One of the most unique types of Victorian era jewelry must surely be the genre known as “Essex crystal”. The name does not refer to a brand, nor to geography (like Vauxhall glass jewelry), but to a mistaken identity!
All Essex crystal jewelry began life as a piece of clear rock crystal (not glass, but crystal). In that respect it’s related to pools of light which are also made from rock crystal but that’s where the similarity ends. For Essex crystal pieces, the crystal is first cut into a cabochon (flat back + rounded dome shaped top), and then working from the flat back the artisan oh-so-carefully carves a detailed design into it. Then the carved-out design is painted so that it seems to float, in three dimensions, inside the crystal when viewed from the front. This technique is what’s called a “reverse carving.”
The difference between reverse carving and intaglio is that an intaglio piece is carved into the front rather than the back of the surface. The front of a reverse carved piece remains intact. Many people do prefer to call the Essex crystal technique “reverse intaglio”, in fact.
Supposedly this art form began in Europe, possibly in Belgium. It is said that Thomas Cook first introduced the process to England during the 1860s and the finished crystals were initially sold by Hancock’s in London . So why weren’t they called “Cook crystals” or “Hancock crystals”? Well, it so happened that a very popular artist named William Essex, who specialized in enamel miniatures, was assumed to have produced them because of the fineness of the workmanship … and the wrongful attribution stuck. Essex was one of Queen Victoria’s favorite portrait artists and so it was probably just assumed that such beautiful work must be his!
Most Essex crystal designs fall into one of four categories: animals, birds, flowers, and nautical themes. Within the animal genre the most popular subjects were horses, dogs, and foxes but cats were occasionally represented too, so let’s start with a few of those.
Additional posts in this Essex crystal series:
I have died and gone to heaven just looking at all these examples! Such workmanship like none other compared to what is being produced in today’s times. Miniature works of art…well done!!
Absolutely love it! I’ve never known or heard about this Essex crystal jewelry and it sure is lovely! Whatever happened to such gorgeous details like this? I certainly don’t see it in the modern cheap “fall apart” mass-produced jewelry, and seldom, if never, have I seen such antique jewelry like this turn up in antique stores, either. Thanks so much for sharing. I enjoyed the fox jewelry, too. 🙂
If you have a pendant in one material such as silver can it be reset in gold by a jeweler? I don’t have a local jeweler and I would like an opinion before I begin such an endeavor. Thank you
Yes, the mounting of pretty much any pendant can be changed by a jeweler, but depending on your budget the cost may be prohibitive… especially if the new material is gold. At the moment, gold is nudging $1300/oz versus $17/oz for silver. And, for antique pieces especially, the new mounting may need to be custom-made if the size or shape of the pendant does not match any of the “stock” premade ones that jewelers can order from a findings catalog. For example, I have a 14k gold ring that I would like to convert to a pendant but cannot simply cut off the band and use the existing mounting. So I went to my local jeweler and learned that because the shape of the stone is a perfect square in a nonstandard size, there are no stock pendant mountings that it can fit into. The pendant mounting would have to be custom made and though it’s not a large stone it would cost me almost $900 for the net cost of the gold (after trading in the ring mounting) + the labor….too expensive for me to do. So when changing any mounting that is something to consider. It certainly can be done though; the question is the price.
If the stone is not large, that is very very expensive, indeed. I once had a basket mount made for my Stewart crystal button so I could wear it as a pendant. With the mount and chain (both in 18k) and labor, it cost more than $600, which I already thought was expensive.
You should do a search for local jewelers with high ratings on the likes of Yelp. When it comes to jewelry related costs, it never hurts to shop around.
The stone is about 0.9cm square (about 1/3″) and an emerald cut, so it’s also deep (requires a basket mount or very close to it.) But I also live in a part of the USA where everything tends to be more expensive than elsewhere. Also this is a family multi-generation jeweler that I’ve used for a long time and I do trust them, which counts for a lot when working on a piece of jewelry that has sentimental value (I was given the stone to celebrate the birth of my son.) I’d be reluctant to put the stone into the hands of a jeweler that I didn’t already know well and have full confidence in.
Thank you so much for all these very interesting informations !
I have two lovely old bracelets from my grandmother and have wondered how to clean them? I use a polishing cloth on the gold but it’s hard to get into the little grooves and spaces. A liquid cleaner and brush would work but I’m afraid to get the crystals wet because the painting would be ruined by liquid. Do you know if they are made water-tight, or best not to risk it? Thanks for your advice. Great article.
I’m usually leery of using any liquid on a vintage or antique ‘decorated’ piece (unless it’s actually a fired enamel, not just enamel paint) because you never know exactly what kind of paints were used. And you never know exactly how a modern cleaning solution might chemically affect paint from the 1800s or even the first half of the 20th century. Acrylic paints weren’t developed until the mid-1940s, for example. I’m guessing the crystals are channel set which, while tight, is not necessarily watertight. It’s not uncommon for tiny specks of dirt to work its way into a channel setting and end up behind the stone, and if that can get in there, so could a liquid. So it’s chancy. For something like a channel set gemstone, they are typically put into an ultrasonic cleaner but I’ve never heard of that being used on a reverse carved piece and would be reluctant to experiment.
