Friday, March 22, 2013

SHELL CAMEOS Carving Quality Illustrated

Over the last two weeks, I've had a large collection of mid-20th century shell cameos consigned to me for sale.  All of them involved the classic feminine profile, whether goddess, flapper or ponytailed teenager.  A wide range of carving quality was represented, from primitive to masterful.  But I am going to be careful to add that "primitive" does not necessarily mean "inferior" or "undesirable", because I think all of them can lay claim to their own charm.  Of course, more masterful carvings of delicacy and detail will have collector interest and a higher monetary value, the desire to own one rising from the fact that you simply can't take your eyes off of it--and that's worth something!  Perhaps more general carvings, with less refinement, serve the purposes of fashion better, and make a quickly telegraphed statement of "rockin' a vintage look today" with far more panache.

In the cameos I'm featuring here,  the predominant material used is that of  cassis rufa (carnelian shell), followed by abalone shell.  Shell is relatively soft (3.5 on the Moh's scale of hardness) and therefore easily carved.   However, the very attribute of relative softness that makes shells so easy and accessible to carve, also increases the difficulty in achieving the high precision and delicacy that masterful carving exhibits.  (Think of the easy difficulty of carving a bar of soap!)  The softness of the shell also contributes to details being worn smooth with frequent handling. 

Comparatively, harder gemstones like chalcedony (onyx, sardonyx) are more difficult to carve (being a 7 on the Moh's scale) but are also more likely to have higher definition and detail.  Their greater durability makes smoothed-down wear less likely, but noses or other prominent features are prone to chips or damage.  By the way, carvings from harder materials should be judged on their own merits.  But the discussion of hardstone cameos is another onto the gallery of ladies in shell:

A costume pin from the 1950s, in a Rococo gold plated frame, with a  rough carving.  c GENO (Richilieu Company)  Notice the hairstyle from the period.  Replacement value, approx. $20

To the right are two photographs of cameos carved from abalone shell.  These date from the 1940s-1950s and are Italian, set in 0.800 fine silver.   Items like these have been popular tourist choices for years, and many were gifts to sweethearts, mothers and sisters from soldiers serving in Italy during World War II.

The top picture depicts two links in an eight-link bracelet, with a replacement value of about $50.  The bottom abalone cameo is twice the size, and has a replacement value of about $75. Smaller sizes are also generally less valuable than larger.

By the way, the powdery dust of abalone shell created in the cutting process is highly toxic to breathe or if absorbed into the skin, and makes carving abalone cameos challenging and potentially hazardous.  Yet another reason to appreciate the work of these cameo artists.

Cameo en habille "dressed in jewelry" this case a
an old mine cut diamond!

This cameo (on the left) has seen much love, to the extent that the details of the carving are worn quite smooth.  This is very common with cameos carved from soft materials like shell, when worn in rings.  If you see one with this much wear in a brooch, it is highly likely that brooch was worn daily for years, and lovingly transferred from dress to dress.  

This particular ring is very interesting for another reason: the  cameo is hiding a secret compartment.  Dating from the late 1920s, this is a flapper's poison ring!  With imaginations fueled by films featuring adventurous women leading lives of reckless abandon,  posion rings were de riguer!  (Think Greta Garbo in Mata Hari, 1931).

By the way, the ring is 14K white gold.  Alloying yellow gold with metals to transform it to a white color for mass production was a technical achievement around 1918, with the first pieces made in 18K.  Don't be fooled by people telling you a ring or a pin like this in white gold is "mid to late 19th century"!

Here are two lovely un-set cameos.  The one on the right features the goddess Diana (Artemis, also known as Cynthia)...the identification made possible by the crescent moon in her hair.  These cameos, despite their 19th century appearance, are still probably mid-20th century.  The slightly upturned noses are a clue for dating to this period.

The detail on them is alluring...and the fact that they are each only about 3/4" in length makes them very special.  Most shell cameos carved with this much delicacy will be larger.  The one below measures 2" in length.

