Berlin Iron Work

Many of you may be aware that ornamental iron work was a prominent feature of fashionable architecture in Regency Britain. But similar architectural iron work in the Prussian capital is not the subject of this article. The iron work to be discussed here was not for the adornment of buildings, but rather for the adornment of people. Before the turn of the nineteenth century, initially in Berlin, a unique style and type of jewelry was introduced, and that jewelry was made of iron. Though it had originated as mourning jewelry, even before the Prince of Wales became Regent, that same jewelry had become a mark of Prussion patriotism. Thanks in part to Napoleon Bonaparte, even before the Regency came to a close, Berlin iron work jewelry was know across the Continent.

From mourning to patriotism . . .

Jewelry made of iron was first introduced in Berlin in the mid-1790s, as mourning jewelry. This idea may have had its origins in a rather macabre practice in Paris after the fall of the Bastille prison, in 1789. The wreck of the infamous prison had become a quarry of sorts, from the rubble of which people pulled metal and rock for sourveniers. Many of the old iron bars were removed and the iron used to make rings. Many plain bands had the word "Bastille" inscribed on it. Others bore inscriptions which read: "Liberte Française 14 Juillet" (French Liberty 14 July). The bezels of some of the rings were decorated with the symbol of a bird in an open cage, usually inscribed "Sacre a la liberte" (Consecrated to freedom). Some of the most ornate of these iron rings had one or more small pieces of polished stone from the Bastille inset into the ring. Bracelets, pendants and brooches were also made of Bastille iron well into the 1790s.

There was a thriving iron-work industry in Prussia from at least the middle of the eighteenth century, turning out products ranging from bridges and garden furniture to vases and candelabra. In the mid-1790s, some iron craftsmen began experimenting with making small, fine items which were well suited to the production of jewelry. They discovered that by using the purest iron available, the molten metal was more fluid and could be used to cast items with very fine detail. The jewelry shapes were carved in wax, then pressed into very fine sand to create a mold. The pure molten iron was then carefully poured into the mold and left to cool. Once the cast iron object had cooled and hardened, it was removed from the mold and finished by hand. Because even the purest iron is subject to rust, the next step was to coat each piece with linseed oil, which imparted a deep, inky black color to the finished object. Finally, each piece was lacquered to permanently protect the surface of the iron from oxidation.

A foundry established by Count Stolberg is believed to have been the first to produce this black iron jewelry. Due to its lower cost and inky black color, it soon became popular for mourning jewelry. The lacquer coating gave a matte, rather than a shiny, surface to the iron jewelry, which made it acceptable for wear while attending the few social events open to people in mourning. At that time, while someone was in mourning, wearing jewelry of precious metals and gems would have been considered completely inappropriate. The popularity of Berlin iron jewelry continued to increase steadily. In 1804, the Königliche Eisengießerei, the Royal Iron Foundry of Berlin, was opened to expand production. It was at about that time that the foundry also began to expand their range of products, making small statues and figurines, along with stylish accessories for writing, stitchery and even tobacco use. Then, just two years later, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Prussia.

In October, the victorious General Bonaparte marched into Berlin at the head of the French Army. As he had done in every other country he occupied, Napoleon helped himself to any thing he thought might be of value to the French economy. The majority of the patterns and molds for iron jewelry were removed from the Royal Prussian Iron Foundry, packed up and shipped back to France. It did not take long for French iron founders to figure out how to make their own jewelry from iron. Naturally, their designers soon added a French flair to this new form of jewelry and it became widely fashionable, well beyond being worn just for mourning. In France, it became known as Fer de Berlin (Iron of Berlin). The fashion for wearing iron jewelry gradually spread beyond France, into other countries under Bonaparte’s control. However, due to the ongoing Napoleonic Wars, Fer de Berlin did not reach Great Britain at that time.

As early as the autumn of 1806, the people of Prussia were already chaffing under the French occupation of their country. But the Prussian treasury was depleted and money was desperately needed to support resistance to the French. The Prussian Royal family requested patriotic members of the aristocracy and the upper classes to turn in their gold and silver jewelry to help fund the "War of Liberation" against Napoleon and the French. In return for their contributions, these patriotic citizens were given iron jewelry to enable them to show their loyalty. In a number of cases, the donor was given a duplicate of their jewelry made of iron. Many of those pieces were inscribed with phrases proclaiming the wearer’s gift. The most popular was "Gold gab ich für Eisen" (I gave gold for iron). Another common phrase was "Eingetauscht zum Wohle des Vaterlandes" (Exchanged for the welfare of the Fatherland).

