An uncommon, neo-classical cast iron medallion of Hercules wrestling the Nemean lion, set in gold, after Josiah Wedgwood. Although thousands were made at the time, few were set in gold and probably very few survive today.
The study of “gems”, as classical cameos and intaglios were called at that time, became popular with the excavation at Pompeii and the rise of the Grand Tour. The study of gems from antiquity was believed to increase one’s connoisseurship and erudition in much the same way as the study of history, the fine arts, manners and ancient customs. The book “Select Gems from the Antique”, published in 1804, described gems as “[a] library without books, a gallery of pictures without paintings and sculptures without marble”. Reproductions of ancient gems in the form of contemporary cameos were the rage coming out of Paris during the mid- Georgian era. Prussian women, bankrupt from the country’s losses to Napoleon, could not afford gold jewelry and turned to affordable iron instead to imitate Parisian fashion. It is little known that what we commonly refer to as Berlin Iron jewelry gained popularity before what was known as the Wars of Liberation, or resistance against Napoleon. Cast iron jewelry began in Gleiwitz, its somber severity deliberately was a stark contrast to the flashy diamonds and paste worn in European courts in the 18th century. The fashion was popularized by Queen Luise of Prussia, whose untimely death, combined with the hardship of the Napoleonic wars, gave Berlin iron both its popularity and the somber tone we ascribe to it today.
Beginning in 1798 cast iron medallions and cameos were produced at the Royal Ironworks in Gleiwitz, Prussia. By 1806 a foundry was opened in Berlin, which became the principle point of what has become known as Berlin iron jewelry. Wedgwood, along with his competitor James Tassie, began supplying Prussian iron foundries with examples of paste and Wedgwood “gems” to be copied into iron. Classical scenes, of Hercules in particular, were very popular. Most were plainly set, those set in gold were reserved for the wealthy. This medallion was cast after the model by Wedgwood, its twin in basalt is conserved in the collection at the Birmingham Museum of Art. It has been part of an important private collection for more than 60 years. In excellent condition, there is a horizontal mark on the back of the pendant from its fabrication. The chain is a later addition and will be sold with the pendant. The pendant is unmarked on both the iron and the gold. The chain and clasp have various French hallmarks for 18k gold.
1 ¾” x 1 1/8” Medallion dates to approximately 1810; later French 18k gold chain is 25” long total, weighs 8.5 grams.
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