Ancient Jewelry

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Ancient jewelry used high karat gold, softer than 18K or 14K and easier to manipulate with crude tools.  Beads, crudely cut semi-precious stones and intaglios were often used in combination with gold.  Shapes were simple.  Animal forms, mythical gods and creatures were popular themes.  Pieces also often served a function, such as holding clothing together or pinning hair.  Many pieces were …

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Tags: Ancient

Antique Russian Niello Dessert Service

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Gilded silver and niello dessert service, each piece richly decorated with intricately designed illustrations of gun dogs, wild game, and game birds set against varying landscapes.  34 pieces, comprising two sugar tongs, two cake servers, six coffee spoons, six teaspoons, six dessert spoons, six knives, and six forks.

By Nicholls and Plincke, St. Petersburg ca. 1850.

Images celebrating the hunt were a common design motif in nineteenth century decorative arts. The St. Petersburg firm Nicholls and Plincke, also known as Magasin Anglais, was established by two Englishmen, Constantin Nicholls and William Plincke, in 1829. One of the most important retailers of luxury items in Imperial Russia, the firm initially imported English silverware and also later produced designs inspired by it, in addition to a wide range of important works of silver, and thereby catered to Russian aristocracy’s growing taste for western design.

Niello is a method of decorating metal using a metallic alloy composed of silver, copper (or zinc), lead, and sulphur, which produces a blackish hue.  Used by the ancient Egyptians and the Romans, the technique later spread throughout Europe. It is known to have existed in Russia since the tenth century, and figured prominently in Russian decorative arts over the centuries.

other view of cutlery selection of antique Russian niello dessert servicedetail view of game bird decoration on Antique Russian niello dessert servicebox view of Antique Russian Niello Dessert Service

Antique Egyptian Revival Necklace

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Egyptian Revival faience and hardstone necklace, strung on wire with gold fittings.

Circa 1870.
Diameter: 4 1/2 in.

Provenance: Retailed by A La Vieille Russie, ca. 1950.

This design takes inspiration from Egyptian “wesekh” style necklaces, a term meaning “broad one.” The necklace shape was inspired by ancient floral collars.

$22,000

neck block view, Antique Egyptian Revival Necklace

ALVR Blog: The Empress of Gems – Pearls

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Appropriately dubbed  “the queen of gems,” pearls have long been associated with royalty, crowning the heads of many queens throughout history. Cleopatra’s legendary pearl earrings, Byzantium’s Empress Theodora’s pearl tiara, and Queen Elizabeth I’s pearl-studded ensembles, for example, immediately spring to mind. But here at A La Vieille Russie, we think of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.

Colored photograph of Russian Empress Alexandra FeodorovnaThe Tsarina was not particularly interested in fashion, preferring simpler, lightweight gowns to the sumptuous finery she donned at court. Her taste in jewelry was similar, favoring pearls over other gems, noted by American writer Kellogg Durland, who traveled to Russia in 1907 to write about the Empress. He later reflected on this visit in his 1911 book, “Royal Romances of To-Day,” in which he remarks on Alexandra’s fondness for pearls:

“The Tsaritsa’s pearls, which she wears with her court costume are famous the world over. […] Perhaps, of all her jewels, she cares most for a long string of wonderful pearls, which she wears very often. The string is so long that she can wear it twice around her neck, and yet have the longest loop reach to her knees. The short loop comes to the waistline, and is finished with one single pear-shaped pearl of enormous value.”

This penchant for pearls was nicely documented, for example, in our colored photograph of the Empress (pictured above) and in this charming photograph of Alexandra and the Tsarevich, Alexei, playing with her pearls:

1913 photograph of Empress Alexandra and her son, Alexei, playing with her pearls

Empress Alexandra and the Tsarevich, Alexei, via Wikimedia Commons

Who can blame the Empress’s preference for pearls? These gems of the sea have captivated mankind for millennia and it’s easy to see why, from their beautiful luster to their seemingly magical, organic formation.

