This is me, loving it.
What I've found is that often jewelry will snake its way through different time periods, waxing and waning in its popularity. For example, I've seen pearls used throughout the 19th-20th centuries. I owned a set of pearls before I became a reenactor. While they are not the *most* popular right now, researchers of the future could still document their use.
When I first started to research cut steel, my first look was to the 18th century. As I continued, I counted examples through the Regency and eventually mid to late 19th century. While I cannot say cut steel was the most popular during the Civil War time period, I do have various forms of documentation proving that they were in use during that time. Should every reenactor own a pair? No. Would adding historically accurate variety to reenactor jewelry choices better the community as a whole? I'm going to go with a big YES on that one!
So if you're looking for a little historically accurate variety, I hope to provide that here with plenty of documentation!
History of Cut SteelSome sources have dated the use of cut steel all the way back to the 16th century, but it truly became popular in the 1700s. Birmingham, England was the source of most cut steel adornment, though French factories were producing during that time as well. Men and women in mid 18th century England donated their gems/jewelry to fund the Seven Years War, with cut steel as a glittering replacement for diamonds and other jewels.
Early pieces using cut steel contained up to as many as 15 facets per stud. By the late 19th century the quality of cut steel production dropped drastically, resulting in a declining popularity. Unfortunately time has the greatest effect on this pretty jewelry; much of it has already succumbed to rust.
While I do believe in finding photographic documentation, this is often the hardest to attain. The details are just not fine enough to pinpoint specific forms of jewelry. Here is my effort:
Designs of Latest Fashions, Godey's Lady's Book, February 1860
Centre-Table Gossip, Some Gossip on Novelties, Godey's Lady's Book, February 1860Steel, gilt, and jet beads are used to ornament the ribbons, by many; cut steel ornaments, including buckles, brooch, and ear-rings, are still worn for travelling and demi-toilette. At a little distance— especially by artificial light— they have the glittering effect of diamonds.
Chitchat upon Fashiosn, Godey's Lady's Book, December 1860
Chitchat upon Fashions, Godey's Lady's Book, January 1861In our notice of Mrs. Scofield's bonnets the past month, an error occurred in the mention of the bridal hat. The ornaments were a barbe of rich blonde, a branch of orange flowers and buds, with a light plume of marabout to the right. A novelty in the cap, was a papillon (butterfly) in velvet and gold, on the right temple.
Short, full feathers— these butterfly ornaments, long grooved leaves in velvet the color of the bonnet— golden ornaments, macaroons in steel, pearl, and gilt, are among the chief ornaments of the velvet bonnets.
Headdresses, Godey's Lady's Book, November 1861
Chitchat upon Fashion, Godey's Lady's Book , March 1863
Another dress less pretentious, but perhaps more elegant, was a very rich black silk. The skirt was trimmed with a narrow fluting, which was carried round the bottom and up the sides, in the tunic form, to the waist. In the space left between the trimmings were placed rosettes, edged with lace, and with steel centres. An edge of black guipure formed the heading to the fluted border. The body was trimmed with a fluting to imitate a jacket, which it did perfectly.
Lady's Waistband Bag, Godey's Lady's book, March 1864
THE revolutions of fashion have once again brought this waist hag into use, and it certainly is not only an ornament to the dress, but possesses this advantage over the hand bag, that it cannot be dropped or forgotten, or left behind. It is desirable, therefore, both for the sake of the fashion and usefulness, that we should give a design for one of these articles.
The waist bag shown in our illustration is made of either kid or some other sort of leather. Russian leather or kid may be used. It is cut in two parts, the back having the flap added
John Sterne's Disappointment, Godey's Lady's Book, September 1864
No reply from him. But he turned and gazed at her. Her brown curls rested on her hand— a small hand made whiter by the soft blue dress she wore; her eyes were fastened with an intentness and unwonted sobriety upon the dancing flames before her. Her slippers peeping from beneath her dress displayed two buckles of cut steel which shone in the fire-light, betraying every restless movement of the feet within.
Chitchat for Fashion, Godey's Lady's Book, September 1863
Swiss bodies are still worn, but the greatest novelty is the Hussar sash, which describes a point in front, and a sort of basque at the back. It is made of two colors, and the seams are studded with small round silver, steel, or gilt buttons.
Hairnets, Godey's Lady's Book, January 1864
NETS for the hair being much worn at the present season, we have chosen a few of the most fashionable for illustration, and as several of our subscribers have written for patterns of this description, we have given directions for both useful and ornamental nets.
The Marie Louise is an entirely new design, the ornamental part being formed of narrow bands of Russia leather, secured with steel beads; the front is trimmed with small stars, worked in tatting, and of the same color as the bands. The, net is of Alexandra Blue Braid, or, if preferred, black may be substituted; and it can of course be made in any color, but blue or black harmonizes best with the ornaments.
MATERIALS.— For the net, a piece of colored braid, a large netting needle, and a flat mesh three-quarters of an inch in width. For the trimming, a bunch of steel beads, No. 9, and seven bands of narrow Russia leather, which are usually sold twelve inches in length, and are stamped with a small gimp pattern. For the stars, a skein of tatting twine the color of the bands, a small shuttle, and a ring and pin. To trim the front, one and a half yards of blue ribbon, one and three-quarter inches wide, and one yard one inch-wide. Also one yard of elastic.
After doing all of this research, I realize that not all of these references are specifically for "cut steel." Steel jewelry was popular in its own right, but I wanted to include it to show the widespread use of the material. And honestly, I wonder if a few of them are actually cut steel references, just assuming that the reader would know what is implied. As more information becomes available to me I will rework this section of my research.
Cut steel adornments date all the way back to the 18th century, so it can be difficult to properly identify a piece with an untrained eye. From what I understand, less facets on the metal indicates later jewelry. In any case...aren't they just adorable?
While I do have documentation to support the use of cut steel throughout the 19th century, I would not call this use widespread or common enough for them to show up on every reenactor at events. By the Civil War they just weren't nearly as popular as they were in the 18th century. This was for a few reasons; the quality had declined (less facets), and fashions changed to accommodate mourning.
As I look to reproduce cut steel jewelry, I keep these things in mind. Could this piece be handed down from a family member? Would a young lady love the glittery centerpiece to her bonnet? Or did she read in Godey's that they had "the glittering effect of diamonds." With these thoughts I pressed for the possibility of having this jewelry available.
Cut steel itself is quite heavy...and I just could not find the right size/cuts that I could affordably reproduce a piece. And then I saw it! A very close, very lightweight, very pretty glass bead with the glittery appearance. Of course I needed the right metal to match, with sterling silver as the best solution. By the time I finished, I found that I had completed my first hypo-allergenic set of earrings. That has been my goal for some time, as numerous people have contacted me about doing such a thing.
Whew! This one took a bit more work than usual, possibly because I am preparing for the Kalamazoo Living History Show this weekend. Stop by and say hi if you're in the area! Otherwise, you'll hear all about it next week...wish me luck!