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.

Victorian Turquoise Bird Bangle

Victorian Turquoise Bird Bangle

Isn’t this Victorian silver, turquoise, seed pearl and ruby (or paste glass) bracelet truly stunning and utterly pretty?

If you love the design of this bangle, you may enjoy reading about the Victorian Aesthetic Period (1885-1901). 

Please click on the image below to see the bracelet in the shop.



Lapis Lazuli

Lapis Lazuli

Lapis Lazuli has been loved since antiquity for its intense, vibrant cobalt blue colour. It can be flecked with either white or gold (calcite or pyrite).

A metamorphic rock, mainly composed of the mineral Lazurite, it usually originates from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia or Chile. It is also mined, to a lesser extent, in Italy, Mongolia, the United States and Canada.


Below you will find some of the many applications for Lapis Lazuli in antique and vintage jewellery:

Pietre Dure

Lapis Lazuli is also one of the principal stones used on Italian Pietre Dure (micro-mosaics). 


Necklace, 1808, Pietra dure, lapis lazuli, chalcedony, gold. The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The Georgians and the Victorians, with their passion for acrostic jewellery (‘The Language of Stones’) used Lapis Lazuli to represent the letter ‘L’ for ‘Love’.


Acrostic Pendant. 1830. V&A Museum.

Cameo and Intaglio

Many beautiful examples can be found of Lapis Lazuli used in cameo and intaglio. 


Lapis Lazuli Cameo. 1580-1600. Italy. V&A Museum.

Arts & Crafts

The Arts & Crafts movement designers favoured Lapis Lazuli as the stone fitted in with their ‘beauty before perceived value’ philosophy.


Arts and Crafts Pendant 1903. May Morris. Set with variety of stones, including lapis lazuli. V&A Museum.

Art Deco

Art Deco Jewellery designers prized Lapis Lazuli as it suited their vibrant, bold styles.


Art Deco Lapis Lazuli Diamond Gold Earrings. Elder and Bloom.

Cartier stands out as a design company who loved to use Lapis Lazuli during the Art Deco era.


Lapis Lazuli Brooch. Cartier 1920-1930. V&A Museum.



There are four other stones that can be mistaken for Lapis Lazuli. These are:

  1. Dyed Jasper or Howlite. It will have the cobalt blue colour but will not show the white or golden patches. (Known as ‘Swiss Lapis’).
  2. Sodalite, which is one of the components of Lapis Lazuli, looks similar but the color is much paler.
  3. There is a synthetic spinel which also imitates Lapis Lazuli. (Known as ‘Gilson Lapis’). This looks very similar but does not have the same random patterns shown in natural Lapis Lazuli.
  4. Azurite is not as hard and has a darker tint.

Tip: To see if a stone has been dyed, try removing the colour with acetone.

Final note:

Lapis Lazuli has, of course, been used as a paint pigment since the late Middle Ages and has been a favourite of many of the great artists. This beautiful painting by Vermeer showcases not only Lapis Lazuli as a paint pigment but also a style of pearl earring from the era.


‘The Girl With a Pearl Earring’. Vermeer.


© 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.

Sources / Further Reading:


The Greek Key Motif

The Greek Key Motif

The ‘Greek Key’ motif in jewellery can also be known as the ‘Running Dog’, the ‘Greek Fret’, the ‘Maze Pattern’, the ‘Labyrinth Pattern’ or the ‘Meander Motif’. The name is derived from the River Meander, the historical name for the Büyük Menderes River in contemporary Turkey. The River Meander had many twists and was mentioned by Homer in the Iliad.  There is also said to be a connection between the motif and the Cretan labyrinth.

The earliest examples of the motif have been found in the farming communities in Anatolia, 6000 BC and it was a common pottery design throughout Neolithic Europe. It was the most important symbol in ancient Greece, decorating many temples and objects. Interestingly, the Ancient Chinese developed a similar design known as ‘Chinese Fretwork’. Variations of the motif are also found in African, South American and Native American design. It is also reminiscent of many Celtic design elements. 


To the Ancient Greeks, the design symbolised infinity or the ‘eternal flow of things’. It is also said to symbolise friendship, love and devotion and is given as a marriage gift to this day. It is also thought to represent the four cardinal points or the four seasons. 

Most of us will recognise this ubiquitous motif even if we are not aware of the name or the origin.  There are many variations – sometimes the pattern is rectangular and sometimes it is rounded, sometimes there is a simple geometric design and other times is is more elaborate and complex. It may boarder an object or cover a larger area. (If the decoration forms interlaced patterns, it is known as Guilloche.) However, two elements remain consistent – the design is maze-like and repetitive.