Pearls have long been associated with purity, innocence, and humility, qualities that can be attributed to their mystifying, organic origins. American mineralogist, (and Tiffany & Co. Vice President 1879-1932), George Fredirick Kunz explains how: 

“Unlike other gems, the pearl comes to us perfect and beautiful, direct from the hand of nature. Other precious stones receive careful treatment from the lapidary, and owe much to his art. The pearl, however, owes nothing to man […] it is absolutely a gift of nature, on which man cannot improve.”

As an organic gem, the pearl’s origins intrigued and perplexed man for centuries. Its association with the sea led to many water-inspired myths and theories. Ancient poets surmised that pearls formed from tears of the gods that fell into open oysters.  Similarly, in Greek and Roman mythology, Aphrodite/Venus shook droplets of water from herself as she rose from the sea, the droplets then hardening into pearls. Such myths inspired the belief that pearls formed from drops of dew, a theory that persisted for centuries. This theory endured until around the 16th century, when naturalists began to speculate that pearls formed from oyster eggs.

Pearls in fact are the result of a mollusk’s response to a foreign particle. The pearls form when layers of nacre (mother of pearl), a variety of calcium carbonate, surround a foreign particle, like a grain of sand or a parasite. 

For centuries, the main sources of pearls were the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, as well as the rivers and lakes of China and the coast of Japan. After 1492, the discovery of pearls in the New World provided Europe a supply so great that the region came to be called the “Land of Pearls.” 

alternate view, Baroque Pearl and Diamond Dog FigurinePearls come in many colors, ranging from white to black, and varying shades of cream, gray, blue, yellow, lavender, green, and mauve. The color produced depends on the mollusk and its environment. Pearls also vary in size, from tiny seed pearls, to large, irregularly shaped baubles called baroque pearls. Baroque pearls were popular in their namesake Baroque period but also so during the Renaissance, when jewelers fashioned them into pendants and brooches resembling animals, mermaids, and other creative, figural representations. Baroque pearls continued to inspire jewelers in subsequent periods, including during the Renaissance Revival period in the mid-nineteenth century, and even later. For example, our baroque pearl and diamond dog figurine/pendant dates to the early twentieth century.

Contemporary Diamond and Pearl Spider BroochContemporary jewelers continue to use pearls in creative ways. For example, a large cultured pearl is used as the body in this late 20th century spider brooch. A cultured pearl results from manmade intervention in the pearl-making process. A particle, such as a bead or a piece of shell, is placed inside a mollusk for the layers of nacre to form around it. While such attempts existed for centuries, it wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century when a number of individuals successfully refined the process. What was once a rare jewel only accessible to royals and aristocrats now became attainable for many people throughout the world.

Throughout history, pearls were not just prized for adornment, but also valued for their presumed curative properties. Ingesting pearls was believed to cure any number of ailments, from indigestion to melancholia. Elixirs were made with pulverized pearl and vinegar, sometimes with the addition of lemon juice and other ingredients. While we can’t speak on the curative benefits of ingesting pearls (in fact, please don’t), wearing them is sure to chase away the blues! As George Fredirick Kunz, said, “there are few ills to which women are subject that cannot be bettered or at least endured with greater patience when the sufferer receives a gift of pearls.” At ALVR we’re pleased to offer a lovely assortment of pearl gifts, from brooches to rings. Here are some of our favorites:

Sources:
Dirlam, Dona M, Elise B. Misiorowski, and Sally A. Thomas, “Pearl Fashion Through the Ages,” GIA.edu. https://www.gia.edu/doc/Pearl-Fashion-Through-the-Agesv.pdf (accessed 6/1/2020).
Durland, Kellogg. “Royal Romances of To-day.” United Kingdom: Duffield, 1911.
Kunz, George Frederick., Stevenson, Charles Hugh. “The Book of the Pearl: The History, Art, Science, and Industry of the Queen of Gems.” United Kingdom: Century Company, 1908.
Matlins, Antoinette L. The Pearl Book: The Definitive Buying Guide – How to Select, Buy, Care for and Enjoy Pearls. United States: LongHill Partners, Incorporated, 2001.
“Pearl” on Antique Jewelry University, Lang Antiques & Estate Jewelry, https://www.langantiques.com/university/pearl/ (accessed 6/1/2020).
Pointon, Marcia R. “Brilliant Effects: A Cultural History of Gem Stones and Jewellery.” Germany: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2009.
Ward, Fred. “The History of Pearls,” PBS.org, December 29, 1998. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/history-pearls/ (accessed 6/1/2020).

