The Resurgence of Marcasite Jewellery
Made up of many tiny, faceted stones, marcasite jewellery offers a subtle but definite sparkle.
It has a very distinctive look and has a vintage look which has enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity because of shows like Downtown Abbey, The Crown and Peaky Blinders.
Along with high profile celebrities and royalty like the Duchess of Cambridge, wearing marcasite jewellery, it is definitely back on-trend.
A Vintage Look
Marcasite has a wonderful vintage look to it. The slightly blackened or oxidised appearance of marcasite jewellery has been adored for centuries. This look works well against silver and you will find many pieces of silver jewellery with marcasite edges, like the butterfly brooch shown below.
The Victorian’s used marcasite a lot in their jewellery and it was also extensively used in art-nouveau and art-deco jewellery.
Marcasite looks fabulous next to nearly any gemstone and highlights it in an exquisite way. The plain, geometric shapes of art-deco jewellery, were accentuated by marcasite.
Marcasite jewellery has a wonderful way of sparkling as you move when wearing it which looks fabulous for evening wear without looking in any way “blingy”.
We have found that in our contemporary jewellery shop, marcasite is a much-loved collection. It is particularly popular for the party season and the lead-up to Christmas. We have always had an entire shelf given to a display of marcasite jewellery.
What Is Marcasite?
Marcasite vs Pyrite
The true mineral marcasite (pronounced Marc-a-seet), is white iron pyrite (an iron sulphide). At one point it was used in all marcasite jewellery.
Marcasite is relatively hard, measuring 6 – 6.5 on the Moh’s scale. But it is quite brittle and unstable to work with.
Therefore today and even in antique marcasite jewellery, a gold-coloured stone called pyrite, or “Fool’s Gold”, is used. Pyrite is also an iron sulphide. It has a metallic lustre and a yellow-ish hue, hence the name ‘Fool’s Gold’.
Whilst the mineral marcasite and pyrite have the same chemistry, they form into different crystal structures. Marcasite has an orthorhombic crystal structure (meaning it forms into columns) whilst pyrite has a cubic crystal structure making it more stable and less prone to splintering.
Because the columns formed in mineral marcasite can be fractured easily, using pyrite instead eliminates this risk.
For this reason, it is not uncommon to see many examples of jewellery and brooches from the Victorian era, still in excellent condition.
Marcasite Gemstone Occurence
Pyrite is found near the surface in sedimentary rocks like clay, chalk and limestone and is common in hydrothermal veins.
It is found in many places around the world, including the USA where it is mined in Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri.
In the UK it is found in Derbyshire and Dover. It also occurs in France, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic and some countries further afield like China, Peru and Mexico.
The History of Marcasite
The beautiful lustre of marcasite lent itself to jewellery making from early on, despite it being somewhat difficult to work with.
The ancient Greeks made marcasite jewellery pieces. South American Inca’s loved to polish large slabs of marcasite as decoration. Indeed, marcasite pieces were found in Inca tombs, including surfaces used in rituals and worship of the sun golds.
Even Cleopatra was found to have worn marcasite gemstones.
Native American shamen used marcasite to heal as they believed the meaning of marcasite meant it helped to access the soul of the person they worked with.
In the 1600’s diamonds were heavily restricted, both the buying and selling. Louis 14th of France also decreed that only he should wear real diamonds. This, of course, didn’t stop people from wanting to wear diamond-like jewellery and a black-market supply started to thrive. Marcasite was a fabulous substitute for the less wealthy, or those who were outlawed from purchasing diamonds.
Each of the little marcasite stones used is between 1 mm and 4 mm across which, when set together, have a scintillating appeal. Because of their size, the pieces lend themselves perfectly to create shapes and designs.
The most intricate designs could be catered for. Marcasite is perfect to fill in shapes and swirls, edges or design “gaps” in pendants, earrings and brooches.
The swirly, intricate and floral designs of Victorian jewellery was no problem when marcasite was used. Neither was the angular, geometric shapes of, first, the art-nouveau era and it’s extension into the art-deco period.
Queen Victoria’s famous extended period of mourning after the death of her beloved Prince Albert, lasted four decades instead of the usual (at that time) two years!
