Birmingham: from backwater to boom

My dad came to stay at the weekend, and we, of course went to the city museum, as we often do with guests. At the end of the Birmingham history gallery, he asked ‘so why did Birmingham become a jewellery-making centre if it was such a minor medieval town?’. The answer to that was ‘I have no idea, but I’d like to’, so I did some snooping…

There’s a standard UK city history: a settlement is placed on an easily-defendable location (usually a hill) beside a navigable river (for transport and water supply), and grows following the introduction of a market. At 130m above sea level and with a market appearing in 1166, Birmingham hits two of these criteria, but it’s noticeably lacking on the third. So, why were settlers drawn to this essentially riverless location? And how, over the following centuries, did Birmingham become a metalworking powerhouse?

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The first cartographical representation of Birmingham on the Gough Map, c.1360 (Source: Wikipedia)

Despite its lack of a major river and out-of-the-way location, early Birmingham did have a decent water supply from the much smaller ‘rivers’ Rea, Tame and Cole, as well as Bourn Brook. Because of its height, it was also nice and dry (i.e. not marshy), and timber, iron, and coal were all easily available. Birmingham’s plentiful supply of both raw materials (base metals, timber, coal) and of other tradesmen meant the medieval jeweller could easily get hold of local pottery vessels and iron tools, as well as sheets of base metal for practice and working.The veins of gold discovered in nearby Shropshire probably didn’t hurt the city’s jewellery trade, either.

So far, so good, but how does a village with 9 houses and a value of £1 in the Domesday Book host multiple goldsmiths just three centuries later? Well, it owes a lot to the local ruling family, the de Birminghams, who held the manor in the town for 400 years from 1150. The second lord, Peter de Birmingham, was the person granted a market charter by King Henry II. By the time Peter’s son, William, sought confirmation of the charter from Richard I, just two decades later, the location had changed from the ‘manor at Birmingham’ to the ‘town of Birmingham’.

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Fourteenth century effigy of John de Birmingham at St Martin in the Bullring (Source: Wikipedia)

More importantly, the de Birminghams preferred a hands-off approach to trade regulations, just charging a toll on market traffic, and it was mainly this which attracted craftsmen to the growing market town over the next couple of centuries. By 1327, craftsmen were listed amongst taxpayers in Birmingham. In 1308, seized effects of a Knight Templar included 22 ‘Birmingham Pieces’. There’s also no specification of what exactly the ‘Birmingham Pieces’ were, but they were precious metal objects small enough to be taken into prison, and also well-known enough to need no further explanation. This was in London, meaning that gold- and silversmithing wasn’t just happening on a local level; the trade had already expanded beyond Birmingham.

Fast forward to Birmingham’s Industrial Revolution, and the real growth started as early as 1680. The population exploded shortly after, quadrupling between 1700 and 1750. It was during this time that the Jewellery Quarter rapidly developed, becoming known as its own manufacturing area by the early nineteenth century.

 

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With the creation of Birmingham’s canals (the first was opened in 1769), the large amount of iron available in the area could now be easily transported in and out of the city. Birmingham’s iron supply allowed tradesmen to diversify and specialise in their metalworking efforts, practising everything from buckle-making to locksmithing. On the other hand, although Birmingham was at the front of the canal-building trend, it actually remained relatively difficult to access, meaning that the metalworking of small, valuable objects became the obvious trade to pursue. Hello, jewellery… Perhaps most importantly of all, Birmingham’s lack of guilds meant tradesmen were much freer to change occupation or practise more than one trade here than they were in other cities, since they didn’t have to pay expensive membership rates and belong to just one guild.

Birmingham’s adaptability carried its jewellery trade through periods of depression and both world wars. Today, the Jewellery Quarter still produces 40% of all jewellery created in the UK (mine included!), and boasts both the world’s largest Assay Office and the oldest independent mint in the world. Not bad for a city which was a tiny, wooded backwater only a millenium ago…

 

And there we have it: good local supplies + lack of trade restrictions = an influx of tradespeople. Throw in the Industrial Revolution for good measure and you’ve got Birmingham as the UK centre of jewellery-making. So, Dad, now we know!

