Brooches 20.08.2012

Vulcanite Hand

Vulcanite Victorian Hand Brooch

Later Victorian jewels used the symbol of the female hand quite prevalently, either shaking hands, clasped or holding a symbol which would denote the nature of the piece. These sentimental jewels were popular enough to be mass produced in Vulcanite and carved in Jet. These jewels were given as a love token and reached the height of popularity during the 1880-1890 period.

One of the more unique features of the hand motif is the cuff and the style that it is presented. Many of the designs were standardised and set from a common mould,  but the little embellishments to the cuff and any jewellery that may be on the fingers tells a tale of individuality and quality.

Vulcanite was patented in 1846 by Goodyear (the same tyre manufacturer of today), as the patent specified a manner of mixing rubber and sulphur, then heating the mixture to one hundred and fifteen degrees Celsius. It produces a brown powder when scratched and has a faint odour of sulphur. Often, a vulcanite piece in good condition can be hard to discern from actual jet, but one of the signs to look for (next to burning it with a needle and checking for the smell – Jet smells of coal) is to look at the design and note if the piece is obviously moulded (such as the smooth, curved expanding band on this piece) or if there are the obvious carving marks.

Often called ‘ebonite’, vulcanite was the most mass-produced rival to actual jet. Its ability to be moulded and not carved, along with a relatively low cost vs. labour to manufacture made vulcanite a material that was accessible to middle and lower classes of the 19th century, especially at a time when actual jet was the height of fashion. However, vulcanite, like other plastics has been seen to devalue the real thing.

Vulcanite could withstand high polishing and show a high gloss lustre in the same way as jet, but over time, the fading to khaki from black is a tell-tale sign. Vulcanite has a relatively low tolerance to sunlight so, finding pieces in their original condition isn’t hard (as there were many thousands of pieces produced), but it is becoming more difficult.

When buying jet or vulcanite, be vary wary and scrutinise your piece closely. One of the easiest ways is to spot the carving behind the memento (photo or hair) in a locket, as this wasn’t smooth and moulded like vulcanite, jet will often show the marks of the carver’s tools.

Further Reading:
– A History of Jet
– Bakelite
– Vulcanite
– Bog Oak
– French Jet and Vauxhall Glass