ALVR Blog: Opal-Essence

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main view, black opal ring

Opal is the birthstone for October, but we think this gem should be celebrated year round! Opals are truly a wonder to behold. A hydrous variety of silicon dioxide, it’s composed of tiny silica spheres bonded together with silica and water. Known for their brilliant flashes of color, this optical phenomena is the result how the silica spheres are layered within the stone, scattering the light in different directions.

Opals come in a brilliant range of colors, including orange, yellow, red, green, blue, and purple. White opals are the most common. Found in Hungary, white opals feature flashes of color against a white, almost translucent, ground. Black opal, one of the more prized forms that is  mined in Australia, exhibits a play of color against a dark ground. Fire opal, so named for  its bright yellow, orange, or red background color, is primarily found in Mexico and Ethiopia.

Opals have been revered for centuries. Because the colors of other gems can be found in opals, the Romans considered opal to be the most precious and powerful of all gemstones. In the Middle Ages, opals were believed to bring good luck by embodying the virtues of all gemstones.

Although admired since ancient times, the reputation of this luminescent gem darkened in the nineteenth century. In this period, opal lost its luster thanks to the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s 1829 novel, Anne of Geierstein. In the novel, the character Lady Hermione wears an opal with supernatural powers that changes color according to her mood. After the opal is sprinkled with holy water, it loses its color, leaving her ill, and the following day, reduced to ashes. Scott’s decision to use the gemstone as a supernatural life source must have been inspired by the flashes of color seen on an opal when it’s exposed to light. Misunderstanding of this optical phenomenon, along with the stone’s delicate nature, inspired awe and superstition.

Unfortunately, Scott’s artistic license had consequences for the opal market, rendering this once lucky stone to be quite the opposite. In fact, within one year of its publication, sales of opals decreased by nearly 50% and remained low for the next twenty years. Superstition arose from a misunderstanding of opal’s delicate nature. They rank 5.5 to 6.5 out of 10 on Mohs scale of hardness, making opal more fragile than other stones. Because of their high water content, they’re particularly sensitive to sudden climate changes. While Sir Walter Scott exaggerated this sensitivity, it should be noted that the stone can crack under dry conditions, or rapid changes of temperature.

Like Sir Walter Scott, nineteenth-century American poet Hannah Flagg Gould was inspired by opal’s lifelike qualities. In her 1845 poem “The Opal,” she describes the stone as “the gem with the burning heart,” referring to the luminous spot that changes position in the light. Her interpretation is more optimistic than Scott’s, implying that the stone is imbued with holy light:

Gem with the burning heart,
That, as a living soul,
Pervading Every Part,
Gives beauty to the whole,
What angel’s hand thy bosom lit,
With the bright spark enkindling it.

Published in 1845, the poem illustrates opal regaining favor by mid-century. However, at the time of the Crimean War, old superstitions returned briefly when the stone was blamed for giving soldiers bad luck. In subsequent decades, attitudes warmed as more opal deposits were discovered, rekindling the opal market. This was particularly so later in the century when, in 1877, black opal was discovered in New South Wales, Australia. Queen Victoria also played a significant role in restoring opal’s reputation. She loved to wear them and was known to give them as gifts. She gifted opal jewelry to each of her five daughters as wedding presents and loved to give opal rings to many of her friends. 

In this age opals are revered once again. So long as it’s taken care of, the burning heart endures.

