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The Fascinating World of Antique Glass Jewellery

So, if you are well-acquainted with antique jewels, it is highly likely that you have probably know a thing or two about antique Paste and antique Enamel. But, did you also know that there are a plethora of other antique glass jewellery out there? 

From the haunting hues of French Jet to the joyful tones of Murano Glass, this blog will give you all you need to know about historic glass. 

18th Century Silver Paste Stomacher Brooch, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

Glass, although not a precious gemstone, is one of the most well-versed materials in the history of jewellery design. Decorating necklaces, talismans, earrings and rings since ancient civilisations, glass is often overlooked as a decorative ornament today. Perhaps, glass is even cast off as “cheap”, “mass-manufactured” and “breakable”. When in fact, especially when it comes to antique, medieval and ancient jewels, it was a painstaking and difficult art form. Only the finest and highly-trained craftsmen and artisans could create these reflective ornamental treasures, something that could easily be taken for granted today. 

We have selected seven of the most renowned types of glass that were used in antique and vintage jewellery: Vauxhall Glass, Murano Glass, Bristol Glass (we just had to include as it is our hometown after all), French Jet, Camphor, Opaline and Uranium. 


Vauxhall Glass

Vauxhall glass was at the height of early 19th century Georgian and the late Victorian fashions. Today it is snapped up by antique collectors all over the world! These gems were highly prized and highly reflective, with a distinctive sheen that we can just imagine glittering underneath the incandescent glow of cities candlelit streets, society balls and debonair dinners!


It is actually unknown exactly as to when and where Vauxhall Glass was first produced, but there are of course, numerous theories! One of the theories is that it was crafted in a mirror glass factory owned by the Duke of Buckingham in between 1663-1780, and another, and a more likely theory is that it came to life in the Dawson Bowles & Co Factory (which was coincidentally very near Vauxhall Gardens). 

Vauxhall Glass "Mirror" Buttons, c.1825-1850, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

That being said, Vauxhall is a district in south London where numerous glass factories were established in the 19th century (a district that also lends its name to the famous car manufacturer). One of the most notable of these were the Albert Glassworks in the 1880s. South London in general was well-known for its glass industry, dating back to 1612. 

Victorian and Georgian Vauxhall glass could be found in an array of colours, but the most popular were white, black, red, burgundy and purple. What is signficant, and must be known if you are planning on finding authentic Vauxhall glass jewellery is that it was almost never set within Gold or Silver mountings. Instead, it was actually set into brass with either a Gold or black lacquered finish. Victorian Vauxhall Glass can be easily mistaken for French Jet, but a distinguishing factor is the reflective mirror backing. 

Antique Red Vauxhall Glass Necklace, Source - Lillicoco

In the 1920s and 1930s, Vauxhall Glass had a little bit of a comeback in vintage jewellery. These were mainly made in Czechoslovakia and it easily mimicked the original alluring reflection and vivacity by adding Gold chloride to the glass formula. Of course jewellery historians and purists would most likely say that this is actually Vauxhall-style glass. 

Murano Glass

If you know a thing or two about interior design, you may have seen that Murano glass is coming back in fashion once again. Made on the Venetian island of Murano for 1500 years, Murano was the centre of Europe’s glass-making industry from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, with archaelogical findings of Venetian glass trade beads being found in prehistoric Eskimo sites in Alaska!

19th Century Murano Goblet, c.1866-1868, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum 

In the 14th and 15th century, Venetian glassmaking was central to it’s economy. So much so that it was actually forbidden (in fear of death) to divulge these trade secrets outside of Venice! If a glassmaker left Venice, he would be ordered to return or he would be assassinated. In trade of these restrictions, glassmakers were afforded heightened social status, and was a respectable trade in which their children could easily be married into noble families. 

There are many different kinds of Murano beads, including Aventurine, Millefiori, Latimo, Smalto, Chevron, Rosetta and Goldstone. The Murano glass that is very recognisable today are highly sculptural and brightly coloured glass formations, mimicking the waves of the ocean or the fresh springtime blooms of native flora. 

Murano Millefiori Bowl, c.1880, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unfortunately, Murano glass started to decline in the 17th to 18th century as glassmaking industries advanced in other parts of Europe, and when Napoelon eventually conquered Venice, many of the original techniques were lost and there were high tariffs from both France and Austria. The only profitable pieces that were made were Murano glass beads which were used to decorate necklaces, earrings and bracelets. 

Black and White Photograph of an 18th Century Murano Bead Necklace, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

 

17th Century Murano Beaded Bag, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum 

All was not lost for Murano, as in 1866, it experienced a huge revival with the gentlemen on the Grand Tours of English and American elite. Today, it is still a refined craft with only few select glassmakers fully trained in its art. The profession itself is cumbersome, highly skilled and with many difficulties which is why it has also died out. That being said, it is still very collectable and sought after today in both modern and antique iterations. 


