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.