Snakes On a Chain (Mystery Jewelry Maker)

Tags

, , , , ,

Occasionally during my research into the Mystery Jewelry Maker I’ve had to revise my original opinion of whether a certain piece or design was or wasn’t theirs. In most cases something unexpected turns up that displays evidence for or against. A recent email conversation with a blog reader provided exactly that resolution to an “MJM maybe” from four years ago.

This serpentine saga began in 2014 when I came across this brooch listing on eBay. This is obviously the MJM’s large-bow tails, and the snake chain is the one that they regularly used. The snake-head finials were “new” to me, as was the slim rope-twist bar at the top. Probably because of the C clasp, the seller described it as being “antique Victorian pinchbeck”, slapped a ridiculously high starting bid on it and – to my great astonishment – sold it for about four times more than it’s actually worth. What dissuaded me from seriously considering this as a MJM piece was not only the C clasp (I had not yet discovered their large and small bow brooches which do indeed have a C clasp although of an entirely different design) but also the noticeable difference in metal color between the snake heads and the snake chain.

 

 

brass half bow snake chain lariat necklace 1930sI’d already discovered two examples of a MJM snake-chain lariat necklace with end finials; notice that the finials are the same color metal as the chain. I have also found the bow tails used by them in two other necklaces. So I tucked the brooch photo away with the assumption that the snake heads were either added later or that the entire brooch was a modern-day faux-Victorian assemblage of several vintage parts.

Afterwards, any time I saw a brass double-snake-head/snake chain lariat necklace I’d compare the heads to those on my “oddity brooch”. In most cases the heads were entirely different, and I never saw another brooch like the one in the 2014 listing. This reinforced my theory that it was an assemblage of vintage bits and bobs rather than a MJM item. Once in a while I’d see a necklace that had the same heads and chain but instead of a half-bow those all had an embossed circle element that I’d never found on any MJM piece. So the brooch stayed in limbo.

Until last week, that is, when my correspondent happened to send me a photo of a necklace found in a box of her grandmother’s old jewelry, many of the items from the 1930s. The original central “joining” element had been lost and replaced by a plain silver metal crimp. The photos below show the necklace in both its as-found heavily oxidized state and also after cleanup; the very successful recipe for cleaning the necklace will be provided at the end of this post.

Notice that here, too, the snake heads are a slightly different color metal than the chain… just as we see in the half-bow/snakehead brooch! The difference was not apparent until the necklace was cleaned.
This is the underside of the snake heads.

Now what, I wonder, was that missing ‘connector’ piece? Was it a half-bow, like the brooch? Or was it the embossed circle that I recalled seeing on other necklaces? That sent me on a hunt for more examples, and lo and behold, I found them in both goldtone AND in silvertone…exactly as was the Mystery Jewelry Maker’s wont.

This is a good shot of the ring element which is embossed with a leaf design.

Here’s a goldtone version.

 

I even found a necklace/bracelet set! That was another typical MJM modus operandi, as we know. The seller of this set cited the necklace as being 16.5″ long and the bracelet sized to fit a 7.5″ wrist. However, s/he also claimed the set is “gold filled” without supplying  any evidence to support that. It is definitely not marked (again typical of the MJM.)

Notice that in the two goldtone examples the metal color is bright. I have seen a difference in metal color between certain MJM designs and theorize that the brighter yellow-gold ones are probably from a later production run or design timeline than the more mellow, richer brass pieces. They may have decided to put a layer of bright goldtone plating on the later production pieces, so as to somewhat retard the natural process of oxidation and/or to make the finish of various findings consistent throughout. (My personal preference is for the more muted original unplated brass, as shown in the half-bow items and my reader’s necklace.)

Gold Filled versus Brass

A brief digression here into the question of “gold filled” versus goldtone or brass, because it often causes confusion in unmarked pieces such as this. Almost all gold filled pieces have a brass ‘core’ and the only difference is in the application of the outer layer(s.)  The image below illustrates the cladding differences:

Pieces marked as gold-filled display the percentage of gold that was used. Legally an item must have at least 1/20th (in other words 5%) gold by weight. Thus, a piece marked 12/20 means that 12k gold was used, in a quantity that totals 20% of the item’s weight; one that is marked 14/20 means that 14k gold was used. Some older pieces may be marked 9/20 for 9k gold. Usually the letters GF appear either next to the percentage mark or near it.

Gold filled is not the same as gold plated. Gold plated items typically have such a thin layer of gold that it usually wears off (especially in higher-abrasion areas like necklace chains) and exposes the underlying brass. There is no regulation as to how thick or thin the plating layer must be.

