Black Materials

Black Materials

Here is an overview of the different black materials used in vintage and antique jewellery.



Jet is fossilised wood. For more information see here.


Simple jet bead circa 1910. Elder and Bloom.


Onyx is a variety of chalcedony. For more information, see here.


Victorian Onyx pendant locket. Elder and Bloom.


Berlin iron is made from cast iron and delicate wire pieces. For more information, see here.



Germany, Cast iron earrings. c. 1820-1830 V&A Museum


Enamel is fired ground glass. In theory, almost all methods of enamelling can produce black items but generally it is en grisaille, niello and taille d’epargne which are known for being worked in black. (Technically, niello work is not true enamel but is usually classified as such)

For more information, see here.


Niello work.


Gutta Percha is a type of rubber derived from the gum of Asian trees. It is usually molded rather than carved and mould lines can be visible when examined carefully. When rubbed vigorously, it gives off an acrid, rubber smell. It is very flexible and durable and can produce a wide variety of jewellery items. Upon close inspection, you can see that it is actually brownish-black. Popular through the mid and late Victorian era, it made its debut at the Great Exhibition of 1851.


Gutta Percha Brooch.


Vulcanite is vulcanised India rubber formed using sulphur. It was first patented in 1844 by Charles Goodyear. Vulcanite is almost always moulded, as opposed to carved. It is actually white and can be dyed to produce a variety of colours, often in imitation of coral and tortoiseshell. Most commonly, however, it was dyed black and used in mourning jewellery as a substitute for jet. Over time, black vulcanite usually turns dark brown. It is lightweight and warm to the touch. It will develop a sheen with polishing but is never as glossy as jet. Like jet, it will leave a brown streak on porcelain or unglazed tile.



Victorian Vulcanite cameo pendant.


French jet is black or very dark red glass. It can sometimes be backed with foil or attached to a metal setting but is most commonly found as beaded necklaces. It first made its appearance in the early part of the 19th century but came into its own in the 1860s when the techniques to produce it were perfected. It was produced in France, Germany, Austria, England and what is now the Czech Republic. It is cold to the touch and heavier than jet and has a distinctive glitter. Sometimes it is roughly moulded or carved to further simulate jet. Upon close examination, it can often be identified by tiny chips. If you gently tap it against your teeth, you should be able to identify the chink as glass.


French jet necklaces. Elder and Bloom.


Like jet, bog oak is fossilised wood. It is usually mined from the bogs of Ireland and is not necessarily oak but can be fir, yew or pine. Similar in feel to jet, it is lightweight and warm to the touch but generally has a more matte finish. It was used from the early 1800s and grew in popularity after 1852 when techniques involving heat and pressure were invented to mold it and create detail. It can be carved or moulded. It is generally found in mourning jewellery as a substitute for jet but can also often be found with Irish motifs in the form of souvenir jewellery.


Victorian bog oak brooch.


With age, tortoiseshell can darken enough to appear black. See here and here.

Tortoiseshell pique pendant. Elder and Bloom.

© Pippa Gaubert Bear and Elder and Bloom LLC, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Pippa Bear and Elder and Bloom with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Berlin Iron

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.


Germany, Cast iron earrings. c. 1820-1830
V&A Museum

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.
V&A Museum

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.

Pair of bracelets

Berlin, 19th century, cast iron pair of bracelets
V&A Museum


Christie’s Sale 2061

Sources / further reading (my major sources are also listed on their own page in the dropdown menu above):