Rock crystal is transparent, colourless quartz. Pliny the Elder reported that rock crystal was ice that had been permanently frozen. The name ‘crystal’ comes from the Greek for ice, ‘krystallos’. Rock crystal has been used for jewellery for centuries. It has been faceted to imitate diamonds and carved for intaglios. As well as being facetted, rock crystal was produced as polished stones and cabochons and was used as brooches and the back of lockets. There are many ways that rock crystal has been used in jewellery over the centuries but I am only going to talk about three particular uses – Stuart crystals, reverse crystal intaglios and pools of light.
After the death of King Charles I in 1649, some of his followers began to wear faceted rock jewellery pins, slides, rings and brooches. Under the rock crystal, some stored a lock of the King’s hair, or his initials or his image. Often the initials were created using twisted gold wire, referred to as a cipher. After some decades, the use of rock crystal and ciphers changed from being a Jacobite symbol, becoming used more for the purpose of sentimental jewellery. Stuart crystal remained in fashion until the early to mid 18th century.
in the Victorian era, from the 1850s to the 1880s, rock crystal cabochons were used to make reverse intaglios. An English firm, Lambeth & Rawlings, exhibited them at the London 1862 International Exhibition as a novelty item and they became very popular. The back of the domed crystal was engraved with the design of an insect, animal or bird and then painted. A back of mother of pearl was added. Some of the paintings were very realistic, like the flies and the owl in the brooch at the top of the post. Reverse intaglio crystals are also described as Essex crystals as there was a mistaken belief in Victorian England that the little paintings etched into the crystals had been painted by a leading enamel miniaturist, William Essex.
Pools of light jewellery involves the use of crystal quartz as simple un-drilled balls or domed halves. Pieces like this were described as being ‘pools of light’ because of the way the light reflects through the gem. Sometimes the light passing through results in the gem glowing almost white. They will also render anything viewed through it upside down and in reverse. They were often designed as two halves of a locket so that a photo placed inside the two halves would be magnified. Whilst they were most popular in the Edwardian period, from 1900 to 1914, they were also used in jewellery before that as is the case with the bog oak, pinchbeck and crystal earrings pictured below from the 1860s.
A relatively inexpensive gemstone but one used in a number of ways to create beautiful objects.