The typical at-home gold testing kit is not very reliable when it comes to either gold filled or gold plated jewelry, because it can sometimes give a low-level “gold” result for either. The metal color cannot be relied upon as a guide, because the composition of brass alloys can differ. In fact, the reason pinchbeck (which is a specific alloy percentage of brass) was so popular during the early 1800s was that the resulting color was a pretty good mimic of real gold.  All brass is composed of copper + zinc; the only variation is in the ratio of the two metals. If less zinc/more copper (as in pinchbeck) the resulting color will be close to real gold. A pinchbeck item, being brass, will not test as “gold” even though visually it can look very much like it. After electroplating became widespread, and 9k gold came onto the market, there was no longer any use for the pinchbeck “faux gold” formula and by 1850 nobody was using it anymore.

No More Hissy Fits

Now that I’d found several examples matching my reader’s necklace, I wondered if by any chance there was a brooch to match. MJM brooches are scarcer than hens’ teeth, as the old saying goes, but having seen the half-bow/snakeheads example I felt confident that they’d made a brooch to match the “leafy ring” necklace and bracelet.  So I fired up the Google engine yet again.

 

Et voila! (or in more modern terms, Whoomp! there it is) Size was cited as being 2″ x 1.75″ and of course unmarked.

Now, were it not for the existence of that 2014 brooch listing I would still be just a tiny bit skeptical that the MJM made these – but that large half-bow tail element turns out to be the missing link. Just because I haven’t yet found that Leafy Ring on anything else, doesn’t mean they didn’t use it and in fact I have found several pieces wherein they used a plain ring.

I have little doubt that the following pieces were also produced:
* silvertone leafy ring/snakeheads bracelet
* silvertone leafy ring/snakeheads brooch
* brass (and/or goldtone) bowtails/snakeheads necklace
* silvertone bowtails/snakeheads necklace
* silvertone bowtails/snakeheads brooch

I am less confident that they made a bracelet using the bow tails, however; knowing the size of the bow tails, I believe that would be awkward at best, uncomfortable at worst. The leafy ring works much better in the bracelet application. It may be that the first iteration was with the bow tails and then they switched to the leafy ring instead (just guessing, but it seems logical.)

If anyone has, or sees a photo of, any of the above listed variations (especially with the bow tails) I’d love to be able to add them here. There is a direct contact form on the About the Chatsworth Lady page.

By the way, I’ve noticed that seller descriptions of these items are about evenly split between claiming they are antique Victorian (nope) and either Deco or circa 1930s (yep) – one seller even covered both bases by calling it Victorian in the title and 1930s in the description!!

Based on the above examples, the ‘snakes on a chain’ have now slithered into my Mystery Jewelry Maker database. The remaining mystery is whether my reader’s necklace originally had the leafy ring or the bow tails. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that it probably was the leafy ring, because looking at the photos of the “bow/finial” necklaces versus the “ring/snakes” ones, the bow probably has larger attachment areas (front and back) to the chain. Therefore I suspect the ring was more likely to become detached over time. Many thanks to my reader for providing the impetus that resolved a longstanding Mystery Jewelry Maker mystery.  🙂

Addendum: Cleanup Formula

Again many thanks to my reader for field-testing this cleanup method which, as illustrated above, worked beautifully!

1 pint warm water
1 cup white vinegar
1 tablespoon of sea salt (Kosher salt may work also)
1 teaspoon liquid detergent (dishwashing or laundry)

Mix thoroughly and soak item for at least 15 minutes, then brush off gunk with a throwaway/cheap toothbrush. Use a second soak/brushing if needed. Rinse thoroughly and dry with paper towels. Polish with a gentle non-abrasive silver cleaner such as Blitz Silver Shine, (see link below). Dip/rinse in water with a drop of detergent added. Rinse with clean water. Dry with a clean cloth and leave item to completely air dry (in a warm place/sunshine is ideal) for at least 24 hours.

A handy page of silver polishes ranked according to abrasion ratings (less abrasive = safer polish) can be found here. Hagerty’s Silver Foam (not their Silver Dip) is not listed there but is also non-abrasive, and it rinses off easily and thoroughly.

If you have any information about this jewelry or photographs of examples that do not yet appear in this blog series, I would be delighted to include them in a future post! Please use the Contact Form on the About the Chatsworth Lady page.

Browse the other posts in this series
Descriptive index of all Mystery Maker jewelry shown in this blog