Georgian and early Victorian Neo-Classical and Architectural Revival

The Georgian era was distinguished by several great archeological discoveries greatly influencing Georgian jewelry motifs.  When the ruins of Pompeii were excavated from 1706 to 1814 a wave of Neo-classical design influenced almost every area of manufacturing, art and craft. In the 1760s in particular, Roman and Greek motifs, such as Greek Keys and laurel and grape leaves, abounded. The Greek Keys motif was particularly popular on the mountings of cameo. The Greek Keys motif continued in popularity through the Victorian era and remains popular to this day.


Fine Antique Coral Cameo Brooch within a Frame Accented By Greek Key Motifs And Applied Ropetwist Borders, With Pendant Hook, Mounted in Gold c.1801-1908 Prices4Antiques

Art Deco

The Greek Keys Motif experienced another wave of popularity during the Art Deco era. However, many have said that the designers of the Art Deco era were in fact deriving their ‘Greek Key’ Motifs from the Egyptian designs that were being uncovered during the great archeological discoveries of the era. This makes a certain amount of sense as the Art Deco era is not known for it’s neo-classical styles, besides the Greek Key, but is of course renowned for it’s Egyptian Revival styles. Regardless of the inspiration, the motif is still referred to as ‘Greek Keys.


Art Deco Greek Keys bangle. 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.

Sources / further reading:






Onyx, with its sleek and glossy beauty, has long been sought after for use in jewellery. It  is often thought of as being pure black but in reality it is usually banded white and black or banded white and brown.  It can come in a variety of other colours, such as shades of white, green and red, but these colours are not generally found in jewellery usage.

Onyx is a variety of chalcedony. It can be differentiated from agate because the bands in onyx are parallel whereas in agate they are curved. Onyx is cool to the touch, quite heavy and has a highly polished and glossy finish.  For this reason, it can sometimes be confused with French Jet. 

The demand for pure black onyx has traditionally outstripped the supply so most all black onyx is dyed.  This is why most black onyx has such an even finish. A trained eye can tell the difference between dyed and natural onyx under a loupe by looking for uneven surface colour.

Victorian Era 

Black onyx was particularly revered by the Victorians, especially during the Grand Era 1861-1880. The Victorians of this era loved all black materials and the fashion of wearing mourning styles went far beyond that which was necessary.  They created a wide variety of jewellery items from all black onyx, including lockets, pendants, brooches and earrings. They also mixed it with coral, turquoise, seed pearls and rubies.


Victorian onyx and rose gold earrings. Elder and Bloom.

Art Deco Era

Black onyx was also especially beloved in the Art Deco era as the stone lent itself to the bold and stark minimalism of the Machine Aesthetic. Jewellery designers used contrasting materials such as coral, jade or diamonds to further accentuate the beauty of the black.


Art Deco Diamond, Jade, Platinum and Onyx earrings. 1stdibs

Theodor Fahrner was a well known Art Deco designer who used onyx in many designs.


Onyx is also one of the most popular materials for cameo as the bands are ideal for creating contrasting relief images. Sardonyx is the name for the brown and white banded variety of onyx that is often used for cameo and intaglio.


Sardonyx cameo portrait of the Emperor Augustus. British Museum.


© 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.

Sources / further reading:



Mizpah is from the Hebrew “watchtower”.  It comes from a passage from Genesis in the Bible: “And Mizpah;for he said, The Lord watch between me and thee when we are absent one from another”.  The word mizpah and sometimes the accompanying passage were engraved on many jewelry items during the Victorian era.   Often, the engraving would be subtle and only visible upon inspection.  But more often, the words would be the main feature of the jewelry item.  Mizapah jewelry can be found in both gold and silver or other metals. Antique Mizpah jewelry is considered to be highly collectible.

Typical Mizpah brooch.

Typical Mizpah brooch in gold

Sources / further reading:

Astronomical Motifs

Astronomically influenced motifs in jewelry have been popular since the Georgian era. The revolution in science and astronomy during the 19th century in particular created a fashion for stars, star-bursts and crescent moon motifs that continue to be worn to this day.

Crescent Moons

The crescent moon became an especially popular brooch motif in the late Victorian era.  Crescent moon brooches were often set with diamonds but could be set with paste, garnets or other gems.  In that era, there was an explosion of novelty and whimsical new designs and crescent moons could also be topped with a a wide variety of other motifs. The term  ‘Honeymoon Brooch’ normally  refers to a brooch with a crescent moon and a bee motif but it has also come to refer to any brooch with a crescent moon topped with another motif.