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Sources:

https://www.birmingham.gov.uk/info/50050/culture_arts_and_heritage/1258/origins_of_birmingham

http://visitbirmingham.com/what-to-do/heritage/the-history-of-birmingham/

https://www.triposo.com/loc/Birmingham/history/background

http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol7/pp81-139

https://billdargue.jimdo.com/glossary-brief-histories/a-brief-history-of-birmingham/medieval-birmingham/

https://therivermanagementblog.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/the-rivers-of-birmingham/

Medieval Goldsmiths, John Cherry (2011, British Museum Press)

Vanity: not always a bad thing

On my recent holiday, it almost seemed that jewellery was following me around the Mediterranean – not that I was complaining about it! Possibly the pinnacle of this trend was the day we arrived in Mykonos to find the Archaeological Museum we were planning to visit anyway (first pottery depiction of the Trojan Horse, anyone?) turned out to be almost completely filled with an exhibition on Cycladic jewellery from prehistory to the present day.

Lifetime TV

The exhibition, titled ‘Vanity’, was laid out in chronological order spanning a very impressive 7 millennia. It was also, as the exhibition leaflet proudly proclaimed, a ‘meta-exhibition’, with the museum itself becoming a giant jewellery box. It all sounded pretty good to me, and that was before we even saw the exhibits.

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Well, come on, it was called ‘Vanity’…

The interpretation was excellent from the off, with all the exhibits in these gorgeously lit boxes with draws to pull out and read more:

There was also some extra reading if you knew Greek:

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I won’t cover everything we saw because there were hundreds of pieces, but here are a few highlights.

We started with Early Bronze Age jewellery, most of which came from Naxos. Like many of the items on display, the majority of these early pieces were found as grave goods, highlighting the important role of appearance and adornment in early Cycladic society. As you can see below, semi-precious beads were a particular favourite. Oh, and check out the phallus charm on the left-hand side; some things never change…

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Pins/fibulae and diadems were also popular during this period:

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After this we hit the Middle Cycladic Period, where coral beads from the Eastern Mediterranean were all the rage (the suggestion being that their owners believed them to have exotic, special properties):

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The Late Bronze Age gave us this absolutely gorgeous necklace made of gold and white glass beads in the shape of lotus flowers. Interestingly, these beads were made in a mould, hinting at a growing market for and mass production of such items. In fact, the display called these shapes ‘standardised’ – the Cyclades were definitely modernising!

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This particular necklace was actually from Mykonos itself

The Geometric period, where the Mycenaean world collapsed and was taken over by Greek culture, pins and hair wires were the order of the day. The pins in the bottom left-hand corner are also from Thera, which I was overly excited about. (No, I’m not being sarcastic; we visited a couple of years ago and I was really excited to see some of the artefacts that aren’t at the site.)

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Much to my delight, almost all of the artefacts from the Classical period, including little human and animal amulets, were from Thera:

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A couple of centuries later, the Hellenic world had completely changed Cycladic jewellery, bringing exquisitely detailed pieces made from gold, pearls, and semi-precious stones. In fact, jewellery got so ornate that Pliny and Seneca complained about the amount being spent on it… Many of the pieces in the exhibition were from Delos, only found because the residents were forced to flee from the pirates of Athenodorus at the end of the 1st century BCE, and hid some of their gems before they left.

Also, here’s Aphrodite riding a goat:

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During the Roman period, the Cyclades were flooded with gold hoops, rings, and bird amulets, much like the rest of the Mediterranean, although the Hellenic styles didn’t disappear overnight:

Sadly for The Goblin and I, the Cycladic Middle Ages weren’t enormously well-represented, because of the limited excavation activity around this period; understandable given the amount of ancient history there is to explore in this part of the world.

There was another reason for the lack of medieval Cycladic jewellery on display: the predominance of Byzantine Christianity, which emphasised austerity and inner beauty. However, as the display highlighted, ‘the human tendency to improve outer appearance and simultaneously highlight social status prevailed and jewellery continued triumphantly to adorn both men and women’. The exhibition had several finger rings and Byzantine cross pendants to prove it:

Post-Byzantine/19th century Greek jewellery was a particularly interesting section of the exhibition, marrying themes from ancient and modern jewellery in the typical, ornate ‘Mykonos’ style earrings made from gold and pearls:

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This diamond cross pendant was a particular highlight of the later part of the exhibition, having belonged to Manto Mavrogenous, who spent her entire fortune financing the Greek Revolution:

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The final historical section of the exhibition featured work by Sofia Thanopoulou. Better known as Maroulina, Sofia was a self-taught creator who was one of the first important Greek jewellery designers in the second half of the 20th century. Her shop on Mykonos (1953-1972) attracted a prestigious, international clientèle, particularly after she began adding jewellery to her ranges of shoes, clothes, and bags in 1955. Combining Art Nouveau and traditional Greek influences, Sofia Thanopoulou created jewellery ‘characterised by the abundant expressiveness of their materials and their dynamic, often unexpected compositions’. Quite the jeweller role-model…

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The final room of the exhibition was one of my favourites (and definitely The Goblin’s pick), in interpretation, design, architecture and, of course, contents. This was the place where the ‘meta-exhibition’ really came to the fore. I mean, just look at this stunning set-up:

This section of the exhibition was dedicated to creations commissioned for the exhibition from 12 contemporary Greek jewellers: Elena Syraka, Ileana Makri, Ioanna Souflia, Deux Hommes, Lito, Minas, Nikos Koulis, Sofia Vamiali, Sophia Kokosalaki, Two Is Company, Venyx by Eugenie Niarchos, Yannis Sergakis.

Venyx by Eugenie Niarchos undoubtedly crafted my favourite piece: a pendant featuring a traditional Cycladic head in a modern, gold setting. As well as being completely beautiful, this necklace seemed to epitomise the exhibition as a whole: ancient and modern Cycladic art and creation brought together in one place and one time.

Photo from huffingtonpost.gr (I didn’t manage to get a good picture on my phone, unfortunately)

Every item in the collection (according to the leaflet) was chosen to highlight that most timeless human trait: vanity. The desire to bedazzle ourselves has been around as long as we’ve known how to thread rocks onto a piece of thread. But it also speaks to the endless creative potential and endeavour of humanity; not only do we want to sparkle, we’re willing to invent and graft to do so. It might seem shallow, but the face (or ear, or wrist) you present to the world can matter, and adornment is a big part of that.

One could even argue it’s part of humanity to deck ourselves in glittery gubbins; after all, ‘Vanity’ has 7000 years of archaeological proof that we just want to be…

shiny moana crab

 

 

Let’s put a pin in politics

As I write, the UK election has led to a hung parliament and the Tories are trying to prop up a minority government with DUP support. In other words, politics is looking pretty fucking grismal*, as my mum would say (and indeed has). Now that you’ve all voted (I hope!), all there is to do is wait. You could be forgiven for feeling a bit like this right now:

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Sootmegs on Etsy. Check out her store for some adorable, therapy-themed pins.

So, The Goblin and I spent a large chunk of last night watching Channel 4’s Alternative Election Night (David Mitchell snarking about Brexit? Count us in!), and amidst all the exit poll drama, I noticed the Lib Dems’ Baroness Brinton was showing her party colours in a particularly stylish way:

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Check out that brooch. Not your common-or-garden campaign pin.

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Here it is again + bonus dog

For centuries, pins, badges and brooches have been a decorative way to wear your heart on your sleeve (or lapel). When it comes to political pins, American ‘campaign buttons’ are the best-known examples, dating back pretty much as far as the United States themselves. George Washington’s supporters used to wear his initials on their jackets – awww.

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And then it got weird.

Pins are one of the most versatile forms of jewellery; sartorial shorthand for your world view and core values (whether those are high-falutin’ political beliefs or simply your love of cats). They can also be incredibly beautiful. The emphasis here is on the can

These days, there are a lot of bog-standard, plastic circles floating about on British chests:

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I mean, if you’re going to be vile, at least be more aesthetically pleasing while you’re at it…

But that wasn’t always the case. The 50s were a golden age of stylish enamel pins for all political situations. Here are the two main parties:

Young and politically engaged? You could’ve worn these:

If you fancied a lighter pin, a few decades later the CND spawned a range of badges so niche that they remind me of that ship full of telephone sanitisers and hairdressers from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

And speaking of niche, it was the 70s that gave us this quintessentially British gem:

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But if we’re talking the one historical campaign that had pins nailed, it’s got to be the British Suffrage Movement. Those women knew their pins… The use of colour! The motifs! So lush.

Although these gorgeous vintage campaign pins go for a mint online, the impending centenary of the first legalisation of women’s suffrage in the UK** means there are a ton of pretty and economical replicas/updates knocking about:

If you don’t want to physically wear your party or campaign affiliations, there’s always the lighthearted-enamel-pin trend which exploded on Etsy in the last year or two. Why not try one of these beauties? (Special shout out to one of my fave Etsy pin stores, Veronica Dearly.)

