Cut Steel Jewellery: The History & Fashion
Cut Steel Jewellery dates as far back as the 16th Century and enjoyed a popular reception especially between the 18th century and end of the 1930’s! It is rumoured that Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte commissioned a complete suite of cut steel jewellery for his second bride Marie-Louise upon their marriage in 1810 in Paris!
The design of cut steel jewellery comprises of a thin metal baseplate with closely placed steel studs are riveted in place. Early cut steel consisted of individual steel studs that had been polished and inserted into metal frames. Described as a ‘mushroom’ of steel, the top of which is faceted and polished to a very high shine. Each ornately cut and individually polished stone then has individual facets. The more facets each ‘stone’ has, and the more tightly packed together they are, the better quality the item!
In the early 19th century the manufacturing process changed towards using stamped strips in place of individual steel studs. The idea behind the design was that the polished steel faces would catch the light and sparkle in a similar way to the then highly fashionable diamonds.
While there were many producers of cut steel only one in particular was considered the most prominent; Matthew Boulton. Mr Boulton operated workshops in London and Birmingham and worked closely with Josiah Wedgwood (of the Jasper ware). He enjoyed a highly successful career including a later partnership with Scottish engineer James Watt to install hundreds of Boulton & Watts steam engines, which were a great advance on the state of the art, making possible the mechanisation of factories and mills.
The most popular items of cut steel were buttons (often the only ornament people could afford), followed by shoe buckles. Buckles were a high fashion trend and at one point were considered by some to be of even more importance than the shoe itself! It was suggested that the popularity of cut steel in France was attributed to the Sumptuary laws, which limited who could wear precious metals and diamonds, thus becoming a fashionable alternative!
While the popularity of cut steel declined during the second half of the 19th century largely due to mass production and changes in the overall design (the final production ending in the 1930’s), cut steel is highly collectable due to the scare amount of original pieces. Collections of cut steel can be found in museums including the Birmingham Museums Trust and the Lady Lever Art Gallery.
It is important that cut steel jewellery does not become damp, rust will ruin cut steel and is also the reason that so few items have survived. When assessing cut steel pieces, take particular notice of the size of each ‘mushroom’ and how many facets each stone has. Generally, the higher the number of facets a stone has and the smaller each ‘mushroom’ is the earlier the piece the piece was made!
Available now are two fantastic examples of Georgian/early Victorian pieces; a pair of stunningly crafted drop earrings and the wonderful butterfly brooch with original C clasp!