The use of wax to create the molds for this iron jewelry enabled craftsmen to produce very fine, detailed pieces nearly identical to the finest fashionable gold or silver jewelry. The earliest Berlin iron work jewelry was in the neo-classical style which was most popular at that time. Medallions with reliefs of figures from mythology and classical history were often incorporated into the designs for this jewelry. Delicate filigree was another popular feature of iron jewelry. In 1815, after the Allied victory at Waterloo, the designs of iron jewelry shifted to more natural motifs, perhaps in response to the blessings of peace and freedom. At about the same time, with the barriers to European travel finally down, the British were once again touring the Continent, and discovering iron jewelry for themselves. It was not long before iron jewelry was being cast in Great Britain. Rings, bracelets, armlets, brooches, lockets, pendents, chains, earrings and even tiaras were all made of iron throughout the Regency. In addition, ladies’ accessories and sewing notions were made of iron, as were watch fobs, snuff boxes and other accessories for men.

Iron jewelry was very intricate and much of it was quite elegant and sophisticated. Christie’s has a set of iron jewelry c. 1815, on this page. The Victoria and Albert Museum has a few pieces of iron jewelry from the Regency period in their collection which are shown on this page. A large selection of iron jewelry has survived into modern times, images of which can be seen here.

Iron jewelry remained popular during the Regency and into the reign of Queen Victoria. It fell out of fashion in the middle of the nineteenth century, though some iron jewelry was displayed at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851. However, iron jewelry became popular again in Germany in the early twentieth century, during the First World War, and remained so until the 1930s. Today, many people are unaware that it ever existed. During the first half of the Regency, iron jewelry was something of a novelty in England. However, after the Allied victory over Napoleon and his army at the Battle of Waterloo, it became much more widely known and was considered quite fashionable.

Could iron jewelry serve a purpose in a story set during the Regency? Dear Regency Authors, might you have a heroine from Prussia who flees her homeland during the French occupation, bringing her iron jewelry with her? Will she cause comment when she wears her iron jewelry to a society event? Or, is she working with the Prussian resistance, carrying messages to England? If so, will a piece of iron jewelry be the way she identifies herself to her English contact? Perhaps the hero, serving as a liason from Wellington to General von Blücher, receives a ring made of iron as a mark of respect from the Prussian general. The hero treasures this ring, but when he returns home, will another character, perhaps his mother, give it away, thinking it of little value. What will he do to retrieve this special ring and who will he meet along the way ? How else might iron jewelry figure in a Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to Berlin Iron Work

  1. Fascinating, I wish I’d known about this when writing ‘Death of a Fop’ when Jane goes looking for mourning jewellery to try to uncover a jewellery fence. It’s very elegant, and I have to say I thought immediately of all the Goths I know… Iron, being durable, also gives me the plot bunny of having a couple of pieces of jewellery which also slot together to form a key to some safe storage, which means that the key can be worn openly and without being recognised as such until the part with the wards is extracted from its setting and slotted into another piece.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      What a clever plot bunny! Iron would be the ideal material to make a two-part key. And hiding it in plain sight is the perfect way to protect it. I can hardly wait for the story. Please do post a link to the book here when it is published.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. chasbaz says:

    Brilliant detail as usual. One point though is that the piece would have been reheated, probably several times, after the application of linseed oil. This process of iron-blacking was also sometimes used with clock hands and an alternative to blueing.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Excellent!!! Thanks for the technical details! I found sources that said the linseed oil was used to grease the molds, and others that said it was applied during the final finishing. One source even labeled it “linseed lacquer,” but with no info as to when in the process it was applied. Very confusing!!! Thanks for the clarification!!!

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. chasbaz says:

    A final varnish coat after the blacking probably was a mixture of linseed oil and something else such as resin. The blacking process is known as ‘oil-blacking’ – my mistake. The heat causes the oil to burn and this blackens the iron when done several times.

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