Her mourning attire meant she wore much more toned-down pieces of jewellery. Marcasite fitted the bill perfectly and she wore many marcasite jewellery pieces throughout this long period of mourning.
This started a trend amongst Victorian ladies and you can still find many Victorian marcasite brooches in antique fairs even now.
As detailed in our blog, The History of Jewellery, around the Victorian era flowers formed a massive inspiration in jewellery design and many of these intricate marcasite pieces were floral.
The Victorian gem cutters managed to facet marcasite into little stones with pointed fronts and flat backs – known as the flattened-rose cut. This created a great play on light and makes a wonderful sparkle.
Art Deco Marcasite
Another period when marcasite was used extensively in jewellery was during the Art Deco period.
Art-deco jewellery involved straight lines and angles, geometric shapes with bold, contrasting colours.
As the primary metals of the day were silver or platinum with diamonds or bright crystals, the jewellery designers used marcasite along with darker gemstones, such as onyx, for high contrast.
Caring For Your Marcasite Jewellery
The usual adage that your jewellery should be the last thing you put on in the morning and the first thing you take off when you return home, applies when wearing marcasite jewellery.
You should ensure that your marcasite jewellery never gets wet. This is particularly important with marcasite rings.
Marcasite is often set with jewellers glue and liquids could dissolve the glue meaning you may lose little bits of the marcasite gemstones if you get your jewellery wet.
Cleaning Marcasite Jewellery
As we’ve explained, marcasite should never be immersed in any liquid so your marcasite jewellery should never be dipped in jewellery cleaning solution or placed in an ultrasonic machine.
The best way of cleaning any marcasite jewels is to wipe over the surface with a barely damp cloth and then immediately dry with a lint-free dry cloth. Alternatively clean the piece with a soft silver jewellery cleaning cloth like this one.
What is Marcasite Worth?
As marcasite and pyrite are relatively abundant and appear close to the surface of the earth, it is a relatively inexpensive gemstone.
Antique and unusual pieces will fetch higher sums due to their age, rarity and design.
Replacing Missing Marcasite Stones
Marcasite stones are now available in a variety of shapes, not just the flattened-rose style pieces.
It can be incredibly disappointing to notice a tiny piece missing from a favourite marcasite ring or earrings.
Our repairer now keeps plenty of spare marcasite pieces so we can replace missing marcasites for you. The skill is in ensuring the pieces match. Do send us an enquiry here.
How To Spot Genuine Antique Marcasite
Whilst it can be tricky, there are a number of pointers to look out for if you are trying to ascertain if a piece advertised as antique is or not.
Test With A Magnet
Some fake marcasite pieces (even in old pieces of jewellery) can be set with steel and not marcasite or pyrite. If so, they will be attracted to a magnet.
Do remember that the clasp may be made of base metal in which case this would be attracted to the magnet – so test on an area away from the catch.
The tiny pieces in fakes were often “stamped” into the base plate. If you look at the back of the item of jewellery you are inspecting, you may be able to see the rivets poking into the base, from the underside.
Silver Instead of Marcasite Pieces
Another tell-tale sign is if you look very closely at the piece of jewellery you may notice that most of what you thought were little pieces of marcasite are just “blobs” of silver.
From a distance, it can be quite convincing but it won’t give the sparkle that marcasite does.
How Has The Marcasite Been Set?
The third check is in looking at how the small pieces of faceted marcasite have been set. If it’s a genuine article, you will often see a tiny bit of silver holding the very edge of the piece of marcasite. This little ‘blob’ of silver, although not quite a claw, acts like a claw holding the very edge of the piece of marcasite in place.
These are the best pieces and well worth finding.
Sometimes, the marcasite was set with an edge of silver hammered around the marcasite to hold each piece.
Just imagine how time-consuming many of these processes were! You can understand why glueing the individual stones became a much more efficient way of creating a piece of marcasite jewellery
To Sum Up...
We hope you now have an appreciation for the beauty and workmanship in the wonderful pieces of marcasite jewellery you see.
It could turn into the most wonderful hobby, in finding some fabulous marcasite designs in charity shops, or car-boot sales.
Do share your finds in the comments!
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