After all, if we’re going to hell in a handcart, you might as well

*Grismal, (adj): a cross between grim and dismal; most commonly used to describe a situation that makes you want to sit on the sofa and groan gently to yourself for the next several hours.

**2018 is the centenary of the enfranchisement of some property-holding women over 30; it took until 1928 for all women over 21 to be able to vote, the same rules as for men at that time.

Letter From The Ephesians

I recently got back from a Mediterranean trip, and things took a surprisingly jewellery-themed turn (even for me) everywhere we went, so a few historical/travel-themed posts are on the way.

One of the highlights of the trip was undoubtedly the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey. A historic centre of jewellery-making, Ephesus is famous for its Temple of Artemis – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – where worshippers left beautiful jewellery as votive offerings:

Artemis of Ephesus was a cross between the Greek Artemis and the Anatolian mother goddess Cybele, and she’s been getting giggles from schoolchildren (and probably some adults) for centuries:

Laughing at her many bosoms might not be the wisest idea, though, since she was the guardian of all civilisation, and ruler of all nature. Oh, and she was the queen of bees – a literal queen bee – which is why bees feature so heavily in the gold and silver offerings to her, and even in Ephesian coinage:

Other symbols incorporated into jewellery dedicated to Artemis of Ephesus included crescent shapes (Artemis was goddess of the moon), sparrowhawks, rosettes, and double-headed axes.

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The first mint and gold refinery in Anatolia was founded in the seventh century BCE. In fact, some scholars argue that the first metal coins ever issued were used in in Ephesus around 650. With the amount of metalworking activity going on at Ephesus, it’s little wonder that the vast majority of surviving jewellery in the Eastern Greek style during this period comes from the repository found at the Temple of Artemis – jewellery which is made even more interesting by its Oriental and Mycaenean influences.

Later, around 53CE, Ephesus was made famous for a different reason by St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. St Paul, misogynist and killjoy extraordinaire, spent some time in Ephesus in the mid-1st century CE, and was not impressed with what he perceived as the excessive covetousness of the locals. Obviously this didn’t go down too well with Ephesian silversmiths, who relied on the cult of Artemis for their livelihood, and a mob apparently dragged some of Paul’s pals to the theatre. Paul himself decided not to go and face an angry mob made up of people who were presumably good with small, pointy tools (probably wise), but luckily for him, the group eventually broke up.

Unfortunately, the silversmiths turned out to be right about the spread of Christianity killing their trade in Artemisian offerings, and the whole episode highlights the importance of Ephesus as a seat of early Christianity. Supposedly the Virgin Mary died there – not really surprising that a cult of Artemis morphed into a cult of the Virgin Mary. It’s quite a sweet little house, actually:

Sadly, our archaeologist guide, Hakan, confirmed that it’s a 6th-7th century church, so definitely not the house of the Mother of God (shocker).

We opted to visit Ancient Ephesus (with its Terraced Houses) and Didyma instead, and I think we made the right choice. (Side note: we went on a private tour with Meander Travel, and it was incredibly interesting as well as being amazing value for money – I’d definitely recommend Meander if any of you visit Turkey (they do tours all over the country, including in Istanbul). We were able to design our own tour to suit our interests and everyone at the company was lovely, helpful and knowledgeable. And no, I’m not being paid to write this – that’s how good they were!)

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The base of an enormous column at Didyma (Florence for scale!)

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Library of Celsus at Ephesus

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The theatre at Ephesus (minus angry mob)

Kusadasi, the port city near Ephesus, continues to ply the jewellery trade into the 21st century. In fact, Turkey as a whole is a major player in gold and silversmithing today, processing 400 tons of gold and 300 tons of silver annually and employing 300,000 people. Unfortunate geopolitical circumstances at the moment meant the sites were incredibly quiet, which was great for us tourists but terrible for the Turkish tourism industry. It’s a real shame, because Kusadasi and the surrounding sites are some of the safest and most stunning in Turkey – definitely recommend a visit if you’re thinking of heading to the Eastern Med!

Sources

Brummie Buttons

I really like buttons. I mean really like them. Like this much:

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p027b3t8/player

Buttons are of local importance as well. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Jewellery Quarter, and Birmingham more broadly, made all the fixings and fripperies needed for contemporary life, from buttons to buckles and hinges to coffin plates. Come the nineteenth century, it also made 75% of the world’s steel pen nibs. Birmingham became known as the ‘toy-maker of the world’, ‘toy’ being another word for small items of fashion such as buttons, buckles and snuff boxes. Apparently, the Jewellery Quarter wasn’t just the home of trinkets and gems.

