Here is an overview of the different black materials used in vintage and antique jewellery
Jet is fossilised wood. For more information see here.
Onyx is a variety of chalcedony. For more information, see here.
Berlin iron is made from cast iron and delicate wire pieces. For more information, see here.
Enamel is fired ground glass. In theory, almost all methods of enamelling can produce black items but generally it is en grisaille, niello and taille d'epargne which are known for being worked in black. (Technically, niello work is not true enamel but is usually classified as such)
For more information, see here.
Gutta Percha is a type of rubber derived from the gum of Asian trees. It is usually molded rather than carved and mould lines can be visible when examined carefully. When rubbed vigorously, it gives off an acrid, rubber smell. It is very flexible and durable and can produce a wide variety of jewellery items. Upon close inspection, you can see that it is actually brownish-black. Popular through the mid and late Victorian era, it made its debut at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Vulcanite is vulcanised India rubber formed using sulphur. It was first patented in 1844 by Charles Goodyear. Vulcanite is almost always moulded, as opposed to carved. It is actually white and can be dyed to produce a variety of colours, often in imitation of coral and tortoiseshell. Most commonly, however, it was dyed black and used in mourning jewellery as a substitute for jet. Over time, black vulcanite usually turns dark brown. It is lightweight and warm to the touch. It will develop a sheen with polishing but is never as glossy as jet. Like jet, it will leave a brown streak on porcelain or unglazed tile.
French jet is black or very dark red glass. It can sometimes be backed with foil or attached to a metal setting but is most commonly found as beaded necklaces. It first made its appearance in the early part of the 19th century but came into its own in the 1860s when the techniques to produce it were perfected. It was produced in France, Germany, Austria, England and what is now the Czech Republic. It is cold to the touch and heavier than jet and has a distinctive glitter. Sometimes it is roughly moulded or carved to further simulate jet. Upon close examination, it can often be identified by tiny chips. If you gently tap it against your teeth, you should be able to identify the chink as glass.
Like jet, bog oak is fossilised wood. It is usually mined from the bogs of Ireland and is not necessarily oak but can be fir, yew or pine. Similar in feel to jet, it is lightweight and warm to the touch but generally has a more matte finish. It was used from the early 1800s and grew in popularity after 1852 when techniques involving heat and pressure were invented to mold it and create detail. It can be carved or moulded. It is generally found in mourning jewellery as a substitute for jet but can also often be found with Irish motifs in the form of souvenir jewellery.
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