Here’s something to try on those tiny areas of the gold: Various dental-related tools can often be helpful. The trick is to see how small of a “point” you can use behind your polishing cloth without either breaking the point (toothpick) or poking through the cloth (metal scaler/explorer.) Don’t use too heavy or too light a touch; it takes some experimenting. 🙂 The pointy end of a plastic “floss pick” also works well, with no risk of scratching the gold if used by itself instead of behind a section of cloth. There are several brands on the market but one that’s particularly handy for getting into such spaces is Glide Pro Health Clinical Protection Floss Picks. Less than $4 for a packet of 30 at Bed Bath & Beyond. A bonus is that they are white and so you can see whether you’ve removed any gunk. They are an excellent floss pick too, by the way! :-)They have recently been discontinued so you may want to pick up a packet sooner rather than later. BB&B and Harmon Drug stores still stock them though.
Thank you so much for the information – the floss pick is a great suggestion and I will try it. The bracelets are the old “equestrian” ones so there are detailed bridles and reins and the pick should be able to get in those tiny spots. Much appreciated! I love the little crystal paintings and was terrified to ruin them. Your post was very interesting and most helpful – many thanks.
Beautiful! I want to learn to do that; do you know where these techniques are taught?
Unfortunately this seems to be a “lost art”, which is a shame. The closest thing to it after the Victorian era was probably the reverse-carved plastic (Lucite) costume jewelry pieces that appeared during the 1940s. A Google image search for ‘reverse carved Lucite jewelry’ will bring up numerous examples. But even that type of jewelry went out of fashion by the 1960s most likely; all of the examples seem to be from the 1940s and 1950s (of the costume jewelry.)
Lovely pieces – I have a verse painted – essex crystal penguin pin that I bought in London in the 1980’s at an antique fair – two penguins on an ice floe reverse painted and I believe essex crystal – I also have a horse head reverse glass- crystal in a horseshoe shaped brooch.Would the penguins be considered rare?Thank you
Penguins definitely are unusual; can’t say I’ve ever seen an antique one with that subject. Even ‘fish’ ones are not seen that often. There is this charm/pendant with reverse painted penguins but it is a modern item, not antique Essex crystal. Some sellers claim 1930s, other say 1950s but in either case these are all mass produced modern items. https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-sterling-Penguin-INTAGLIO-ESSEX-charm-REVERSE-CRYSTAL-/254176314731
I have a very unusual Essex crystal watch brooch. I would like to have it cleaned and some minor repairs made. Could you recommend someone who works with Essex crystal? I live in Turkey.
Unfortunately I don’t know of anyone who might have that kind of expertise. Yours being a watch no doubt adds another layer of complexity. Perhaps someone who repairs antique watches? That too is an area in which I have no experience, though. So sorry that I can’t be of help.
I have a beautiful Essex Crystal brooch that I am desperate to convert into a ring to make it more wearable. I live in dubai and the jeweller here (very reputable and professional) is not familiar with this art form and is reluctant to solder a shank on fearing be might damage the painting. I have seen (online) so many conversions and I know it can be done. Any advice please on how it can be done?
The back is solid 18k gold and the Crystal is surround by sapphires and topaz if this is any help.
Thank you so much!
First, I must say that your brooch sounds absolutely gorgeous! But in answer to your question, I have to be honest and say that if your jeweler says that he is apprehensive about doing a conversion…believe him. Unfortunately I don’t have the expertise to be able to offer that level of technical advice. 😦 It sounds as if he does not want to bring high heat anywhere near the painted crystal, which really does limit any type of conversion. This might be a crazy suggestion, but if you have considered converting the brooch into a pendant instead of a ring, there’s a quick-and-dirty way to do that with no soldering involved, via a brooch-to-pendant converter. The converter piece simply slips onto the pinback. Of course, the ones you can buy online are for costume jewelry and would look horrid on a piece such as yours BUT here’s my thought. You could get one of the typical cheapie ones, try it out, and if you like the resulting pendant, there’s no reason why a jeweler couldn’t make the same thing for you in 18k. In fact, it could be made to look however you wish (perhaps with a small sapphire or topaz on the bail end?) so that it looks ‘more of a piece’ with the brooch setting. That is the only brooch-to-something-else conversion that could be done without any soldering involved. Of course it is possible to convert the brooch into a ring but if you cannot find a jeweler willing to do it (without being first absolved of any responsibility for resulting damage) it becomes a moot point. 😦 Do you definitely not want to wear it as a pendant?
Thank you so much for your prompt reply.
I love the idea of a ring as I can admire it all day long 😬 but will look into your suggestion as it sounds less risky.
I found a seller on Etsy who was selling a pin and was giving the option of a conversion into a ring of pendant, let’s see what he/she suggests.