Also a mid-20th century cameo, set in brass.  Nicely carved.
Replacement value, approx. $175

This cameo is also Italian (since 95% of shell cameos are, in fact, Italian, I am not going out on a limb here) and also dating from the World War II period.  The hairstyle evokes the 1860s, another war, and is a subtle reference to an extremely popular book and movie that made cameos enjoy one of their regular cyclical comebacks.  I am speaking, of course, of Gone With The Wind, a huge influence on fashion jewelry of the time.  The book was published in 1936, won the Pulitzer Price for author Margaret Mitchell in 1937, and was made into a Technicolor blockbuster in 1939. Many of the cameos I'm featuring here probably owe their existence to the demand for "Nouveau Victorian" accessories inspired by GWTW.

Here is an example of two cameos of the same subject, the Virgin Mary, each with their own attributes of beauty and charm.  The one at the bottom has a greater sense of refinement to her features--a more mature appearance, suggesting peace in the midst of deep sorrow. But the one on the top uses the layers of shell to such wonderful advantage, creating the illusion of luminous halos.  The Madonna looks like the young teenager she was thought to be.  Even with a primitive suggestion of features, the Infant certainly adds to the desirability as well.

Which one do you like better?  Would it interest you to know that the top one sold for about half what the bottom one did (on eBay)?

Two examples of earrings.  The top pair are carved from Queen Conch shell, which can be identified by its light, creamy pink color.  (Be careful, though: in this same collection was a cameo stickpin in white molded glass, with light pink paint surrounding the profile.  Magnification made this obvious).

Notice the top pair are facing the same direction; most earrings  will depict the profiles in left and right directions.  One of the attributes of earrings that I personally like are that the "matched" pair usually look like sisters--similar but not quite the same.

"Sweetheart" Bracelet, made by D.F. Briggs Co of Attleboro, Mass, circa 1940s.
The most common shape for a cameo is an oval, but once in awhile you will see something like this cameo carved in a heart shape.  She's got quite the "ski-slope"!  Noses are often a good indicator of relative carving quality.  Despite the awkward appearance of her features, the cameo in this CARMEN expansion bracelet by DF Briggs Company is  unusual and appealing.  Approximate replacement value, about $125.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


Green View Press, 2009, available from
This beautiful, lavishly illustrated book is well named, because author Ronald Ringsrud's passionate love affair with emerald will surely enchant and delight like-minded enthusiasts.   It is an excellent guide to all things emerald, and is fun to read.  Although it has a chatty tone, the science is sound and  explained simply and well.  Mr. Ringsrud's primary intended audience seems to be the end consumer, but professional gemologists will enjoy it's tidbits of  insider knowledge that they unexpectedly didn't know.   Only someone so deeply immersed in a single  gemstone for a couple of decades gains this level of understanding, and jewelers and gemologists who are by necessity more generalized will appreciate its insights and usefulness.  Early in the book, Mr. Ringsrud acknowledges this, telling his peers that they'll know when to skip ahead, but to stay tuned anyway, "because there are anecdotes, stories and nuggets of information that will be of interest to every reader."   Good advice!  For the beginning gemologist or lay-person, the book will be exceptionally valuable, not only in conveying an authentic connoisseurship of emerald,  but also in the right way of conducting oneself in the gem trade (everything from how to use tweezers, fold a stone paper, dealer relationship etiquette, and so forth).   

My chief criticism of the book is not really directed at the book, as it can't be helped.  The production values are excellent, with hundreds of illustrations and photographs...but the problem here is that emeralds seem to defy being photographed accurately.   The particular color green of fine Colombian emerald, with its mysterious underlying red fluorescence which Mr. Ringsrud explains so beautifully, doesn't seem to reproduce well.  So many of the examples in this book look capable of eliciting actual swooning in real life, but a reader unfamiliar with emerald in person might be scratching his head and still wondering "What's the big deal?  OK, they're green!"   Take Mr. Ringsrud's advice, and get thee to the next gem show, or an independent jeweler who still believes in stocking quality merchandise, and see fine emerald for yourself.  Only after truly looking and comparing these exquisite gemstones in person will Mr. Ringsrud's passion, and his book of rapturous poetry and heartfelt intimacy, make perfect sense!

