Lately, I’ve been slacking off when it comes to the blog, especially the “Find of the Month” posts. Frankly, it’s because I’m rather poor, so there hasn’t been much spare money to spend on historical lovelies. Also, I usually wait to the end of the month to post these so I make sure my find truly is THE FIND, but in this case, I don’t think I’ll find anything else this month to top this!
I’ve been on a silver and paste collecting binge the past year or so. By “collecting binge,” I mostly mean “drooling over museum jewelry I can’t have and adding them to Pinterest,” but I’ve had a nice streak of luck and have amassed a fairly neat little collection of Georgian silver jewelry. Most of the pieces so far have been pretty small and somewhat flawed, but I treasure them all.
For the most part, the pieces in my collection are functional pieces that an 18th century person needed in order to be dressed properly, like buttons to keep clothes on and buckles to hold together the upper latchets on 18th century shoes or help secure sashes.
My buckles are missing the latch and prongs, but when they were whole, they held shoes together like this.
Image courtesy of American Duchess
“Just for pretty” jewelry is usually more expensive and out of my reach.
The late 18th century was a highpoint for silver jewelry. Gold and silver exist harmoniously throughout all eras, but the predominance of yellow or white metals fluctuates. The Renaissance period before and the Victorian period after were very gold-centric eras when yellow metal was very popular. Gold has a bight glow of its own that can actually mask the brightness of the diamonds set in it. When diamonds were just roughly cut chips, they lend the gold more glitter, functioning more as accents than focal points (which is why diamonds were often backed with black in order to highlight them against gold settings lest they be overwhelmed). In the 18th century, silver accented the bright whiteness of diamonds which exploded in popularity thanks to advances in gemstone acquisition and cutting technology. In the 18th century, silver was often laid over gold– the opposite of what we are accustomed to– in order to give diamonds and the pastes made to imitate them as much glitter as possible.
Diamond and Gold Bodice Ornament (Spanish), circa 1700
17th and early 18th century jewelry tends to be made of gold. Silver begins to appear, but gold is still the fashionable metal.
Chrysoberyl and Silver Bodice Ornament (Portugese), circa 1760
By the 1750s, silver settings are gaining popularity and by the 1770s, silver (and silver-topped gold) is in vogue. Silver is a very sturdy metal, so it could safely hold gemstones with less metal between them, allowing jewelers to create pavé-style jewelry. Many pieces of 18th century jewelry look like they are made of solid glass or diamond from a distance thanks to the close silver settings.
Gold, of course, was still the metal of the rich, so large, yellow gold settings didn’t fade from use. Silver, however, could cross more class boundaries and could be found just as frequently in the rising middle-class as it could in the coffer of a noblewoman. Since I am nowhere near noblewoman status, an 18th century gold and diamond pendant is far out of my reach. Honestly, even a silver pendant set with glass pastes seemed just as distant a dream. Heaven, however, sometimes lets stars fall:
Croix de Saint Lô Silver and Paste Pendant, circa 1790-1830
The pin back is a later addition, around 1870.
Okay, now I normally try to remain rather academic, but just for a moment:
AAAAAAAAAAAAAA! LOOKIE LOOKIE LOOKIE! A SILVER AND PASTE PENDANT OF MY OWN! IT’S ALL SILVERY AND GLITTERY AND CURLY AND AWESOME!
Now that that’s out of my system, I’ll compose myself and my prose.
I snapped this pendant up for $32 thanks to the large missing stone at the top as well as a few damaged spindly spangles around the edges. However, such “flaws” give us a glimpse inside the construction of the piece, something an intact piece locked away in a museum cannot normally give the average layperson. For example, the giant gaping hole where the first paste should be has retained its foil:
It’s hard to see because it has tarnished black from exposure, but you can see the thin folded edge poking up at the top of the hole. Unlike modern rhinestones that have a gilded coating applied directly to their backs, pre-19th century stones were given extra glitter with thin pieces of silver foil (often colored to give natural gemstones, especially rubies and emeralds, deeper color or make a clear stone look colored). The foil in my pendant-turned-brooch is very delicate, but if I lift it with tweezers, I can tell the underside still has some shine. I have chosen not to mess with it, though, in the hopes of finding a replacement stone.
Many of the small flourishes around the edges are missing, including this one, which reveals more of the under-foil of the stone. While ultimately not good for the shine and complicating cleaning (no water should go near foiled stones), again, it gives a wonderful glimpse into the construction of the piece.
Overall, the piece is in what I consider to be good shape for a 200 year old antique. Its rough appearance has a certain charm. I am especially enamored with the sawtooth edging around the conical, rubbed-bezel settings.
Beautiful black-dot (sometimes called strass) pastes! They may be rock crystal, but it is difficult to tell through my loupe.
After waiting eagerly for MY PRECIOUS–er– my pendant to arrive in the mail and admiring it in-person, I decided to do a bit of research about it. I already knew that it was 18th century in shape and design and I’d seen similar crosses in museums and auctions throughout the years. At first, the design struck me as very Spanish. Spanish jewelry in the 18th century retained the chunky conical stone settings of the 17th century a bit longer before fully adopting the newer style of silver pavé, especially since large holdings in South America meant that Spain had access to gold and colored gemstones and they liked to flaunt it:
Gold and Emerald Pendant (Spanish), circa 1750
The chunky style and curly flourishes of my new acquisition looked plausibly Spanish, but the silver styling was a bit off. Another pendant in the V&A looked similar and was marked as “probably” German:
Rock Crystal, Glass Paste , and Silver Pendant (German?), circa 1750-1800
Would you look at that! The cross portion has spindly flourishes accented with pastes similar to my pendant. Germany was also famous for its white metalwork and exported many jewelry items and other findings, like purse frames, made of both real silver and “German silver,” an alloy of copper, zinc, and nickel. (My pendant is real silver, not a nickel-based imitation.)