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And now it’s the home of bars with roof terraces and delicious food

So, Birmingham was originally the centre of the buckle-making trade:

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but when this was massacred by the humble shoelace in the late-eighteenth century, buttons came to the rescue. In 1800 there were over 100 separate button makers in the few square miles making up the city centre. In 1770 there were even two separate button makers in the tiny street where I work, and nine at larger Snow Hill.

Buttons were the city’s miniature money-maker until the early twentieth century. As William Hutton stated on a visit to Brum in 1780, ‘it would be no easy task to enumerate the infinite diversity of buttons manufactured here…’.

Buttons were Birmingham’s stock in trade because they were both functional and fashionable, desirable and essential. Originally made of horn (lovely, trendy, stinky cow-foot buttons), buttons have been made in Birmingham since at least the twelfth century, according to recent archaeological excavation at the Bull Ring. However, in the eighteenth century the trade exploded, with buttons being made of mother of pearl, glass or shell, embossed or stamped, or even covered in silk.

Button-making was also a huge employer, even after the partial mechanisation of the trade in the mid-nineteenth century, due to the fragility of some of the materials.

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As I mentioned before, I love buttons – they’re the epitome of functional beauty, and (as Terry says in the video) a fascinating window into social history. In fact, that great social commentator, Charles Dickens, wrote an interesting (and very, very detailed) article about the Birmingham button trade. You can read the whole thing here if you fancy it, but I’ll leave you with an apt quote from the piece:

‘It is wonderful, is it not? that on that small pivot turns the fortune of such multitudes of men, women, and children, in so many parts of the world; that such industry, and so many fine faculties, should be brought out and exercised by so small a thing as the Button.’

[All designs available at Tiding of Magpies]

Sources:

 

The Pearly Queen

Recently, I’ve had a lot of comments about (and orders for) my Tudor coin necklace; more than I was expecting, actually. Originally the necklace was more of a fun, nostalgic, ‘hey-look-it’s-that-coin-I-saved-from-Kentwell’ design I did on a whim than an homage to Tudor style itself, but people have really responded to it. Turns out people love a bit of Tudors (who knew?!), so I started thinking about how to incorporate Tudor influences into new designs.

The first thing most people think of when you mention Tudor jewellery is vast numbers of pearls, but why the sudden pearl explosion? The first reason is scarcity (or perceived scarcity). After all, what shows wealth and status better than something someone may very well have died trying to pull out of a sea creature? Interestingly, by the 1580s pearls were actually flooding across the Atlantic from the ‘land of pearls’, as North America became known. Fortunately for contemporary privateers and merchants, instead of devaluing the gems, this supply surprisingly did the opposite. Not only were pearls still fantastically expensive, they were now attainable in vast quantities, the better to adorn your way to the top.

The other reason for pearls’ PR boost in the British Isles towards the end of the 16th century was the reign of Elizabeth I, aka The Virgin Queen. For centuries, pearls have been associated with purity and perfection; in Ancient Greek lore, pearls were formed from the droplets of water which rolled off Aphrodite as she emerged from the sea.

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As Elizabeth built her image as the virginal monarch married to her country, symbolism was paramount, and pearls, with their centuries of pure connotations and their glowing luxury, were the perfect fit. She put them on everything, and ensured they featured in every portrait:

However, even this the Pearly Queen couldn’t always afford the vast quantity of precious stones needed for the desired, so the smaller pearls on her clothes were sometimes fake. You’d think this would be an obvious switch, but fake pearls (made from glass or nacre) were actually so common and of such relatively high quality in the 16th century that they were banned in Venice because of the danger they posed to the pearl traders.

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The Tudor obsession with pearls both spawned some truly gorgeous pieces and fed into new trends.

Bracelets came back into vogue in the late 16th century, after having been largely neglected since the early medieval period, and many were made of (you guessed it) strings of pearls:

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Late-medieval and early-Tudor headdresses also gave way to the ferronière, strings of pearls or jewels which festooned elaborate hairstyles:

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And finally, a post on Tudor pearls wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Mary I’s famous La Peregrina, the gratuitously large gem which eventually ended up around Elizabeth Taylor’s neck:

 

Sources:

  • Stoned, Aja Raden
  • Jewellery From Antiquity To The Present, Clair Phillips
  • 7000 Years of Jewellery, Hugh Tait

“A little something from Fabergé”

It’s the long weekend break in the UK, so I’m spending four days in Mid-Wales with the in-laws doing a whole lot of this:

(Learnt Monopoly Deal and then won twice in a row, just saying.) Not pictured: roast lamb and amazing homemade treacle tart courtesy of my future mother-in-law. But between all the food and scenery and aggressive card play, I’ve whipped up a little virtual Easter treat for you all. An Easter egg, if you will…(sorry).

