in the Victorian era tended to have a lot of children, these sets would normally get divided up so a complete set is much harder to find and much more valuable.  The finest and more delicate seed pearls were from China.

Seed Pearl Ropes

Seed pearl rope necklace, representing hours of labor.

Seed Pearl, Persian turquoise and gold ring, England, circa 1900

Seed pearls have the same characteristics as any pearl and may be cultured or natural.  Nearly all pearls sold today are cultured.  However, pearls from before 1916 when the pearl culturing process was first patented will be natural.  The only way to know for certain if a pearl is natural or cultured is with an X-Ray.  Many professionals devote their whole careers to grading and valuing pearls.  However, there are some home tests for telling if a pearl is at least an authentic pearl which I will discuss at a later date. Pearls are considered to be an ‘organic gemstone’ along with jet, coral and amber.