Friday, January 13, 2012

"Wedding Cakes": Venetian Fiorato Beads

Venetian Glass Beads

I recently received a collection of beautiful old glass beads from an estate with instructions to sell them, and the inquiry into their history has been a fascinating journey for me.  It seems the acquisition of them involved a journey as well, for the original owner toured the globe between the two world wars, and ended up, among other places, in the beautiful city of Venice.

What this jewelry-loving traveler acquired in Venice–or probably more likely, after a visit to the island of Murano, where glass-makers were sent in the 13th century so as not to imperil Venice with their hazardous furnaces and open flames–were several strands of a specific type of handmade glass bead known as fiorato, or flowered.  I have a feeling these  lovely strands may have been purchased as potential gifts that happily ended up after all in her own jewel-box for 50 years.  This is the kind of  jewelry that  becomes an irresistible commodity for tourists– so abundant and affordable when visiting the place of manufacture, and memorably exotic when returned home.   Why not buy extras, just in case?  There is hardly a better way to evoke the memory of a time and place than a piece or two of jewelry.

Fiorato beads get their start on a copper wire, which forms the hole when finished, by winding the hot colored glass around it into a fairly good sized ball.  The centuries old process is called in Italian perle `a lume–we call it lampwork or lampwound.  For fiorato, the opaque bead is then decorated according to a theme involving glitter, squiggles and rosebuds.  There are as many variations, apparently, as there are bead-makers, or moods of bead-makers, but the basic idea is the same.  First, the dazzling glitter effect is applied.  The glitter is actually a specific type of glass known as avventurina or aventurine (not to be confused with the natural quartz of similar name), derived from  the Italian word a ventura, “by chance”.   This transparent glass infused with copper filings causes an eye-catching gold-like glint when overlaid onto the surface of a bead, and it is characteristic of many exquisite Venetian  beads.  (Apocryphally, aventurine glass was discovered accidentally in a Murano workshop in the 1600s, and for many years was a closely guarded secret.) The next decoration applied are the various squiggles, known as a “trailing pattern”, which are narrow strands of glass “trailed” in loops or zigzags around the bead.  The more there are, the more likely it is the beads are old, as this adds significant time to the manufacture.  Finally, more or less carefully, the floral details are applied:  the rosebuds usually in pink, and the forget-me-nots in dots of blue and white with a yellow center.
This style of flowered bead  (in a somewhat simpler form) is thought to have made its first appearance in the late 1700s, perhaps in response to the wide European interest in the “language of flowers”, a coquettish code of floral symbolism .   The very earliest substantiated date is 1815.  By the end of the 19th century, versions were being made in Bohemia as well.

There is also a variation called dogaressa. In this case, the glitter of the aventurine glass  is replaced by a layer of gold foil applied directly to the surface.  The decoration on these beads is softer, both in effect and in durability.
It isn’t surprising that other bead-making traditions have imitated the beautiful Italian fiorato.  One of the ways to identify a true Venetian bead from its imitators is to observe the area around the hole.
Venetian on the left, Indian manufacture on the right

In Italian beads, a lampworked bead is made one at a time, and when finished, the copper wire that holds it while it is being formed is dissolved in nitric acid, leaving the hole open for stringing.  If a white residue around the hole is observed, this is an indication of a different method of manufacture, whereby several beads are made at once on a steel rod.  The white residue is the remains of a releasing agent used to free the beads from the rod.  It is not uncommon to see beads made in this fashion sell for 1/100th of the price of a single Venetian bead.
Residue within hole on left

I’m not sure when and where and by whom Venetian fiorato beads began to be called “wedding cake beads”, but that seems to be the popular and accepted  trade term in English, and it’s an apt description for these fancy glass beads, with their “icing” of frills and flowers.  But one possibility is that the early 19th century Beidermeier  influence on European design, at a time when these beads were emerging in fashion, is why these beads carry an association with weddings.  Beidermeier bouquets, still carried by brides today, nicely correspond to the bead design in their use of concentric rows of different colored flowers.
A  Biedermeier Bouquet

Some Thoughts on Saltwater Akoya Pearls

Pearls.   It is difficult to find any other category of fine jewelry that has changed more radically in the last 100 years than this one.  And there is hardly a category of fine jewelry that has more to know, study and appreciate because of the incredible variety of pearl types available today.

