A rare and magnificent Berlin iron and polished steel cameos hair comb c 1800 - 1810
CONDITION: good vintage condition
SIZE: 5 ins h x 5½ ins w (13 x 14 cm) decorative part 2½ ins h (6.5 cm)
APPROXIMATE DATE: 1800 - 1820
MATERIALS: Berlin iron, steel, vermeil
This magnificent and large Berlin iron and steel hair comb is one of the finest I have seen,
It is an early example of the genre, with the classical portrait heads being the dominant motif on the heading. There are five of these, probably representing either Greek or Roman deities. Each is placed within an oval cartouche, against a background of polished steel. The cartouches at each extremity contain five pointed star motifs.
The ovals containing the portrait heads are raised up on a gallery of open scroll work incorporating laurel leaves, another favoured motif of this period. At the base of the heading, where it joins the tines, is a metal band with more star motifs.
The comb mount is of gilded steel, and is joined to the heading with metal rivets which can be seen on the back. It incorporates 23 long metal tines, all of which are in excellent condition and not bent or broken.
This dramatic style of jewelry came into being in the early nineteenth century, and was made by the Royal Prussian Iron Foundry from 1804. The production of iron jewellery reached its peak between 1813 and 1815, when the Prussian royal family urged all citizens to contribute their gold and silver jewellery towards funding the uprising against Napoleon during the War of Liberation. In return the people were given iron jewellery, often with the inscription Gold gab ich für Eisen (I gave gold for iron), or Für das Wohl des Vaterlands (For the welfare of our country / fatherland), or with a portrait of Frederick William III of Prussia on the back. Until then iron jewellery had only been worn as a symbol of mourning (because of its black colour acquired by treating the castings with linseed cakes) and was worth too little to be alluring, but suddenly it became a symbol of patriotism and loyalty and with its obvious aesthetic appeal, became popular overnight.
At first the style of the designs, especially during the Napoleonic period, was Neo-Classical, incorporating plenty of fretwork and moulded replicas of cameos. These early examples are rather solid and chunky compared with the later items produced in the “gothic” mode.
From 1810 the style changed slightly to a miniature form of Gothic Revival, incorporating the pointed arch and rose widow of the Gothic cathedral, combined with less austere, more naturalistic motifs such as butterflies, trefoils (a plant with three leaflets such as clover) and vine leaves. Berlin Iron jewelry in this later gothis style continued to be produced until the mid 19th century, after which production declined.
Both beautiful and menacing, these intriguing pieces give us a glimpse into the past, remind us of the war torn country for which it was made, and show us that even the most ordinary objects can be extraordinary in the hands of the right craftsmen.
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