Renaissance: Real and Revived

After many years of prominent display, the authenticity of the “Canning jewel,” a prize of the jewelry collection at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, is being openly questioned. This exquisitely crafted pendant was believed to date to the 1580s and is considered one of the finest surviving examples of the genius, inventiveness, and skill of the Renaissance jeweler. It was designed around a baroque pearl fashioned as the muscular torso of a merman.

Word began to circulate last year, however, that experts had taken another look and decided that the Canning jewel may actually be a 19th-century creation. “Recent investigation indicates that it’s too good to be true and is, in fact, a neo-Renaissance copy,” announced John Benjamin, British specialist in Renaissance to 19th-century jewelry, at the Annual Antique & Period Jewelry and Gemstone Conference in Rhode Island last July.

The line between “revival” and “copy” has long been a thin one. Museums with extensive collections of antique jewels usually contain their share of once-mistaken identities. But as revival jewelry becomes more of an antique itself—Renaissance Revival jewelry peaked in the 1860s and 1870s—it is being revalued on its own merits.

“With a lot of the revivals, jewelers were looking back at not just jewelry but styles and motifs, and they were updating them into wearable jewelry,” explains Peter Shemonsky, director of the jewelry department at Butterfields, an auction and appraisal company. “Most pieces that are clearly Renaissance Revival were obviously done by modern hand, using modern cut stones consistent with the period—more in the inspiration than duplication of actual Renaissance jewelry. Unless, of course, they were trying to make a copy or a reproduction, and then it’s a question of whether or not they were trying to deceive.”

Many collectors of Revival jewelry buy within a narrowly defined category—Giuliano, Castellani, French or British neo-Renaissance—which they become intimately acquainted with and learn to recognize quickly. But for museums competing to acquire rare examples of original Renaissance jewelry, the abundance of finely crafted 19th-century revival jewelry has long been—and obviously continues to be—a tricky matter.

The diamonds in the Canning jewel were table-cut, Renaissance style; the rubies are cabochon with a sophisticated ruby carving. A cornucopia scroll was mounted to the bottom of the suspended pearl drop. The pearls were freshwater, “probably from somewhere like Scotland, where a lot of freshwater pearls came from,” Benjamin speculates.

“They now say that this might have been made by a Frenchman who worked in the 1880s manufacturing jewelry of superb quality in the Renaissance style,” he says. “The jury is still out on this one, but it shows how very careful you have to be when you buy a piece of jewelry that appears to be Renaissance. Maybe it’s been described in the catalog as being Renaissance—and it ain’t.” Nevertheless, he says that whether the Canning jewel turns out to be four centuries old or merely one, “it is a very important jewel.”

Shemonsky showed a slide of the Canning jewel in his own presentation on Renaissance Revival jewelry following Benjamin’s announcement. He agrees with Benjamin regarding the jewel’s continued importance. “Obviously, it was made by somebody very familiar with Renaissance jewelry, someone who actually handled quality Renaissance pieces. It was good enough to fool many experts for a long time,” Shemonsky says. “Even as 19th-century jewelry, it’s a wonderful piece.”

Of course, no matter how wonderful and important the much younger Canning jewel is held to be, its value will plummet with this reappraisal. “There is a considerable difference in market value,” Shemonsky says. “Being that it’s such a spectacular piece of jewelry, as a Renaissance piece it’s probably worth many hundreds of thousands. As a 19th-century Renaissance Revival piece? It’s probably worth $20,000-$30,000.”

Is it Renaissance or Revival? Many jewelry collectors assume that there is nothing left of the original Renaissance jewelry to be had, or that if it ever appears, it’s priced for museum consumption only. But Shemonsky insists that this is not the case. “It’s true that many pieces from that period were destroyed or are in private family collections or were broken down and used for other jewelry,” he says. “Obviously, the museum-quality pieces, the spectacular jewelry, rarely comes up. But amazingly enough, Renaissance jewelry does appear on the market fairly frequently. Christie’s and Sotheby’s in England tend to offer it in the ‘European Works of Art’ sales: a ring or a pair of earrings. The majority of original Renaissance jewelry I’ve seen that’s more accessible tends to be gold and enamel, occasionally some small pieces with gemstones, and it’s mostly Spanish, Portuguese, or Germanic.”

“It’s extraordinary to say this, but you can get some quite pretty little gold pieces made from 1550 to 1600 for about $10,000,” Benjamin says. “For $15,000, you can have plenty.”

For dealers and collectors with that kind of money to spend on a bauble, however, age and provenance are not always enough. Neil Lane, who sells estate jewelry in Beverly Hills, Calif., has one of the finest personal collections of jewelry by Louis Comfort Tiffany as well as by Jules Wièse, a French jeweler who specialized in 19th-century revivals. “I know it sounds silly, but I actually like Renaissance Revival better than the original stuff,” says Lane.