A hundred or so years ago, the only choices for a pearl lover were to either acquire natural –a gift from the sea, lake or river, and created by the mussel without intervention from humans– or imitation — a glass bead with a pearlescent coating manufactured from fishscales.   In the early part of the 20th century,  enterprising Japanese inventors, chiefly Mikimoto,  succeeded in developing the ability to control the creation of a pearl inside a mussel at will.  It was an extraordinary accomplishment.  The basic idea was to help the oyster along by inserting a bead inside its tissues, which would activate the production of nacre–the beautiful lustrous response the oyster makes when confronted with a foreign body inside.

These cultured pearls were formed in saltwater, inside a type of oyster known as akoya.  Today a distinction is made about whether a pearl is from the saltwater akoya oyster, or whether it is from freshwater production.    Until the late 1980s no one bothered to make that distinction,  because freshwater pearls were rare and natural.   In fact, if any distinction was made, it was between cultured pearls and natural pearls.  There just weren’t that many choices in cultured pearls, as there are today.   In fact, one of the early cultured freshwater pearls produced by the Chinese, the so-called “rice krispie” pearl, was dismissed for its oversaturation in the market and its pathetically low cost, and it wasn’t considered fine jewelry.
Most jewelers, pre-1990s, would have offered their customers a strand of pearls like the ones illustrated above.   In a typical jewelry store that stocked nice cultured pearls, there would usually be a wide variety of price ranges, and in comparison it was easy to understand.  It came down to size, color, luster, blemishes, nacre thickness, shape and matching.    Size is expressed in millimeters, typically 5mm to 7mm,  with akoya oysters unable to produce larger than 9mm (anything bigger will be from a different oyster).   Color typically refers to variations of cream or white, often with overtones of pink or green.  Luster is about reflection–dull to shiny,  with preference given to a higher mirror-like luster.   Blemishes, a certain amount at least, are tolerable, giving credence to them being “real” (although the use of that word is another blog topic!).  Nacre thickness is a function of how long the oyster was allowed to build up layers of nacre on the inserted bead before harvesting, and an important aspect of beauty and durability.  Shape refers to whether they are round, slightly off round, or baroque (a “tail” or distinct variation on an otherwise round pearl).  So, all of these components went into making a pearl strand a certain price range, which  at the time, started at several hundred dollars.  In those days, a strand of imitation pearls (like Majorica pearls for example), sold at better department stores would have cost more than the typical freshwater strand of today.

Freshwater pearls dominate the market now, and I will write about them as well.  There are many good things to say about freshwater pearls. However, it is a different pearl than the akoya, with different characteristics. It’s important to understand that, and in my opinion, we’re rapidly losing the appreciation for the differences.

So–why buy an akoya strand today, particularly a vintage one?

  • First:  Quality akoya pearls are prized above all for their luster and roundness.  Fine akoyas have a glow about them.
  • Second:  Appreciate the difference in pearls types, and treasure them for what they are.  Saltwater and freshwater pearls have different culturing methods, which result in higher and lower costs of production.   In saltwater oysters, one pearl is produced per oyster, with a nucleated bead.  In freshwater, dozens of pearls are produced in a single mussel at once.
  • Third:  In my opinion, akoyas may be going the way of the horse and buggy, as the market shifts to new and less expensive products.  Buy a nice old strand now, while they are still available.   Do your part to preserve a piece of jewelry history.

A Primer on Pearl Stringing

Need to know how best to care for your pearls?  Let’s begin with the foundation of the pearl necklace.  It is strongly advised that pearls be strung on silk or nylon cord with a small tight knot between each pearl, both to save wear at the drill holes, and to prevent loss of pearls if the strand breaks. Aesthetically, the pearls drape better when knotted.

How do you know if your strand needs to be restrung?  If you can move the pearl easily back and forth between the knots, if any pearl is slipping over a knot, if the thread looks frayed, or soiled, then it’s time to visit your professional pearl expert.

Silk cord made especially for the purpose of stringing pearls is used, in a color which most closely matches the color of the pearl.  Natural or cultured pearls of any type (freshwater, saltwater, akoya, Tahitian, South Sea, and so on) are thoroughly cleaned prior to restringing.

In the case of vintage costume or simulated pearls, special care must be taken to clean each bead individually, to avoid removing the pearlescent coating which is often quite fragile.  Cleaning vintage simulated pearls is risky, in that some loss of  coating may be unavoidable.  Once the peeling of the coating begins, there is no stopping it, and usually what’s left is an unattractive plastic or glass bead.  If your pearls are peeling, that is a sign that they are imitation, and neither natural or cultured.

If gold or other metal beads are added to the strand, the pearls will require more frequent restringing, a dark residue on the pearl and string will be left behind by the metal (especially gold), and the string will likely be frayed or broken by the edge of the metal bead sooner or later.  If possible, pearls strung with metal beads should not be knotted, but strung on a strong cord like Beadalon.  Small spacer beads can be used that look like knots, and perform the same function of protecting the drill hole as knots, but the spacers of course will not help prevent bead loss in case of breakage.

There are two basic methods for ending the strand of silk- or nylon-strung pearls at the clasp.  One is called “French wire” or “Bullion”, which consists of a tight coil of either gold-tone or silver-tone metal that slips over the cord to protect it from fraying against the metal connecting ring of the clasp.  It is the preferred method for fine quality pearls and gives a nice professional finish.   Sometimes, French wire cannot be used because of the size of the drill hole, or other factors.

he second method employs what is known as a bead tip, a cup which secures the last knot, and a hook attached to the connecting ring of the clasp.  The bead tip is useful when there is a possibility that the clasp will be changed or up-graded in the future, as restringing the whole  strand will not be necessary.  A type of bead tip known as a clam-shell covers the knot completely in exactly the way the name implies, and is often used on inexpensive beads.

When Beadalon or other cord is used without knots, the method of ending the strand of beads at the clasp is a crimp.  This is a little metal tube that fits over the looped end, and is crimped or flattened by a pliers, holding the ends in place.

Occasionally an older vintage strand will be seen that was not knotted originally.  These strands usually date from the 1940s or 1950s, most having been brought back by GIs or others traveling through the Orient at that time.  Knotting is still advised in this case, however it is important to note that the length of the strand will increase by at least an inch or two.

Often a strand of pearls will break near the clasp, and a common question is: “Can’t you just re-attach it without restringing the whole thing?”  The answer is, unfortunately, no.  The entire strand of pearls must be re-knotted.  Even if a pearl is left off, there is not enough thread to make a new knot to attach to the connecting ring, and to use glue only as the attachment is unreliable and certainly unattractive for a good  strand of pearls.  On long and inexpensive strands that can fit over the head without using a clasp, I have occasionally been implored to “knit” the ends together using a similar colored cord; it is an acceptable solution in very limited cases.

It is advisable to have only an experienced professional, often found through your local independent jeweler, restring your pearls.  It is a good practice to count the number of pearls, and have the jeweler measure them in millimeters at take-in.  It is likely that the pearl strand will be shorter after restringing, due to the knots being tighter between each pearl.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Virgin Valley, Nevada Opal.  Photo courtesy of Chris Ralph
Today's blog is dedicated to Oregon jeweler extraordinaire, Norm Holliday.  Happy Birthday, Norm!

We grow up thinking things are this way, then we find out they're that way.  Then we realize it may be a little of both.   

I'm still on the subject of opals.  We've had a lot of people in looking at opals for our Opal Event, and my sense is that many are surprised.  Shocked, perhaps.  It  is a complete paradigm shift, from thinking that opals look this way, to understanding that they might look that way too. 

Photo by the author.  These opals are for sale at Harbrook Jewelers.

The photographs are of examples of opal found near where I live.  The rough opal specimen above is from the Virgin Valley of northern Nevada, not too far from the Oregon border.  The faceted opal beads and trillion are from Oregon Butte, in Morrow County, Oregon, and the creamy blue beads are from Owyhee, Oregon.  Opal can look this way, or that way.  

I had a paradigm shift myself this week.  While asking the question, "What is the earliest known use of opal by human beings?" I read that Louis S.B. Leakey discovered opal artifacts in a cave in Nakuru, Kenya, dated to be about 6,000 years old.  But then I read something else about the discovery of opal closer to home that stopped me in my tracks.  I'll bet it will surprise you too.   

There is evidence that Chinese explorers came to North America approximately  4500 years ago on scientific expeditions, and with various mountain peaks as their loci, extensively cataloged their geographical features, the plants and animals, the rivers, and other things of interest that they found surrounding them--including minerals.   Opals.  Like what you see in these pictures.  The explorers reported finding beautiful black opals, which match the description of Virgin Valley opal.

The remnants of these writings, called the Shan Hai King, The Classic of Mountains and Seas, were thought for centuries to be myth, on the order of our Atlantis stories.  No credibility was given to them, because they didn't match any geography known in Asia, and thus they were of no serious academic interest to scholars.  But as it turns out, the detail in which these observations  were made has given compelling evidence that these intrepid geographers were actually describing Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and many other identifiable places in North America.

A paradigm shift.  I won't think of American history the same way again.  Or opals.  And I have a lot more reading to do now!
The World of Opals, by Allan W. Eckert, PhD.  Publisher: Wiley 1997
Gods From the Far East: How the Chinese Discovered America, by Henrietta Mertz.  Publisher: Forgotten Books, 2008

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


When I first started working in the jewelry industry, the opal jewelry most often sold in America was the Australian white solid opal.  They were generally a milky white, with dots of red, yellow, orange and green play of color.  It was called "pinfire", and often referred to as "Fire Opal" (although this now refers to the Mexican variety--vibrant reds and oranges).    The Australian opals were inevitably oval, and of uniform, calibrated size.  They would often be placed in cluster mountings, the opal central and surrounded by diamonds.   Frankly, they didn't do much for me.  They all kinda looked the same.  

Unusual varieties were available back in those days, it just wasn't on most people's radar.  Unless you were a rockhound,  a world traveler or lived near an opal field, the average person (including a young jewelry store clerk) just didn't know anything about the other types of opals.  But how things have changed!  

OK--I admit it.  Today I'm a confirmed opalholic.  Started down the road to ruin with some Australian crystals with broad rolling flash.  Lost it completely at Lightning Ridge, with a startling bolt of green electricity against a midnight blue sky.  Now I'm smitten with a boulder that has a picture of my heaven on it, with a crayon box of colors.

This is the one I love.  It looks to me like my favorite kind of landscape: the sun shining on a mountaintop, a pristine green meadow in the foreground with little yellow wildflowers, a big rock to climb and sit there with a sandwich and feel the breeze cooling your neck after a long hike.  There's a lazy creek in the middle distance.  There is not one other opal in the universe like this one.  To me, this opal is symbolic of my spiritual journey. It speaks to my soul.

Today, a customer brought up the bad luck story of opal again, the very thing I mentioned in my last post.  "It's supposed to be bad luck unless someone gives it to you," she said.  Then after a pause, she smiled and added, "Well, that's what my mother used to say.  But I don't care about that at all.  I love opals and I'm going to wear them if I want.   They really speak to me."   

I think that is significant.  The transformation within people on a spiritual level is always reflected in their choice of personal adornment.    We're transforming from a consciousness of "it's bad luck" to "I make my own luck".  From "they're too fragile for me to wear" to "I'm ready to care for this beautiful gem, this gift from the earth."  From "I'm afraid to open my heart for fear you will break it" to "I'm open to love you, because I know how to love and take care of myself first."   It is symbolic, I believe, for the love and care we are learning to give to ourselves.

Like just about everything else today, we can point to the internet as a key factor, in the rise in global markets and the barriers to trade broken down, and the sharing of information in an unprecedented way.   But there is something deeper here.  In the very rise of availability and interest in the varied forms of opal, the innate desire to say something different about ourselves, and to ourselves, is revealed.   We're re-inventing who we are, we're integrating all we are into wholeness.

"For in them you shall see the living fire of  the ruby, the glorious purple of the amethyst, the sea-green of the emerald, all glittering together in an incredible mixture of light."  Pliny the Elder, 1st century A.D.