A Micro History of Miniature Mosaics

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Antique Micromosaic Butterfly Earrings
After Napoleon’s 1814 defeat, Europe became open to tourism once again. Italy was the most popular destination, where tourists flocked in pursuit of works of art. Souvenir purchases often included copies of masterpieces and also jewelry in the form of cameos, intaglios, and, most notably, miniature mosaics.

A miniature mosaic is a composition of tiny, glass tesserae cut from pieces of glass known as smalti filati. Some tesserae are not glass, but stone. Miniature mosaics are also known as “micromosaics,” a term coined by avid collector Arthur Gilbert. His collection of mosaics, among other treasures, were originally housed at LACMA, but have found a permanent and prominent home in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Making a micromosaic entailed arranging tesserae in mastic or cement on glass panels with tweezers. Once the composition was complete, the gaps within the arrangement were filled with colored wax and the surface polished. Some of the finest miniature mosaics can have as many as 5,000 tesserae per square inch.

Micromosaics date to the eighteenth-century, inspired by the larger, interior mosaics of ancient Rome. They are still made in the Vatican workshops to this day.  Earlier micromosaic pieces lacked perspective and revealed visible spaces between tesserae.  Later artists achieved more realistic works, like the renowned Antonio Aguatti. His technical improvements made more realistic micromosaics possible and he is considered one of the leading Roman micromosaic artists from the early nineteenth-century. He made the micromosaic mounted in this snuffbox:

Antique Micromosaic Snuffbox

Many micromosaics were purchased as panels and mounted into box lids or jewelry upon a traveler’s return home. The most popular motifs were the buildings and ruins of Rome, landscapes, animals (mostly birds), and flowers.

Antique Micromosaic Bracelet

They ranged in scale, from snuff boxes and jewelry, to large tabletops and replicas of full-sized canvas paintings. In fact, when Arthur Gilbert brought his first micromosaic home to show his wife, Rosalinde, she famously thought it was a cracked painting. Little did she know it was the first of many that would amass one of the world’s finest collections.

For all our ALVR Blog posts, please click here.

Preview of Masterpiece London 2014

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Masterpiece-London-Banner-2014

Every summer at this time London becomes the focus of the art world, with the distinguished art and antiques fair Masterpiece, at the center. Held on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, fine and decorative art, ancient and modern, luxury of today and yesterday, all intersect at this grand event. The show premiered Wednesday, june 25th, and runs through July 2nd.

“The crowds are amazing today,” reported co-owner Mr. Peter Schaffer, from Wednesday’s premier.

This year’s fair features a range of themes, including the centennial of World War I and the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare. In honor of these events, exhibitors were asked to select pieces representing these themes. For the WWI centennial, ALVR selected a Fabergé copper coup kettle used at the front, and other similar WWI-era Fabergé  pieces. In honor of Shakespeare, we are featuring a Midsummer Night’s Dream-themed brooch by Tiffany & Co. Blog posts on these pieces can be found here and here.

We are also exhibiting a selection of antique jeweled sautoirs, an Edwardian era Chaumet diamond and emeral diadem, and an ornate set of silver-gilt fruit and cheese knives and forks by Fabergé featuring shibuichi-ornamented handles.

Come see all this and more at booth C8!

For all our ALVR Blog posts, please click here.

Symbols of Love in Antique Jewelry

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Antique Jewelry

Gifts of jewelry as tokens of affection date from ancient times, featuring design trends like cupid, clasped hands, lover’s knots, mottoes, and hearts.

The heart symbol has been a consistent representation of love. Mythologists surmise it evolved from the ivy leaf, an ancient symbol of immortality. It was a common wedding gift in ancient Greece, and came to represent friendship and fidelity due to its snuggling and nestling characteristics and year-round greenness.

Certain historical symbols of love seem quite strange to modern eyes. For example, the use of hair in sentimental jewelry was quite popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hair was woven into jewelry, or hidden in lockets and underneath portrait miniatures of loved ones.