As I continued my search, I began to notice many of the cross pendants I was finding were from northern Europe. When I checked the Three Graces, one of my all-time favorite antique jewelry sites, I found a similar cross they had labelled a “Normandy Cross:”
Paste and Silver Normandy Cruciform Pendant (French), circa 1790
It had a similar configuration to mine, right down to the newer pin back! This cross was French and, according to the description, specific to Normandy. With this information in hand and some googling, I came across this fantastic website which details French traditional folk jewelry and costumes, many of which have roots in the 18th century. Normandy is known in particular for its tall, ornate coifs and headdresses, which vary by region. These fashion plates (as well as others available here) show the distinct fashions of the different parts of Normandy around the time my pendant would have been made:
Woman in the Dress of Rolleville, circa 1819
The cap and scarf styles developed during the 18th century, but as you can see, her dress and other accessories are Parisian style based and on-trend for the era.
Woman in the Dress of Bayeux, circa 1819
You may know this town already for its famous tapestry, but it is also known for its tall coif with the puff at the top. This lovely lady’s clothes show a heavier 18th century influence than other areas and she appears to be wearing a cross pendant of her own along with earrings.
The large, ornate silver crosses are traditional jewelry pieces and each region has its own forms. Even minor variances in the placement of stones and the techniques used to create them result in crosses of different names and origins. I wondered if my cross had a name. The form of my pendant is very distinctive: four large, round stones forming the top and arms of a cross with a teardrop shaped pendant stone suspended from a triangular loop forming the bottom.
At first, I thought it might be a Croix de Pierres/drille design:
However, my pendant is silver, not gold, and has an arched bail located behind the pendant rather than a triangular sliding bail. These stylistic details mean that my cross is a Saint Lô cross. Les Bijoux des Français describes the Croix de Saint Lô style thus:
“The Saint Lô crosses were worn in other parts of Normandy than just Saint Lô and are made in silver set with strass or, for the older ones, with quartz from the granite mines of Alençon. Their name comes from their original site of production, (though they were also made in other regions), rather than their area of adoption. They were worn mainly in the southern half of Normandy, which was less prosperous and where the gold crosses almost never took on. “
A every-woman’s cross with awesome giant paste stones? Just my style!
“View of the Town of Saint Lô” by Camille Corot, circa 1833
I also found another possible reason Saint Lô crosses are simpler and cruder in appearance than earlier crosses and those of neighboring towns. Saint Lô has a fascinating, but rough history, including being physically obliterated during World War II. However, the events affecting my cross are a little farther back in time. The Edict of Nantes, a sort of taxed permission for Protestants in the otherwise Catholic country of France to live peaceably, was revoked in 1685. Normandy and surrounding areas had been a haven for many skilled Protestant artisans and craftspeople due to its closeness to England. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes saw a spike in the persecution of Protestants and many skilled workers fled to nearby Protestant England and Germany, leaving Saint Lô with fewer metal smiths, gem cutters, and jewelers. The city also sided with the Revolutionaries during the French Revolution, which was raging around the same time my pendant was made. Religion weighs very heavy on the area and it was quite volatile. Wearing religious pendants of any sort could be as much a political statement as a spiritual one!
The style of my pendant dates it between 1790 and 1830, but the pin back dates to the 1870s. My pendant was likely passed down from mother to daughter, especially since these large cross pendants were traditionally given as wedding gifts. Cross pendants and other folk jewelry were passed down through the generations and show up in photographs taken 50 to 100 years after the crosses were made:
I cannot find a date the photo was taken, but the bodice is very 1840s-50s in style, so the image was taken no earlier than that. Many folk costumes were also made from clothing from previous decades. For example, many 1830s dresses show up as folk costumes in the 1890s (possibly due to or inspiring the 19th century’s second “big sleeve” era).
By the 1870s, regional folk costumes had become somewhat of a tourist attraction to more “modernized” Victorians who longed for simpler, romanticized escapes from the present. A resurgence in traditional garb and the emergence of cultural tourism lead to many old pieces of clothing and jewelry being worn once again.
French Bisque Doll in the Traditional Costume of Normandy by Gaultier, circa 1870
This doll, dressed in one version of Normandy’s folk costume, shows the heavy influence of the late 18th century on traditional garb and comes complete with a pretty cross pendant of her own.
Many of the silver Saint Lô crosses had pin backs added to them so they could be worn as collar pins, on sashes, or to trendy masquerades and fancy dress balls. Some crosses were sold as souvenirs and others made the journey across the Atlantic in the trunks of immigrants until, in the case of my pendant, they ended up in Vermont and now, Texas.
If this seems like a really long post for something as simple as a beat-up silver pendant, you might be right, but I get excited when something quite unassuming leads me down a rabbit hole and pops me out in a whole new world of fresh information and beautiful things! Today turns into yesterday just as fast as we get to tomorrow. What seems so obvious now is soon archaic and what is old now becomes obscure and even lost. Rediscovering the past is a pleasure, especially when you can hold it in your hand!