The Week in Estate Jewelry: Snakes, Tiaras, and Conch-Shell Pearls

Lalique! This yellow gold, glass, and enamel Art Nouveau bracelet has seven tapered panels, with the central panel featuring what the dealer describes as “two lovers in an embrace.” That dude’s totally got hairy legs and a tail, though, so I’m thinking this is more of a satyr-and-Venus situation. Hmm. The other day I was at an antiques show outside of Philadelphia, where I stood for a long time trying to figure out the pattern on a piece of glazed pottery. The dealer eventually came up to me and commented that it looked like some sort of bird, and in a flash of comprehension I realized that I’d just spent 10 minutes looking at a clear depiction of the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan. Avian rape! Anyway, this is a beautiful piece that showcases designer René Lalique’s brilliance with glass. It’s circa 1900 and has all the French marks as well as the original fitted case.

Here’s a necklace built specifically to showcase some very rare pearls. Most of the pearls we’re used to seeing — freshwater, Akoya, Tahitian, South Seas — are farmed in huge quantities, so rarity is not a factor. But conch pearls, which are produced by the queen conch mollusk, are entirely natural, so you could comb through 10,000 conch shells without ever coming across one — and finding one that’s of a gemquality size, shape and color is even more difficult.

Conch pearl colors can range from a light blush pink to a pale orange or light brown, and the best specimens have a very subtle flame-like pattern. Jewelers of the Art Nouveau and Edwardian periods prized them, as their delicate color perfectly suited the design aesthetic of the time.

This platinum necklace matches seven salmon-colored conch pearls, in sizes ranging from 3mm to 34mm. They’re surrounded by 21.50 carats of diamonds.

Circa 1580! A ruby and gold ring with enameled scroll shoulders; English. Looks like it’s lost some of the enamelling, but that’s to be expected with something this old. I love the floral detail.

Buckle rings were hugely popular in the 19th century, as the sentimental motif was used to symbolize love or friendship. This is a particularly nice example in sterling silver, with intricate floral engraving around the entire band. The hallmarks date the ring to Birmingham, England, 1897.

This is a great ring, but it’s really just an excuse for me to to talk to you about English hallmarks. England is the source of some unendingly delightful things, and (in addition to Benedict Cumberbatch) there is nothing I love more than the English system of hallmarking. Back in the year 1300, King Edward I set the standards for precious metals, and the very first standard fineness or purity mark — the depiction of a leopard’s head — was introduced. Anyone working in precious metals was required to have their pieces tested to ensure that they were of the proper purity, preventing lesser-quality goods from being sold for higher-quality prices. The practice took off, and in 1327, one of the first trade guilds, the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths (a.k.a. the Goldsmiths’ Company) was granted a royal charter. Intended to provide support and protection to members, the guild also established standards and prices for the jewelry trade. They determined a series of hallmarks that can be used to identify the specific year a piece was tested, the assay office where it was tested, the purity of the metal, and the maker. For sterling silver, the standard mark was eventually changed from the original mark of the leopard’s head to the lion passant (or walking lion; it’s the mark second from the left below). For gold, a crown mark was paired with a mark stating the karatage of the gold used.

Pieces were — and still are — tested at assay offices in London, Sheffield, Birmingham, and Edinburgh, with hallmarks specific to each office. London uses a leopard’s head, Birmingham an anchor (see mark far right above), Sheffield a rose, and Edinburgh a castle. Ireland also uses the English system, and the mark of the Dublin assay office is the seated figure of Hibernia. (Other cities, such as Chester, York, Newcastle, and Glasgow, had their own offices and marks, but they didn’t survive to the present day.)

Date marks were introduced in 1478, and run in cycles using the letters of the alphabet. The letter changes each year, and when the letters run out, a new cycle is started using a different font, letter case and shield shape. This way a piece of jewelry can be dated right down to a specific year — as in this buckle ring, which shows the letter mark for 1897 (second mark from the right). Pretty cool, huh?

Maker’s marks (purely coincidental) were required even earlier, in 1363, as a way to prevent under-karating and the forgery of the standard mark. (Basically, if you’re trying to pass a piece of coin silver off as sterling, you probably don’t want to put your name on it.) Early on, maker’s marks were little images, but eventually the use of initials became the common practice. Here you can see the maker’s mark on the far left, for “A.G.G.” I haven’t looked him up myself, but the mark should be on the list for Birmingham jewelers of the period.

Other marks came and went as well, some indicating that a tax had been paid on a piece, or that it was created and stamped in the year of a monarch’s jubilee year or whatever. In 1999 and 2000, pieces were stamped with the Millenium Mark, which took the form of a square cross with the numbers 2, 0, 0, and 0 on each terminal.