Bristol Blue Glass

We couldn’t NOT include Bristol Blue glass in this glittering line up could we? Made since the 18th century, Bristol glass was integral to Bristol’s developing artistic industry, with a characterful deep cerulean blue hue. 


18th Century Bristol Blue Jelly Class, c.1750, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

Bristol blue glass was originally crafted by Richard Champion and chemist William Cookworthy, who exclusively obtained cobalt oxide from Saxony. The result was a game-changer in the British glass and jewellery industry, swiftly gaining popularity around the world. At this point, Bristol was a thriving merchant city, so they were easily able to send their dreamy bright blue glass across the seas. It was so popular, that 17 glass making houses were set up across the city. 

17th - 18th century Trade Beads, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

The most famous glassmakers were Lazarus and Isaac Jacobs who helped launch Bristol Blue Glass as a national brand in the 19th century. They held a royal warrant, and constantly crafted home decoratives and jewellery for European aristocrats and the royal family, even exhibiting at the Great Exhibition itself in 1851. 

Bristol Blue Gin Bottle, c.1790-1800, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

Much like the other glass industries, demand ceased in the early 20th century, leading to the closing of production in the 1920s. But, in the 1980s, a handful of glass makers revived Bristol’s handblown glass industry, making it an esoteric addition to homes and beautiful unique gifts for people around the country. 


French Jet

A sombre but nonetheless beautiful addition to this blog is French Jet. Designed to replicate Whitby Jet, French Jet was a common alternative for mourning jewellery. Whitby Jet is a natural fossilied wood that is historically found in Whitby. However, Whitby Jet was incredibly expensive, so naturally the economical Victorians wanted something that was very similar. The main difference between French Jet and Whitby Jet is how it feels. French Jet is colder and heavier, whereas Whitby Jet instantly warms to your hand. 

Victorian French Jet Tiara, c.1890-1900, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

Despite the name, French Jet is not named because of its country of origin. It is likely that it was called “French Jet” to make it seem appealing as France was the epicentre for fashion and style. 

Camphor Glass

Camphor Glass jewellery is a highly collectable Art Deco creation that is modelled upon the Rock Crystal fashions of the late 19th century. When Rock Crystal was cut into, it would create an opaque misty look in the gemstone, which captured the imagination of the early 20th century designers of Cartier and Boucheron, widely utilising this technique to the max. As the demand grew, and modern manufacturing methods sophisticated, many designers switched to glass. Hydrofluoric acid vapours were added to the glass to give it it’s signature misty effect.

The designs that is most associated with Camphor Glass are the glass plaque pendants with a star cut into the centre and an accented Diamond gemstone. These were originally modelled on a Rock Crystal Victorian design. The glass allowed these pendants to be widely available and covetable at all occasions. You can just imagine these being worn at every speakeasy!

Opaline Glass

Opaline Glass is a form of Glass jewellery that was super popular in the 19th and early 20th century, especially during the reign of Napoleon. Almost exclusively made in France, how Opaline glass looks is in the name. An opaque, slightly translucent hue, Opaline glass was a cheaper alternative for Opals, with a pastel creamy colour that has an iridescent sheen. Opaline Glass was heavily influenced by 16th century Venetrian milk glass and English White Glass (which was also produced in Bristol!). You can certainly see that during the 18th and 19th centuries, many European countries were monopolising on making extravagant glass creations (no wonder Murano glass found itself plenty of competitors!).

Opaline Glass & Paste Girandole Brooch, c.1750-1780, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

All of antique and contemporary Opaline glass is hand-blown, with many famous pieces being crafted in historic French towns of Le Cruesot, Bacccarat, Saint-Louis and Reunion.

Opaline Glass & Paste Pendant, c.1760, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

Interestingly, Opaline Glass has a high lead content that actually makes it a demi-crystal!


Uranium Glass

One of the most eye-catching antique and vintage glass is Uranium Glass (also known as Vaseline Glass, Custard Glass, and Jadeite Glass). Uranium glass ornaments are very collectable, with trace elements of Uranium in them that gives it an unmistakable acid-green bright yellow glow. Uranium glass was crafted in jewellery, but it was primarily used for tableware and household items, especially during the 1920s and 1930s (it also falls under the decorative category of Depression glass). Uranium Glass Piano Foot, c.1874-1900, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum

Uranium glass was very popular between the 1880s to the 1920s, but it ceased in production after the Second World War as there were restrictions placed on Uranium in general. 


Nevertheless, it’s bewitching green glow can often be found today in vintage shops and online vintage sellers. 


If you want to find out more about antique Paste, why not check out this blog here?

Everything You Need To Know About Antique & Vintage Paste Jewellery

Molly Chatterton

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