“I appreciate the age of Renaissance jewelry and the difficulty in finding it, but I prefer revival jewelry because it’s technically pretty,” he explains. “Revival styles are much more sophisticated, more mannered and defined. There’s a schematic to them—especially on the level that Wièse produced. When you look at enough of it, you begin to appreciate the technical superiority, the heft of it, the piercing of gold, the enameling and stone-setting—all very sophisticated.

“A lot of Renaissance jewelry looks a little crude,” he says. “They didn’t have the technical skills or the lapidary tools they had in the 19th century. A lot of stones are native-cut in Renaissance jewelry—cut by locals where they were found in India or Burma. In Paris during the 1880s, the stones were faceted in cutting centers, which were more technically advanced. A lot of the jewelry from the Renaissance has little holes in the emeralds.”

Renaissance jewelry copying actually began while the originals were being made, because of the advent of the printing press. Jewelers began publishing detailed engravings of their designs in the mid-1500s, which were circulated throughout Europe and freely copied by other jewelers.

How do you spot a Renaissance forgery? “I always say, style can be copied but craftsmanship can’t—unless someone’s really good,” Shemonsky says. “In today’s market, craftsmanship is so costly, it eclipses the value of a piece. If a piece costs $10,000 to reproduce, and it only sells for $12,000, there’s no motive to copy it—which is why many pieces we see now that are period-style reproductions were made in Asia, and they fall apart when you look at the back. The style may look right, but not the craftsmanship.”

Whenever you pick up a Revival piece, there’s always that slim but intoxicating possibility that it could turn out to be an original. “I like the edge of collecting Revival jewelry,” Lane says. “Sometimes you’re not sure: Is it ancient or is it 19th century? A lot of 19th-century pieces that we call Renaissance Revival were once bought as originals from the Renaissance. We revalue these pieces now in their own right, but there were a lot of forgeries around at one time that only came out later. A lot of the collection at the Met is valued now for being these great interpretations. We see them today and think, ‘How could anyone have confused them for Renaissance?’ But the people that bought them wanted to believe. Famous workshops collected this stuff for wealthy patrons like the Rothschilds, and they were bought as originals.”

Fortunately for estate jewelry dealers, there is a lot more knowledge available today about Revival jewelry. Buyers interested in this category would do well to arm themselves with this information before venturing into the marketplace.

A plethora of pearls. “One of the main features of Renaissance jewelry is pearls, and pearls were everywhere,” Benjamin says. “The gem that was worn in the 1550s and the 1650s, prized above all gems, was the pearl. Great, big, fat, natural pearls, not your cultured stuff—the real McCoy.” Not that everyone attained this ideal, of course—or certainly not in the quantities required to bedeck the gowns and headdresses of the Elizabethan aristocracy we see in portraits. Most of those pearls were not the real McCoy. “Lots of pearls were mock, like Christmas tree baubles,” Benjamin says.

Renaissance pearls “looked a little like cultured pearls with those blisters on the surface,” he says. “They were not very good quality frequently—not baroque, but certainly not round.” While goldsmithing and faceting had become considerably more refined in the 19th century, Shemonsky says, “pearls would have been about the same, still natural.”

A cut above. “If there’s one feature of Renaissance jewelry that separates it from [more recent] jewelry, it’s the sophistication of the cut,” Benjamin says. “They didn’t have the tools necessary to facet a gemstone the way they do today.” Renaissance Revival jewelry usually contains professionally faceted stones, whereas Renaissance gems were often crudely cut and often foil-backed.

Most diamonds and precious gems that appear in early Renaissance jewelry were point-cut. The technique, developed in the 14th century, formed an octahedral crystal (two pyramids joined at the base) with all eight sides polished. The point cut was the first step in the process that eventually led to the brilliant cut.

Table cuts began to show up in the early 15th century, with the tops of the octahedral crystals sliced off. This process was difficult and time-consuming, given the primitive lapidary tools available at the time, but it considerably enhanced the gem’s natural brilliance.

By the end of the Renaissance period, “the age of the diamond had well and truly begun,” says Benjamin. “All the workmanship is in the mount, hugely embellished and elaborate gold mounts that take the shape of the cut of the diamond. Diamonds often look dark gray or black in Renaissance portraits—and they were.

“The cut of diamonds superseded the need for color,” Benjamin explains. “All the color was in the frame itself. Diamonds and gems would be set in foil and the mount would be enormously engraved and scrolled.”