Some pieces of nineteenth-century jewelry contained messages through the ‘language of stones,’ where stones were arranged so that the first letter of each one revealed a hidden message. A later example of the mystery in sentimental pieces is our Naval Signal Flag Bracelet, spelling out “ I Love You.” In case that wasn’t cute enough, the gold links are kissing seahorses, another symbol of commitment as they mate for life.

These symbols of love have stood the test of time, just like antique jewelry. Our collection includes hearts, bows (if you are about to “tie the knot”), or you might choose something unconventional to imply your own hidden message. Whichever you choose, it will be timeless; after all, diamonds are not the only things that last forever.

For all our ALVR Blog posts, please click here.

Highlights of the 2014 Winter Antiques Show

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The Winter Antiques Show is certainly living up to its name this year, welcomed by this polar vortex with a chilly embrace. Rest assured, the Park Avenue Armory is nice and toasty. It is well worth braving the cold – there is something for everyone from ancient to modern, including: Delftware, Chinese porcelain, illuminated manuscripts, arms and armor, ancient art, and so much more, all listed here.

Be on the lookout for some of our personal favorites, including the astonishing mid sixteenth century Italian half suit of armor from Peter Finer of London and the 18th century Delftware puzzle jugs from Aronson of Amsterdam. If the crowds get to be too much, escape into the lacquer-paneled room by Art Deco master Jean Dunand at Maison Gerard, and be sure to take a moment to behold a fully intact, Roman glass urn from the 1st century AD at Rupert Wace Ancient Art of London.

If you get lost as you wander across culture and time, our booth can be found at the center across from the Diamond Jubilee display. There are a few pieces that have attracted particular attention at our booth. One of our showstoppers is a brooch designed by Salvador Dali in the form of ruby red lips, modeled after Marilyn Monroe, and, includes, quite literally, pearly whites. Selections from our menagerie have also been major attractions, such as a pavé diamond brooch in the form of a monkey with a sprung tail and holding a pearl. Our selection of Fabergé always draws attention. Especially attracting people this year are silver sculptures serving as table lighters or bell pushes.

If you have yet to stop by, we look forward to seeing you this Saturday from 12 to 8, and Sunday, the final day, from 12 to 6.

Kvasniki

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Kvasniki

Kvas, a mildly alcoholic drink made from bread, has a long history of being a drink of the common people. The recipe involved soaking leftover dark bread in hot water and left to ferment for a few hours, adding honey, fruit, or sugar for sweetener as desired. Kvas was cheap to make and the yeast provided nutritional benefits to an otherwise limited diet, so becoming a staple for the Russian peasantry.

In the 19th century it became more popular than in earlier times, even enjoyed by the nobility on occassion. The degree of ornament applied to these kvasniki, pitchers for kvas, hints at the newly elevated status of the beverage. Of the askos form, modeled after ancient Greek goat-skin containers, they recall a renewed interest in classical art. In the second half of the nineteenth-century, applied decorations like flowers or bright red coral, as seen here, became fashionable. These decorative yet functional vessels attest to how a simple beverage transcended class boundaries, to the extent that the Russians, in the words of Pushkin, “like fresh air they loves kvass”.

October 4 – Kvas: Drink of the People

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Kvas, a mildly alcoholic drink made from bread, has a long history of being a drink of the common people. The recipe involved soaking leftover dark bread in hot water and left to ferment for a few hours, adding honey, fruit, or sugar for sweetener as desired. Kvas was cheap to make and the yeast provided nutritional benefits to an otherwise limited diet, so becoming a staple for the Russian peasantry.

In the 19th century it became more popular than in earlier times, even enjoyed by the nobility on occassion. The degree of ornament applied to these kvasniki, pitchers for kvas, hints at the newly elevated status of the beverage. Of the askos form, modeled after ancient Greek goat-skin containers, they recall a renewed interest in classical art. In the second half of the nineteenth-century, applied decorations like flowers or bright red coral, as seen here, became fashionable. These decorative yet functional vessels attest to how a simple beverage transcended class boundaries, to the extent that the Russians, in the words of Pushkin, “like fresh air they loves kvass”.