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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.

CATS

Cat pendant, set with diamonds

Cat pendant, set with diamonds

 

 

Cat portrait set with pearls, below a gold bow brooch hallmarked by Ward Bros in Birmingham (WB), 1895 (V) and gold content (9k). About 2 1/4" diameter.

Cat portrait set with pearls, below a gold bow brooch hallmarked by Ward Bros in Birmingham (WB), 1895 (V) and gold content (9k). About 2 1/4″ diameter.

 

 

Black cat brooch, set in 18k gold and trimmed in green enamel. European, early 1900s.

Black cat brooch, set in 18k gold and trimmed in green enamel. European, early 1900s.

 

DOGS

This dog portrait brooch is set in 15k gold.

This dog portrait brooch is set in 15k gold.

 

 

No dimensions were supplied for this pug dog portrait.

No dimensions were supplied for this pug dog portrait.

 

 

The 3/4" diameter crystal is set into an 18k gold brooch mounting designed as a dog collar (1 1/8" diameter overall.)

The 3/4″ diameter crystal is set into an 18k gold brooch mounting designed as a dog collar (1 1/8″ diameter overall.)

 

 

A stickpin depicting an English Setter.

A stickpin depicting an English Setter.

 

 

A Sealyham Terrier, in a 14k dog-collar design brooch.

A Sealyham Terrier, in a 14k dog-collar design brooch.

 

 

Brooch depicting five dog breeds: Boxer, Bull Terrier, Jack Russell, Collie and German Shepherd. Gold dog-collar mounting has platinum accents.

Brooch depicting five dog breeds: Boxer, Bull Terrier, Jack Russell, Collie and German Shepherd. The gold dog-collar mounting has platinum accents.

 

 

A very cheerful-looking cane topper!

A very cheerful-looking cane topper!

 

HORSES

14k gold brooch in an equestrian design, with crystal showing three horses.

14k gold brooch in an equestrian design, with crystal showing three horses.

 

 

Diamond-accented 14k gold horseshoe brooch, about 1 1/2" tall; crystal is about 1" in diameter.

Diamond-accented 14k gold horseshoe brooch, about 1 1/2″ tall; crystal is about 1″ in diameter.

 

 

Essex crystal oakleaf horse pair brooch front

Gold brooch with oak leaves and acorns framing two horse heads; mother of pearl reverse.

Gold brooch with oak leaves and acorns framing two horse heads; mother of pearl reverse.

 

 

Brooch just over 1 1/2" wide, accented with red enamel and diamonds and having a mother-of-pearl backing.

Brooch just over 1 1/2″ wide, accented with red enamel and diamonds and having a mother-of-pearl backing similar to the previous example.

 

 

Pair of 14k gold horse head cufflinks, each crystal just over 1/2" diameter.

Pair of 14k gold horse head cufflinks, each crystal just over 1/2″ diameter.

 

 

Set of six individual horse head button studs in their original box.

Set of six individual horse head button studs in their original box.

 

 

This brooch depicts a coach and "four-in-hand".

This brooch depicts a coach and “four-in-hand”.

 

FOXES

This brooch is 1 1/2" wide and is lavishly set with diamonds and sapphires.

This brooch is 1 1/2″ wide and is lavishly set with diamonds and sapphires.

 

 

Bar brooch in the shape of a riding crop.

Bar brooch in the shape of a riding crop.

 

 

14k gold bracelet with stirrup-form links; the fox crystals are set into hunting horns. Length 7".

14k gold bracelet with stirrup-form links; the fox crystals are set into hunting horns. Length 7″.

 

 

And lastly, a pearl-accented pendant depicting a majestic stag.

And lastly, a pearl-accented pendant depicting a majestic stag.

Additional posts in this Essex crystal series:
Birds
Flowers
Nautical

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