The cameo role. Revival-period cameo jewelry often can be spotted not only by the sophistication of the gold work and gem cutting but also by the cameo style. While the material is often identical—bicolored agate—the portrait style is not. It’s the difference between a portrait of a real person in the fashions of the day, and a carving meant to capture an imagined ideal from 300 years ago.

“Carving in the 19th century could be quite sanitized if you think of Victorian cameos, but this is brutal realism,” Benjamin says, indicating a cameo cut in 1480 with “a very strong profile, indeed.” A 19th-century cameo, he points out, also in gray and white agate, shows “a totally different concept. The cameo is far more classical.”

Profiles in Elizabethan cameos often have “a rounded appearance but are very flat in cut,” he explains, while a cameo carved in 1882 is “someone’s concept of what a Tudor lady looks like. Whoever carved it looked at an old painting in a gallery and recreated it in the Tudor style.”

Revivals, high and low. One way to increase the chances of buying what you think you’re buying in Revival (or any estate) jewelry is to collect only signed, well-crafted pieces. Lane, for example, collects only signed Wièse revivals, but he admits it’s a costly way to go. “A signed Wièse 3-in. pendant with chain and enamel and diamond work is going to be $35,000-$50,000—costly, but you won’t find a Renaissance Revival piece like that that’s junky,” he says.

Both Castellani and Giuliano usually signed their work, as did several London firms that specialized in Revival jewelry, including John Brogden and the woman who collaborated with him, Charlotte Newman (who signed her work “Mrs. N”). All of them designed variations on the pendant style known as “Holbeinesque,” originally inspired by jewelry in the Renaissance portraits by Hans Holbein. These pendants feature an oval cabochon gem (often a ruby) centered in a champlevé enameled border decorated with diamonds and a suspended pearl drop.

“A fair amount of Renaissance Revival is highly identifiable. The variation I see regularly in the higher-end jewelry is the Holbeinesque pendants,” says Shemonsky. “That was a very popular motif, very stylistic. They range from about $3,000 to $10,000 in the secondary market.” The problem, he points out, is that most collectors already have a Holbeinesque pendant. That may explain, in part, why a fabulous one by Castellani that went up for sale last year at Christie’s did not sell for its low estimate of $40,000.

The French interpretation of Renaissance Revival—typified by Wièse—is characterized by figurative motifs: fantastic creatures, griffins, maidens, and harpies in chased gold and silver and polychrome enamels.

Italian jewelers did a good business with archeological revival and neo-Renaissance jewelry in the last quarter of the 19th century, as Florence became a popular destination on the Grand Tour. “The motifs may have changed, but many of the stylistic elements from the Renaissance continued in Italian jewelry,” Shemonsky says. “Florence stayed the center of art in Italy into the 19th century, and goldsmithing and gemwork remained consistent there. Even today, the Ponte Vecchio is lined with hundreds of jewelers, and you can still find Renaissance Revival influence in some of their jewelry, though it tends to be more tourist-market than fine jewelry.”

One relatively inexpensive category of Renaissance Revival is the Austrian version, which relied largely on cast gilt metal and often featured images of St. George and the Dragon. Such pieces, enameled and set with semiprecious stones, can be had for about $5,000. “It’s like the difference between buying a Picasso and [work by] an artist from the same period who was not well known,” Lane says. “But if you like it, and it’s original and in good shape, why not?”

Cathleen McCarthy is a Philadelphia-based writer specializing in jewelry, retail, and travel. Her work has appeared in Art & Antiques, Elle Decor and The Washington Post.

John Benjamin will speak about 18th-century jewelry, and Lorraine Williams will present a seminar on “Revival Jewelry from the Collector’s Eye” at this year’s Antique and Period Jewelry and Gemstone Conference, which takes place July 18-22 at Adelphi University in Garden City, Long Island, N.Y. For more information, call (212) 535-2479, e-mail: jwlrycamp@aol.com, www.jewelrycamp.org.

  • Peridot represented “happiness and better lovemaking,” Benjamin says. In general, green stones represented love while red ones stood for courage.

  • Garnets strengthened the wearer’s natural vigor and drove out sadness and suspicion. Said to improve personal relationships and protect loved ones from harm, they also symbolized lasting friendship.

  • Sapphires cleared up the complexion. They were also believed to be an antidote to poison.

  • Amethysts were believed to prevent drunkenness and contagious diseases.

  • Coral “drove bad dreams from your mind,” Benjamin says, while “toadstone cured pygmy disease.”

  • Narwhal tusk was thought to be unicorn horn and was used to detect poisons. “This jewel would have been very valuable and important, worth a fortune during the Renaissance,” says Benjamin. “In those days, if you were a wealthy or powerful person, you had all these people conspiring against you, wanting to kill you off. If you had something like that, you could just float it around in front of the food you were eating and it would turn bright red or green if poison was detected.”