I’m assuming most people (if not everyone) reading this have heard of Fabergé Eggs, but I thought they deserved a bit more of a detailed look (because, God knows, they don’t get enough attention…). Essentially, the Fabergé Imperial Eggs are a collection of 50 intricate, jewelled metal eggs, filled with equally intricate surprises, which were given as Easter gifts by tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II to their female relatives (predominantly their wives and mothers). The eggs were made by the world-renowned Fabergé workshop in St Petersburg, and 43 still exist, most of which are owned either by oligarch Viktor Vekselberg or the Kremlin Armoury.

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I was lucky enough to visit the Fabergé Museum in St Petersburg last year, where I saw 9 of the surviving Imperial eggs, as well as a whole host of other Fabergé treasures. Fun fact: although Peter Carl Fabergé is most famous now for the creation of the beautiful eggs, he also made a vast range of other trinkets. In fact, in the late 19th and early 20th century, it became fashionable for the European aristocracy to gift each other “a little something from Fabergé” for almost any occasion. With Fabergé’s continuous technical innovations, cigarette cases, watches and photoframes could be had in a dazzling array of enamel colours:

And let’s not forget the stunning jewellery the workshop created (so many egg-laces):

He also made some gorgeous faux flowers, which I now desperately want for my wedding centrepieces…

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Source: royalcollection.org.uk

Faberge-flowers

Source: viola.bz

But back to the eggs. Although there are 9 impressive eggs in the Fabergé Museum’s collection, these are my top picks:

 

First, the Coronation Egg, presented as an Easter present to Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna by her husband Nicholas II, the last Romanov ruler, in 1897. Among other skills, the egg’s construction involved the use of guilloché. Like my Staffordshire Hoard blog post, researching the details of these eggs has introduced me to new metalworking techniques, and this is one of them. Basically, guilloché, originating in the 16th century, is the engraving of a repeating pattern into a base material by mechanical means (engine turning).

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Source: Pinterest

The egg also features a range of enamels, and the Empress’ crest set beneath a large diamond (one of many in the design). More exciting than the egg itself (at least to me), is the surprise inside: a miniature, working replica of the Empress’ coronation carriage, less than four inches long and fashioned in enamel and gold. The carriage features opening doors, moving wheels, and even tiny folding steps.

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Source: Pinterest

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Source: Pinterest

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Source: Pinterest

The second of my favourite eggs from the museum’s collection is the Bay Tree Egg, which I found the most impressive in terms of mechanical ingenuity.

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Source: Pinterest

Fashioned from jewelled nephrite (a type of jade) and enamels, this egg was presented to Nicholas II’s dowager mother, Maria Feodorovna, in 1911. As if the individual leaves and enamelled planter weren’t impressive enough, the surprise inside is incredibly impressive. When a lever disguised as a jewelled fruit is turned, the tree opens and a feathered songbird which moves and sings appears:

My final pick from the Fabergé Museum is the First Hen Egg. As the name suggests, it was the first egg presented to Empress Maria Feodorovna by her husband, Alexander III, in 1885. Although the egg is much less showy than its descendants, it makes up for that in execution and number of surprises. When the first white egg is opened, it reveals a pure gold ‘yolk’, inside which is a golden chicken with ruby eyes. The hen’s tail feathers have hinges, and the hen opens up to reveal even more surprises. Unfortunately these are now lost, but they would have been a tiny gold and diamond replica of the imperial crown, with a ruby pendant suspended on a chain inside it.

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Source: Pinterest

The Empress was so taken with the egg that Alexander put in a standing order with Fabergé for one egg per Easter, giving him free rein to be as innovative as he liked, as long as each egg was different.

I loved the Fabergé eggs I saw in St Petersburg, but there are three in particular in the Kremlin Armoury collection that are on my itinerary for my bucket list trip to Moscow: the Moscow Kremlin Egg, the Memory of Azov Egg, and the Steel Military Egg.

