The 19th century led to extraordinary growth in the use of technology in the jewellery trade. In my previous post I talked about the introduction of the rolling mill and the stamping press but many more inventions were to come. One example was a machine to fabricate collets for stones was developed in 1852 in France, with an English patent being taken out in 1860. The invention could produce ‘solid claw bezils or settings for mounting stones’ in various pieces of jewellery using an ordinary stamping press (Bury, 142). In 1872, a mechanical process for cut down settings was demonstrated at the London Exhibition, able to manage the folding over of thin edges of gold over the edges of gem (Bury, 143).
Some of the most important developments in jewellery technology, though, centred around gold and silver and their imitants. Probably the most well known gold imitation material was pinchbeck, developed in 1732 by clockmaker Christopher Pinchbeck. Other gold imitants were mosaic gold, Mannheim, British gold, and Abbyssinian gold. There were silver ones as well. But it was the development of different versions of gold plating that was important in the 19th century.
While gilding, the overlaying of a metal or wood with gold or gold alloy, was a technique used by early man, it was time consuming, involved hazardous substances in many cases, and easily wore off. Electro plating, the use of electric current to plate a metal with gold or silver, resulted in sheets that could be rolled out and had a longer lasting effect, although some hazardous substances were still involved. The first recorded experiment in gold plating was conducted by Professor Luigi Brugnatelli in 1803 but it was George Elkington of Birmingham and his brother in 1840 who filed a patent for electro plating. Many more patents for improvements were to follow. Other countries advanced the technology too.
A similar development to electroplating was rolled gold. At first, in 1795, the gold was soldered onto a sheet of brass and then the fused sheet was then rolled into a thin sheet. In 1817, John Turner of Birmingham was granted a patent for a new improvement in plating brass or copper with gold so that it could be rolled mechanically into sheets with jewellery pieces able to be stamped out. Instead of a solder, borax and silver were placed in between the gold and metal and then the piece was placed into a furnace to fuse the two sheets together. Sometimes the gold could be fused on both sides of the metal as is the case with the “Fix” rolled gold produced in France, by companies such as Murat, Fix, and Oria.
Gold filling is a later version of rolled gold and has a higher amount of gold content in the layer. In the US, gold filled items must have a layer of gold which is at least 1/20th of the total weight of the metal and must be marked ‘gold filled’ and the carat of gold used must be included.
The new technology of gold plate and rolled gold contributed to the provision of cheaper jewellery for middle class women, a growing demographic.
Shirley Bury, ‘Jewellery: 1789-1910, vol 1’, 1991, Antique Collector’s Club
L B Hunt, ‘The Early History of Gold Plating’, https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2FBF03215178.pdf
Francesca Carnevali, ‘Fashioning Luxury for Factory Girls: American Jewelry, 1860-1914’, (2011), The Business History Review, Vol. 85, No. 2, 295.
Jack Ogden, ‘Some Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Jewellery Alloys,  6 Jewellery Studies 77.