One of the most common substitute for diamonds in the 18th century and the centuries following was what is described as marcasite (sometimes called marquisette). Marcasite jewellery is made of the gemstone, pyrite, from the Zoisite species of mineral. It is also called ‘fool’s gold’ because it comes in a brassy yellow colour. It has a metallic appearance. There is actually a mineral called marcasite belonging to the same Zoisite species but it is not suitable for jewellery as it can turn to powder in the air.
In the 1700s and up to the mid 1800s, marcasite jewellery was very popular, particularly as sumptuary laws in many countries limited the wearing of diamonds to only limited classes. Pieces of pyrites were hand faceted, in a manner similar to the rose facet used for diamonds, and set in silver. The jewellery was certainly meant to imitate diamond set jewellery and was beautifully designed. The pyrite stones were small, faceted and brilliant and well crafted pieces could cost more than diamond jewellery. Pyrites were also used pave set as borders for miniatures and rings.
Marcasite jewellery became popular again around 1849, used as part of mourning jewellery, and again in the Edwardian and Art Deco periods. By these times, marcasite jewellery was viewed as cheap jewellery. While still set in silver, pieces in the 20th century, with some Art Deco exceptions, were more likely to be glued into place and had only a few facets.
Another 18th century imitant of diamonds was cut steel, which followed on from marcasite. The steel used was soft and was facetted and then polished to achieve a high metallic gleam. It was riveted onto a perforated steel or brass plate, usually in a pave setting. It was a time-consuming business. The English town of Woodstock became a centre of the industry. Again, like with marcasite, cut steel jewellery which most resembled diamonds could be very expensive. The French were an important market for cut steel jewellery and in 1760, Marie Antoinette’s jeweller, Monsieur Granchez, opened a shop to sell it, amongst other high-priced items.
Shoe buckles, scissors, and similar items were first made but as its popularity grew, chatelaines, chains, bracelets, earrings, and brooches were also made. Napoleon commissioned a cut steel parure for his new Empress Marie-Louise and her retinue and Catherine the Great owned a magnificant cut steel parure. There was a downturn in cut steel production in the UK as a result of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century. The industry declined in the 19th century.
There is often some confusion today about marcasite and cut steel and many vintage marcasite pieces are often made of cut steel.