“Pools of light” – isn’t that a marvelous description of a piece of jewelry? The first time I heard the term I had absolutely no idea what in the world it could be, but it sounded absolutely magical. Having a weakness for gems that interact in special ways with light (hence my blog series about Jewels That Play With Light) it was a given that I’d immediately investigate.
This type of jewelry dates from the Art Deco era (1920s–1930s) and was an offshoot of the Chinoiserie craze of the time. The vintage photo below shows a stylish young lady of the day wearing a pools of light necklace in the popular “flapper” length.
But what exactly are these pools of light?
They are round orbs of clear rock crystal. This is the defining characteristic; although they look like large clear marbles, a genuine orb must be rock crystal – not glass or any other material. Rock crystal is the clear transparent variety of quartz (silicon dioxide) and has a MOHS hardness rating of 7. This makes them harder than, say, opal but softer than emerald (7.5) and topaz (8).
When you look at something through a crystal sphere, what you see will be upside down. This is because a spherical shape acts like a convex lens and “flips” the light coming from, and thus the image of, what you are looking at. Some people claim that only rock crystal orbs will show things upside down and glass ones will not, but that’s not necessarily true although crystal will do the job better simply because of its internal structure.
When you place a crystal orb on top of something, instead of looking through it, the light going into the orb from its surroundings still experiences that same lens-based refractive effect and so the light that comes out is diffused but it is also somewhat focused. Thus, a “pool of light” appears on whatever surface is immediately adjacent to the orb. (The orb in the first photo is about ½” in diameter; the dimensions of the second orb are unknown)
Because so much depends on the action of light within the orb, it logically follows that there should be nothing inside it that might interfere with this. Normally when creating a necklace of beads, pearls, etc., a hole is drilled through them to accommodate a chain or string. But that’s not a nice thing to do to a clear crystal orb that likes to play with light; it mucks up the works and the resulting “pool” effect will be altered and/or reduced. That is why undrilled pools of light necklaces are much preferred and are more expensive.
There’s also a mythical component to having undrilled spheres. In Chinese tradition, each crystal orb contains a bit of chi (good energy) within it, which would escape and be lost if the orb were to be drilled or otherwise damaged. Naturally it’s best to be wearing as much good chi as one possibly can!
Thus the alternative becomes wrapping instead of drilling, in order to keep the orbs intact. The simplest method is to wrap a circlet of wire around each sphere and then add connectors as necessary, as seen in this pair of classic earrings. The typical material used for this method is sterling silver.
Silver also lends itself to creating ‘wraps’ with more intricate designs. This one could be interpreted as a double-sided crown, or perhaps even teeth? This necklace/bracelet set sold for about £1200 in 2013. The eighteen necklace orbs graduate from about 11mm to 24 mm (0.43” to 0.94”) in diameter, and the bracelet ones range from 9mm–17mm (0.35”–0.67”). The special clasps permitted the two pieces to be joined together if desired. Although the detail photo makes it appear as if some of the orbs are dark, the effect is just a reflection from the surroundings.
Wraps were often even more ornate, as shown in this pair of pierced earrings featuring two sphere sizes. The simple earwire eliminates the need to drill the upper sphere, which would have been needed for a screwback version.
This necklace was offered in its original Deco era box! The inside of the lid reads: “Specially Made For WING HING & CO. “New China” Panama Colon. Genuine Crystal Guaranteed”. It sold at auction for $900 in 2014.
Here’s a striking and very modernist-looking necklace that is also hallmarked Germany. If you want to channel your “inner flapper”, this surely must be the one to wear because it’s 40” long! Each orb is 12mm (almost ½”) in diameter.
This pools of light ring could be aptly named “moon and stars”, don’t you think?
Sometimes the clear orbs were combined with spheres of other materials for a bicolor effect. This double-strand necklace has an upper strand of traditional rock crystal orbs wrapped in silver wire, and a lower strand of rose quartz orbs which appear to be wrapped in gold (or perhaps gold-plated silver.) Cited as being 17.5” long, it sold at auction for $300 in 2010.
The wild-rose motif floral band across this smoky quartz orb is especially pretty!
This necklace, which appears to mix rock crystal and onyx(?) spheres, also has a floral motif on the bands. It sold in 2015 for $475; its length is unknown.
Here is a similar necklace but with a large orb “pendant” as well. It is 16 ½”long overall; the alternating orbs are about 14mm (1/2”) and the large drop is 20mm (slightly more than ¾”) in diameter. This sold for $1000 in 2010.
This festoon-style necklace appears from the photograph to be made of smoky quartz orbs but on closer inspection they all seem to be reflecting the same general pattern – no doubt from the surroundings or ceiling. It looks to be a pretty necklace that surely deserved better photography than this. 🙂 Eighteen inches long, it sold for $800 in 2010.
Pools of Light That Aren’t, Quite
Because vintage/antique pools of light jewelry is so unique (and pricey), the term is often applied to pieces that don’t fit the precise definition. This usually happens when the orbs are made of colored glass rather than clear rock crystal. Reputable sellers will, however, make the difference crystal clear (sorry!) in their description and that’s perfectly fine because the prospective buyer is then fully informed about what they are getting. It’s rather like the semantics of Vauxhall glass jewelry; the original authentic items date from the Victorian period but the later Art Deco era Czech pieces are typically also called ‘Vauxhall glass’ rather than ‘Vauxhall style glass’….which is also perfectly fine as long as the seller also specifies the era.
The colored glass “pools of light” pieces are often quite lovely in their own right.
These topaz glass orbs wrapped in goldtone wire and sporting dainty floral “caps” seem to emit a warm glow from the refracted light. The necklace is 31” long and was sold for $295; if the orbs had been actual rock crystal the same necklace would likely have commanded three times that amount.
This collar/bib necklace with rich intense blue glass spheres offers a completely different look; this example sold for $450.
The important thing to remember is that all colored “pools of light” items are always made of glass rather than of rock crystal which by definition is clear. But what if the orbs are clear? Does that automatically mean that the piece is genuine rock crystal from the Art Deco era? Of course it’s possible that it could be a modern fake with orbs made from clear glass, which is why it’s wise to look a bit deeper – literally. Examination of an orb under high magnification will show very minute bubbles if it is made of glass; these bubbles do not exist in quartz. If buying online, be sure to get a guarantee that the item can be returned if a professional examination determines that the orbs are not in fact crystal.
The phrase “pools of light” is also often misapplied to items made of materials that aren’t even within hailing distance of either quartz or glass! For example, in 2015 an auction house described this as being a “pools of light” necklace even though it is made of cabochon (flat back) aquamarines. Although not being in any respect whatsoever a true pools of light item, this impressive piece nevertheless sold for $5000 not including the buyers’ premium.
A quick search of two popular vintage jewelry venues typically brings up numerous items titled as being “pools of light”; for example, on Etsy at the moment there are items made of glass beads, foil glass, art glass, agate, amethyst beads, and lucite (lots of these, both round and faceted.) On Ruby Lane one finds much of the same, with the addition of some signed costume jewelry items (Coro, Schreiner, etc.) nevertheless using the “pools of light” description. Such items are obviously unrelated to the real thing but are destined to forever clutter up internet search results!