I had a cameo that needed a gold setting, back in the olden days when the price of gold didn’t make me clutch my chest. I brought it to my jeweler friend Blanche Hess. “The Victorians used to surround cameos with seed pearls,” she said. “I’d love to try that.” I thought this was a fine idea and told her to go ahead. Some weeks later she presented me with the brooch shown below and at the top of this post.
The setting was perfect, and perfectly Victorian. Before I could praise it, she launched into a diatribe: “Those damn seed pearls! They’re impossible. You can’t get the wire through them—they slide all over the place. I’ll never do that again.”
Seed pearls are tiny natural pearls that the Victorians and Edwardians used in all kinds of lacy confections. You can still buy them, drilled (by elves, no doubt) and ready to string. But as Blanche found out, they’re the devil to work with, and for most jewelers, they’re not worth the time.
Seed pearls do get fashioned into tassels and used in high-end jewelry. Ivanka Trump will sell you a pair of seed pearl and diamond tassel earrings for a mere $12,500. Ask me if I’m remotely tempted.
My point, from which I rashly allowed Ivanka to distract me, is that many labor-intensive jewelry arts are vanishing from the world because they’re simply not cost effective. Crafts are dying, and I value these crafts.
The turquoise bracelet above is in a style called petit point, devised by Zuni Native Americans in the 1920s. It involves teeny tiny stones, hand shaped and set. (Google “petit point turquoise” for more examples.) There are 150 Sleeping Beauty turquoise cabochons in this bracelet and another 25 in the link I had removed. It was made by Stephen Haloo, whose family specializes in the technique; I bought it in Santa Fe at a Zuni fetish store called Keshi. The saleswoman told me that Haloo intends to stop working in this style because it’s too time consuming to be profitable. I may buy more.
And then there’s niello. If eBay is any indication, I may have paid too much for the locket and chain above, from around 1910 (I think). I bought it in Paris, and had never seen anything like it. The world’s tiniest swan hallmark tells me it was imported into France from…somewhere. The shiny black stuff is niello, a mixture of copper, silver and lead sulphides used as an inlay in silver. Those stripes on the back are niello rubbed into grooves that were incised by hand; the piece was fired and polished to an enamel-like finish. The rose gold is an overlay.
Russian silversmiths were using Niello a thousand years ago; 19th Century Russian niello is a wonder to behold, with lacy black tracery that must have taken a master engraver many days to carve. Today, this would be done by machine: silver engraving is computerized now.
Within my lifetime, there was that niello jewelry from Thailand that had silver images of what looked like dancers but were actually Mekkalah, Goddess of Lightning. Remember her? When I was maybe ten, my best friend Joby gave me a reversible niello ring marked “Siam” that I wish I still had. You can find Siam niello for sale online and it’s not expensive, despite the fact that the silver was carved by hand.
As fussy as niello is to work with, it’s nothing to the fussiness of filigree. Filigree wire is drawn out to the thickness of a human hair by pulling the metal through a series of smaller and smaller holes, a process that takes endless time and patience. Elaborate silver filigree jewelry, enameled and gold plated, poured out of China for decades, starting in the 1920s. I bought the bracelet above, set with turquoise cabochons, on eBay. Every fussy little bit of it was fashioned by hand—by someone who wasn’t paid much, I’m willing to bet. If you want to know just how exacting and labor intensive filigree is, watch this short video featuring a Mexican silversmith. The final product is a miracle of craft. Considering the time it takes, there can’t be much profit in it. And as I’ve said many times, usually while writing a check, jewelers have to eat too.
Finally, there’s cut work. The gold in the Victorian ring above would have been cut out with a jeweler’s saw. Behind those little diamond and ruby florets, the channel has been given a coppery overlay to make the yellow gold stand out—a subtle and pleasing effect. This may have been a wedding band, because the rubies are banged up from constant wear. Which just shows you how much softer rubies are than diamonds, even though they’re the next-hardest stone on the Mohs scale.
Cut work was once a commonplace loveliness. You could buy whole sets of silver flatware that were pierced and chased by hand. (You still can, if you have a trust fund. At least one English company still makes the stuff.) But my jeweler friend Nan tells me that she regularly sees gorgeous old silver pierce work being scrapped at the smelter, as though it were disposable. Well, it’s disposable if you choose to dispose of it. But in this age of computer-designed, machine-made metalwork, we will not see its like again.