Arts and Crafts Repousse Brooch

January 5th, 2019 by James L. Sweaney, CGA, FGA. GG

Arts and Crafts Repousse Brooch of 14K gold, natural pearls, and black onyx.

This unusual antique Arts and Crafts gold brooch is now on display at Mardon Jewelers. Made circa 1900 or so, the piece shows the classic handcrafted elements of the Art and Crafts movement.

The craftsman began by drawing the design on paper, then either glued the design onto a sheet of 14K yellow gold or drew the design directly on the gold with india ink. The gold was then pierced with a jeweler’s saw to create the openings in the design and trimmed to the design outline.

The pierced sheet was then placed on a heavy pitch bowl. In the repousse method, the pitch in warmed just enough so that the work can be embedded firmly. The pitch is slightly pliable and supports the work while it’s being shaped with steel punches. The hemispheric shape of the bowl allows the work to move easily to follow the craftsman’s tools.

Pitch bowl, base, steel punches and chasing hammer. Photo courtesy Creatstudio.Co.UK

First, the piece was worked on the reverse side using steel punches and hammer to develop raised reliefs and the lovely three dimensional shape.

Warming the pitch again allowed the work to be turned over so the front could be tooled. The details of the front including the grape leaves and the over/under elements were hammered into the gold using various punches. The punch marks made a distinctive texture that enhances the hand wrought look. The finished gold item was bathed in chemicals several times to develop a bloomed gold surface. Bloomed gold is explained on this Mardon blog post, http://www.mardonjewelers.com/blog/the-bloom-is-on-the-gold/ ‎

The bezel set black onyx center, which is actually dyed black chalcedony, has holes that were drilled so the grape leaf and pearl cluster could be attached. The grape leaf, also made with the repousse technique, was fired with opalescent enamel.

Opalescent enamels, so very popular in the late 1800’s, were made by mixing a small amount of opaque enamel powders with transparent enamel powders which were then fired (melted) onto the surface of the gold. Opalescent enamels were usually etched slightly with acids to create a matte surface, creating a lovely velvety look.

The Arts and Crafts movement rejected the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution and espoused the virtues of the individual craftsman. Rather than any particular style, Arts and Crafts designers cared more about excellence of design and fine hand craftsmanship. The floral elements of grape leaves and grapes, the warm bloomed gold and matte finished enamel of this brooch are very typical of the jewelry of the Late Victorian and Art Nouveau era.

You can tell by the slightly irregular shapes and openings that the work was done using hand tools. The design, meant to be symmetrical, is very slightly skewed as you might expect from something done by the human eye.

This brooch may have been a graduation or bridal gift because the grapes were symbolic of prosperity, fruitful unions, and abundance. We certainly know this piece was well loved because some of the enamel has chipped, an indication of substantial wear.

The brooch is unusual for an Arts and Crafts jewel in that it’s made of gold– Arts and Crafts jewelers were more concerned with the craftsmanship and design of their work than the value. Most jewels of this style were made of silver or copper rather than gold, so that’s why we consider it to be quite rare.

This antique jewel and others are waiting to share their stories with you at our estate department at Mardon. Stop by during our regular business hours Tuesday thru Saturday, 10:00 to 5:30. We’re located at the Canyon Crest Shopping Centre, 5225 Canyon Crest Drive, Riverside. Enter the central parking lot from the Central Avenue entrance and you’ll see us just left of the RiteAid drug store.

Please keep us in mind if you have jewelry to sell– we’re always interested in buying  antique and vintage jewelry. Call for an appointment if you have things you’d like to sell or have us appraise.

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