The Moscow Kremlin Egg, by far the largest Imperial egg at more than a foot tall (36 centimetres), sits within a phenomenally beautiful model of the Uspensky Cathedral, where all of the Romanov tsars were crowned, forming the cathedral’s dome. The interior of the cathedral is fashioned in gold and enamel, and includes minute enamelled icons, carpets, and a high altar. The surprise inside is a music box which plays Easter music, including one of Tsar Nicholas II’s favourite hymns. The egg is from 1906, and is considered so precious it has never travelled outside Russia, unlike many other eggs, which have toured to different museums across the globe.

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Source: Pinterest

Frustratingly, I couldn’t find a picture of the inside of the egg’s cathedral, which only makes me want to see it more…

The Memory of Azov Egg, presented to Maria Feodorovna in 1891, is carved from a single piece of heliotrope jasper which has been richly jewelled. Inside is a perfect replica of the Memory of Azov ship, part of the Russian Navy, upon which Nicholas II (then the tsarevitch, or prince) cruised to Far East Asia in 1890. It is fashioned in red and yellow gold and platinum, and the windows are made of tiny diamonds.

The final egg I’d like to see is the most stylistically interesting, hinting at the Soviet Realism style that was yet to come, and far plainer than the other early 20th century eggs. The Steel Military Egg was presented in 1916, when Nicholas II was away fighting in the First World War. Set on four steel ‘artillery shells’, the egg is plain steel with just the Imperial crest and crown adorning the outside. Inside is hidden a tiny painting by Vassilii Zuiev, which sits on a gold and steel, enamel-covered easel. The painting shows the Tsar and Tsarevitch examining military maps, surrounded by senior army officers. The frame is filled with diamonds. With hindsight, this austere egg almost seems portentous; it was the last egg Fabergé delivered to the Tsarina before the revolution, removal of the monarchy, and nationalisation of Fabergé’s workshop.

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Source: Wikipedia

What’s your favourite Fabergé egg? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter/Instagram.

Now, we’ve been doing dry Lent (The Goblin’s idea; never again), so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for an enormous glass of Malbec. Enjoy the rest of the Bank Holiday weekend, UK readers!

New designs, old inspirations

Last weekend I went to Stratford-upon-Avon with one friend and one goblin (my fiancé), and it made me think about the Elizabethan obsession with pearls (of which more in a later blog post). I’ve created a new pendant inspired by the trip, and by the success of my other Tudor-inspired piece (which was actually based on a coin I got from Kentwell in Year 5). Enough brackets; I thought I’d give you all a behind-the-scenes look at the process of creating a new design from scratch.

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I didn’t actually draw up a design for this one, so the process was a little messier than usual, but here’s the rough blueprint…

Start with some D-shaped sterling silver wire (this is 4mm x 1.4mm):

Cut it to size with a hand saw:

File the ends smooth:

Bend the filed wire into a teardrop shape, continuing to file and shape the ends to get a perfectly flush fit. This will make for a much more successful solder.

Once the ends are filed and bent flush together, saw through the seam. This removes the tiny gap between the ends and allows for a tighter seam and better solder. (No pictures, because it involves both hands and a lot of swearing.)

Have a bit of a soldering mishap, blacken and warp the teardrop, and give up for the day to embroider and write a blog post. After some sewing, napping and sulking, redo the above steps…

Once soldered with a hand torch, the teardrop shape goes into the pickle pot (a slow cooker full of water mixed with a chemical compound that removes the residue from the flux used when soldering).

After that, file down any visible edges of the seam.

Draw guide spots for drill holes with a pencil, like this one I got on my Stratford trip:

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Drill through each side (I use The Goblin’s power drill with a 1cm bit):

Shape and cut a silver pin, then affix into a half-drilled pearl (half-drilled as in only one hole which reaches halfway through the pearl):

Cut some unfinished chain to the desired length (I went with a classic 18-inch):

Thread the chain and pearl through the holes drilled earlier. Later on, decide the pearl needs to hang lower and add a couple of jump rings (see later pictures)…

Solder fixings to each end of the chain:

And finally, back into the pickle pot! (Just the ends though – don’t want to have to re-polish everything.)

 

Et voilà! Tudor-inspired, minimalist pearl pendant, available now at Tiding of Magpies.

 

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Stoned by Aja Raden: a review

Anyone who follows me on Instagram might have noticed me posting a few pictures of Aja Raden’s ridiculously photogenic book, Stoned, over the past month. It’s taken me a bit longer and got me a few more weird looks on the train than I expected (without the dust jacket it just looks like a book about weed), but I loved it.