All of this might sound confusing, but it’s pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it. If you want to learn more — or look up any pieces you may have of your own — check out Ian Pickford’s Pocket Edition, Jackson’s Hallmarks. It’s a great little guide, with all the city marks, date letter cycles, and lots and lots of maker’s marks, in a nice portable size.

IMPORTANT! Today, only the fineness mark, the office mark and the maker’s marks are compulsory. Date letters and commemorative marks are voluntary, but most designers and silversmiths continue to use them simply because it’s good business. The English hallmarking system has ensured consumer protection for hundreds of years, but right now it’s being threatened. Earlier this month, the English government launched a drive to reduce regulation under the guise of “The Red Tape Challenge.” The supposed aim is to “reduce regulation which stifles enterprise and industry,” and hallmarking is square in their crosshairs. This is horrifying to me. As an American, unless I know and trust the designer, I can never be totally sure of what I’m buying. Unscrupulous jewelers throughout the US have been arrested and charged for under-karating their jewelry (for example, using 10K and stamping it 14k), but there’s no fear of that with English jewelry, because it’s monitored by an outside source. The thought that they might do away with such a simple, elegant means of quality control is ludicrous to me. If you feel the same way, please go to their website and register your opinion.

P.S.: If you’re going to visit London, check out the website of the Goldsmiths’ Company to see if Goldsmiths’ Hall will be open for tours while you’re there. The Hall is the stunning, 19th-century home of the London Assay Office, and it’s just up the road from St. Paul’s Cathedral. It’s only open to the public occasionally, and it is a real treat if you can get in. The Goldsmith’s Fair, an amazing jewelry exhibition and sale, is also held at the Hall every year in late Sept-early Oct, and if you go, trust me, YOU WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.

An antique silver ladies’ pocket watch, circa early 1900s, hung from a watch pin in the form of a butterfly.

The face features hand-painted flowers around the dial and the original ornate hands, and while the watch itself is not currently in running condition it could probably be brought back to life by a watchmaker. And even if not, the piece would look fantastic pinned onto a jacket.

Drop earrings with a single jade drop and rose-cut diamond cap, spacers and a jade cabochon top stone. Circa 1910. Gorgeous.

This super cute sterling silver and guilloche enamel necklace is by famed silversmith Margot van Voorhies Carr — a.k.a Margot De Taxco. Margot’s story is a part of Mexican silver history: Back in the early part of the 1900s, an American by the name of William Spratling encouraged and championed the native silver artisans of a small Mexican town called Taxco. A silversmith himself, he created a workshop called Las Delicias, in which native designers could apprentice and learn all sides of the silver business, both administrative and artistic.

Those designers then moved on and created their own businesses. Many soon found their own fame, and some of the best-known were the four Castillo brothers, or “Los Castillo.” Here’s where Margot comes into the story: She visited Taxco in 1937, and eventually married Don Antonio Castillo, who then encouraged her to start creating her own designs in silver. Her marriage to Don Antonio didn’t last, but her business did, and her designs gained devoted fans, including Hollywood celebrities such as Lana Turner. Her work had many influences, ranging from Art Deco to Asian and Mayan styles, and she was particularly skilled in the use of enamel. Her pieces are highly sought-after.

Note: Melecio Rodriguez is a Taxco silversmith who worked with Margot for over 20 years. He has the rights to use some of her original casts, and he continues to make new pieces from those casts today. He is regarded as a master silversmith in his own right, and he always uses his own trademarks on any pieces he makes.

Circa 1870, this sterling necklace is comprised of step-cut aqua paste stones surrounded by closed-back Old European-cut white paste stones.

Paste jewelry — which is actually leaded glass that is cut to resemble precious gems — was very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Marie Antoinette was a particular fan. The stones themselves can be very beautiful; they often feature intense colors and much of the time they were backed with foil, which allows reflected light to bounce back through the stones, enhancing their brilliance. Paste jewelry is highly collectible today.

The Victorians loved snakes; both Queen Victoria’s engagement and wedding ring were snake designs! The snake, at least to the Victorians, symbolized unity and eternity, a notion that probably stemmed from the ancient symbol of the ouroboros, or the serpent eating its own tail. This engraved vermeil (gold over silver) bracelet is a gorgeous example of snake jewelry, with cabochon ruby eyes, a little teardrop of turquoise decorating the head, and a tiny heart dangling from his jaw. It’s hinged in three places, so it can fit almost any wrist.

I’ve always wondered how princesses kept their tiaras on, and now I know! Apparently all you have to do is weave your hair though what appears to be a pipe cleaner. Who knew? This particular tiara is Edwardian, with pearls and diamonds set in platinum.

Here, just go to this site. I’ll see you in a couple hours.

Previously: Tortoiseshell and the Holy Grail of Diamonds.

Monica McLaughlin would like Benedict Cumberbatch to know that she is available for consultation on the topic of his choice.