Within the realm of antique and vintage jewelry there exists the special genre known as “Vauxhall glass”. I discovered it several years ago and was instantly captivated. Sometimes also called ‘mirror glass’, the name Vauxhall glass is actually applied to three different types of jewelry.
In basic terms these are colored glass stones produced in various molded shapes and having a silvered backing, just as conventional mirror glass has. Think of them as very tiny colorful mirrors that have a dimensional, usually faceted, top surface. The silvered backside, however, is always flat; it is never pointed like many foil-backed rhinestones are. The combination of exceptionally fine quality glass, rich color, and high quality silver backing is what gives Vauxhall glass its uniquely luminous reflective quality and that special “glow from within”.
The Original Vauxhall Glass
Examples of true original Vauxhall glass stones are definitely antique, but there are two different prevailing theories about where and when they were produced. The more popular theory holds that they were produced in the mirror-glass factory owned by the second Duke of Buckingham and situated in the southern outskirts of London. The Duke’s factory existed from 1663 to 1780, but the first examples of their silver-backed glass jewels were not produced until the 1770s. That would have given only about a ten-year timespan for the production of the first Vauxhall-glass gems by their place of origin.
The other scenario asserts that it was not Buckingham’s factory at all, but instead that of Dawson Bowles & Co (located near Vauxhall Gardens) who first fabricated these stones. The Dawson factory also produced mirrors, and supposedly the jewelry stones were a sideline or “spinoff” in todays parlance. Coincidentally, John Dawson – one of its founders – had learned his trade at the Buckingham facility. The history of the Nazeing Glass Works seems to say that the Duke’s factory was eventually acquired by Dawson and his partner John Bowles, and then renamed Dawson Bowles & Co. There were also later glass factories established in the Vauxhall Walk section of London, notably the Albert Glass Works which eventually became Nazeing in the 1920s. This section of London thus became so identified with mirror glass that the term “Vauxhall glass” was likely applied to all such gems – just as some people call all brown-colored carbonated soft drinks “coke” even if it isn’t the actual Coca-Cola brand product – regardless of where a factory was located.
In any event, these lovely reflective-glass jewels continued to be produced through the end of the Georgian era (1830), the entire Regency period (1830-1837) and well into the late Victorian age. Popular colors included white, black, red, burgundy and purple although examples in blue and/or green do exist. They were the perfect affordable alternative to expensive gems in precious metal settings. One of the diagnostic aids for antique Vauxhall glass stones is that they were almost never used in gold or silver mountings, but instead set into brass – either the typical gold finish, or ‘japanned’ with a coating of black lacquer.
Vauxhall Glass or French Jet?
When describing antique black glass mourning jewelry, the terms “french jet” and “Vauxhall glass” are sometimes used interchangeably and somewhat confusingly. Are they the same thing or are they different? They are the same in that both materials are made of black glass (as opposed to real jet, a/k/a Whitby jet, which is actually coal that started its life on earth as a tree). However, Vauxhall glass by definition must have a mirror backing or at least some evidence of it having originally been there; French Jet can be simply a molded black glass gem.
Interestingly, the resource Art of Mourning states that “English variations of French jet are called Vauxhall glass” which actually makes historical sense given the centuries-long rivalry between the two countries and the resulting British reluctance to give France credit for anything positive or attractive! (well, other than food or wine, I suppose)
So when it comes to antique mourning jewelry, “Vauxhall glass” may or may not indicate mirror glass gems; it will depend on the specific item in question.
Art Deco era Vauxhall Glass
If you do a search for ‘vauxhall glass jewelry’ (or ‘necklace’) many of the results will fall into this category. Produced during the 1920s-30s and often in Czechoslovakia, these pieces can be quite lovely indeed. Because the glass stones are mirror-backed they are usually called Vauxhall glass, although purists (such as myself, I admit) prefer to amend that to “Vauxhall style glass” to clearly distinguish it from the antique British-made examples.
Vintage Czech costume jewelry is reknowned for its workmanship and their mirror glass stones were certainly no exception. The glass is excellent quality, with good clarity and consistent color, and nice sharp molding – ideal for those iconic Art Deco shapes such as the “step” design examples below.
Naturalistic shapes were also popular in the same era, as shown by these examples:
Fine examples of deco-era Vauxhall glass bracelets are harder to find, probably because the glass stones in them would have been subjected to more ‘wear and tear’ than those in necklaces and brooches.
These lovely mirror glass stones were also much utilized in belts, such as in these buckles.
This must have been quite a wide belt, as each side of the buckle contains nine rectangular faceted stones.
While seeking illustrations for this post, I came across this wonderful filigree item accented with green Vauxhall gems. At first I thought it was a choker necklace with an amazingly ornate front closure, but upon reading the seller’s description and seeing the other photos, I discovered that this is actually a belt!
I love Vauxhall glass jewelry because it provides the best of both worlds: the reflective flash of rhinestones (of which I confess I’m absolutely not a fan; crystal, though, is an entirely different matter) combined with rich jewel-like color. It’s also something that most people haven’t seen before. Every time I wear one of my necklaces, someone will invariably comment and ask what kind of jewelry it is. And consider this: in the not very distant future, all of the wonderful deco-era Vauxhall style jewelry will be officially antique! 😉
Addendum: more Art Deco era Vauxhall glass jewelry can be seen in Part Two.