First things first, I really loved the format of the book; you can’t really go wrong with chapters focused on one object/story that fits into the wider theme. I just feel like it’s such a strong way to zoom in and out on a topic.

It’s hard to pick out one of the chapters as the best, but the one on emeralds was a winning combination of medieval exploration, science  and witty anecdotes. It was also probably the most interesting for me personally in terms of new knowledgefor example, did you know that emeralds are formed by the crashing together of continental plates?!

Another thing I seriously enjoyed was the amount of fun Raden had with the footnotes (special shout out to the giggly footnote on page 36 about ballsacks). It reminded me a bit of one of my all-time faves, The Princess Bride. Stoned was also scattered with puns, which I obviously adore. The only downside to the irreverent tone was that it sometimes strayed into sounding a little forced, but the multiple times I laughed aloud more than outweighed that.

Stoned was a really interesting blend of science, geopolitics, history and art, probably because Raden has a degree in Physics and Ancient History and is a jeweller herself. Obviously I read it because it was about jewellery, but I think it’s one of those books where you can pick out your interests and follow the threads throughout. I particularly enjoyed the historical commentary and healthy dose of gender politics (although I’d argue that the description of Catherine Howard as ‘empty-headed’, ‘moronic’ and a ‘young tart’ was a bit jarring and harsh, as well as an oversimplification of the historic context in which her marriage took place).

Overall, I thought Stoned was a fab balance of detail and broad pictures, and Raden had obviously done a ton of research. Her knowledge of jewellery design also made for some really fascinating descriptions and explanations of key pieces. I’d definitely recommend it, particularly to anyone who, like me, is busy and therefore has unpredictable amounts of time to read, because it’s pretty easy to dip in and out of without losing interest or focus.

Favourite quote: Hands down the point where Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain were described as ‘putting the ick in Catholic’ with their religious intolerance, although a close second was the description of ‘the United States spreading across the North American continent like a bloodstain’ during the 19th century.

Favourite new fact:  Engagement rings for both men and women were made mandatory for Catholics by Pope Innocent III in 1215 (mostly because of all the crusade-based shagging that was occurring), so fiancé and I aren’t being the hipster arseholes we thought we were, but are in fact being medievally Catholic…huh.

Matronalia: Ro-mums

It’s a well-known saying that ‘all roads lead to Rome’, but it actually turned out to be true when I was researching my last Mothers’ Day post. Almost every source on the origins of Mothers’ Day mentions the Roman festival of Matronalia, so I did a bit more exploration.

Matronalia, celebrated on 1st March, was the first day in the Roman festival year. It’s thought to have originated as a celebration of the new temple dedicated to Juno Lucina (Juno the lightbringer, long-suffering wife of Jupiter and ‘mother’ of the women of Rome) on the Esquiline Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome, in 375BCE.

The festival, a celebration of mothers and of women in general, involved gift-giving by husbands and daughters. Gifts would often include gourmet food, jewellery and perfume. Women also gave their household slaves the day off, and often cooked them a meal, which is interesting, because it’s reminiscent of the Mothering Sunday tradition where girls in domestic service were given the day off to go and visit their mothers, as well as to eat richer food than was generally permitted during Lent.

So, what sort of jewellery might Roman mothers have received at Matronalia? If you answered ‘probably garnet’, you’re bang on. The Romans loved garnets and imported them in their thousands. The garnet was also symbolic of friendship and affection, making it a perfect gift for Matronalia.

Jewellery expressing love and affection between husbands and wives was another popular gift:

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Sardonyx earrings inscribed with ‘Te Kale’, Ancient Greek for ‘To the beautiful one’

Roman jewellers were also fond of wire-wrapping other stones, including pearls, to create some gorgeous earrings:

And if earrings weren’t a Roman woman’s thing, rings were always a popular choice. Interesting fact: the reason Roman rings are so tiny isn’t just because previous generations tended to be smaller than we are now, it’s also because Roman men and women often wore their rings above the first knuckle. Yep, the Romans were ahead of the midi ring trend by more than 2000 years.

If you’re looking for an unusual gift for your mum this Mothering Sunday, look no further than my Etsy shop, where you can find historically-inspired handmade jewellery like this ammonite pendant:

The ammonite above is reminiscent of the Roman pin on the left, but if you’re looking for something more modern or themed around different historical periods, there is a whole range of delicate silver pieces in my store: