Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Mastery of Design: The Chrysoprase Tiara, 1835

Gold, Chrysoprase
England, 1825-1835
Given by Dame Joan Evans
The Victoria & Albert Museum

By the 1830’s, technology in a variety of areas was advancing quickly. The use of machines changed the way items were produced and allowed previously out-of-reach objects to be available to the middle classes. Those in the steadily-growing middle class looked to nobility and royalty as their barometers of style. In order to be truly fashionable, one yearned to duplicate the fashions of aristocrats without trying to ape them. Most important of all fashion was jewelry. Of course, Royalty and nobility had entire wardrobes of priceless jewelry at their disposal, but new technologies meant that the middle class could have similarly-styled (though more cheaply made) pieces at hand. Take this tiara for example.
This tiara would have been the envy of any middleclass lady who had spotted The Duchess of Cambridge or Princess Mary Adelaide at the theatre sporting a similar-looking model. What was the difference between this tiara and the one belonging to Her Serene Highness? Quality and time and materials. This tiara has been quickly manufactured by pressing the gold into shape using a steel die stamping machine, this by-passing the need for thick gold that required chasing and casting from an expert jeweler.

Such pieces were made swiftly and with little fuss. First, flattened gold was rolled through machinery to create a very thin sheet which was then stamped to make multiple standard components. Even the prong settings for the gemstones could be stamped on, allowing for the “finish-work” to be completed in short order.

After the stamped sections of gold were polished, they were assembled and the piece was fitted with its gemstones. In this example, we see chrysoprase (a form of chalcedony) which, when viewed from a distance, mimicked the look of more impressive stones.

This desire for jewelry in the style of the nobility added additional business to the gem trade in Britain, and also changed the law forever. Because cheaper pieces were being produced for mass consumption, legislation was passed to ensure that jewelers were being honest about the quality of the gold they were selling. In 1854, three lower standards of gold alloys were legalized with the condition that the items being sold were advertised truthfully.

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