The simple crescent moon was a popular motif in the late Victorian era
England, c. 1890
Gold set with diamonds
V&A Museum

A Victorian diamond bird brooch

Diamond Victorian brooch
Christie’s Sale 5890

A late Victorian diamond brooch

A late Victorian diamond brooch
Christie’s Sale 5891

A victorian diamond brooch

Victorian Diamond Brooch
Christie’s Sale 5894

Stars and star bursts


England, 19th century
Pique brooches
V&A Museum


England, late 19th century, Brooch, gold, moonstones, silver

V&A Museum


19th century diamond pendant
Christie’s 3026


Christie’s Sale 5968

A mid 19th century diamond bracelet/brooch/pendant

A mid 19th century diamond bracelet/brooch/pendant
Christie’s Sale 7463

A late 19th century diamond star brooch

A late 19th century diamond star brooch
Christie’s Sale 7463

A late 19th century ruby, diamond, pearl and enamel pendant

A late 19th century ruby, diamond, pearl and enamel pendant
Christie’s Sale 6423

Sources / further reading:

The Aesthetic Period (1885-1901)

Sarah Bernhardt as Cléopatre. Circa 1899.

″Art for art’s sake,″ – Theophile Gautier

The Late Victorian era (1885-1901) is also referred to as the ‘Aesthetic Period’.  It was an era which was defined by its rejection of conservatism, of tradition and of all things repressive.  It was a time of great change in the world of art, fashion and design.  William Morris and The Arts and Crafts Movement (1894-1923)  became hugely influential and there was a revival of all things Medieval and fairy-tale like.  Art Nouveau (1890-1914)  began to emerge during this era.  Art Nouveau was truly a revolutionary design movement, perhaps the most radically new design movement there has ever been.  Japanese design emerged as an extremely strong influence, and there was a new design movement which is referred to as the ‘Aesthetic Movement’ which, in jewelry, is characterized by engraved birds, bamboo and minimal design, usually worked on silver.  Overall, there was an explosion of optimism, of creativity and of a new frivolity which, if it had existed previously, had been repressed and under the surface.


England, c. 1900
Brooch, silver and gold with blister pearl, garnet and diamond
V&A Museum

Decorative hair ornamentation, particularly combs, were the order of the day, as these went with the new uplifted hairdos.  Women were now riding bicycles, so purses, glasses and watches were worn on long chains to keep the hands free. Whistle bracelets were also popular for ladies who rose bicycles, so they could summon help from a long distance.


England, c.1900
Comb, silver, garnets
V&A Museum

In general, the taste in jewelry became much less ostentatious and diamonds and other showy gemstones were considered only appropriate for evening occasions.  During the day, women dressed and adorned themselves much more simply, youthfully and altogether with less fuss. Jewelry, when it was worn, became much lighter and smaller.  At the same time as this movement towards naturalness, there was a definite swing towards an emphasis of beauty over utilitarianism. Dresses were simpler and made with lighter fabric and would not support heavy jewels.  Stick pins, stud earrings and tiny chain purses became fashionable. The taste in colors shifted towards lighter and more pastel tones. Sensuality, femininity and subtlety were the prevalent flavors. Some popular motifs included shamrocks, hearts, stars and knots.  Bows were still popular. Novelty motifs were extremely popular, particularly birds and insects. A revival of Ancient Egyptian and traditional Indian jewelry styles also emerged.

A late 19th century tiger's eye quartz, diamond and onyx bee brooch

A late 19th century tiger’s eye quartz, diamond and onyx bee brooch
Christie’s Sale 6423


England, c. 1890
Brooch, gold, enamel, ivory, citrine.
V&A Museum

Although Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau style jewelry were both very popular, there was still a broad taste for more conventional styles.  Diamonds, although not considered proper for day time wear, were still preferred for special evening occasions, particularly set in tiaras and rivières. Old mine cuts, cushion cuts and rose cut stones were the most frequently used. Stones were set with less metal and with more emphasis on the gem itself.  Platinum began to emerge as a popular metal.  Other gems apart from diamonds became more popular during the years of the Boer War (1899-1902). There was an emphasis on cabochon cut gems; opals, amethysts and emeralds were particularly popular.

A late 19th century diamond brooch  Diamond Brooch, Late Victorian, Christie’s

A Star Sapphire and Diamond Brooch, Late Victorian.

Christie’s Sale 6968

A late 19th century coral brooch and earring suite

A late 19th century coral brooch and earring suite
Christies, Lot 6704

Sources / further reading:—the-cult-of-beauty—the-aesthetic-movement-a362629