The intricate filigree of black iron, frequently including Gothic ornamentals, that is instantly recognizeable as German cast iron jewelry, is an interesting statement of both fashion and the earliest days of industrial-consumer development. For its start around 1804, we have a Prussian state that is occupied by Napoleon’s soldiers. Germany then is as it has been for much of its history until recently, a cluster of small kings, countries and dialects, a loose confederacy of tribes. There are riots against French marshal law. The government fundraises to arm troops in what it calls a War of Liberation – one of the methods is requesting people’s silver and gold jewelry, and giving them a piece of cast iron jewelry in return. Most accounts regard the rush to be seen wearing cast iron jewels as a patriotic fervor. These pieces were sometimes marked, “I gave gold for iron.”
At the same time, human nature being what it is, we have as its foremost character Johann Conrad Gauss (1771-1846). Besides the fact that Gauss means goat, the owner of an iron foundry made of himself an expert in ornamental iron jewelry, becoming its first private entrepreneur. The streets of Berlin were suddenly offering the metal, with no intrinsic value besides the detail and labor of its ornament, in every fine shop. What could be better than wearing an award for a patriotic act, than purchasing several imitations of that campaign. As a fashion it gave the appearance of generosity, as a practical tool it gave people a comforting alternative to actually trading too many of their valuable jewels in.
Iron is not the most ideal metal to wear, foremost of its disadvantages being its habit of rusting. It must be oiled to preserve it from the very air. It falls apart like an onion when it’s buried.
Iron was the metal of work and war, at home it was put to use and re-use as a fairly recyclable material, requiring a forge to make nails or door hinges and shoe horses. It’s workable in the lower ends of heat, allowing for shaping with the most primitive setup. To reach iron’s high melting point is a different story though, at 2800 degrees it requires a foundry, which few things besides war could finance. But by the 1700s we have private goldsmiths with Main Street shops, who are accustomed to working in those temperatures on a refined scale.
The exceptional thing about the intricate tracery of Berlin Iron is the amount of labor involved, mostly cleaning. Methods would have focused on plaster casting, molds made, often from clay masters and other patterns, of sightly larger pattern forms to duplicate in future plaster castings. Casting was done directly by pour into the plasters, a method almost universally abandoned today (even a simple centrifuge is a vast improvement to accuracy). To a limited extent stamping may have been used, but not to the degree that the ready availability of steel dies would bring into jewelry a century later.
The history of costume jewelry is older than this, but what sets the Berlin Iron apart is the way its fashionability raised the value of the pieces. It did this to a point that production then in turn devalued them, with enough low grade work being introduced, it either no longer suggested the glamour of charitable contributions towards war, or simply out-priced its finer producers. This might be compared to the jewelry industry of today, with so many excellent metals, permanent plating techniques, and synthetics of every color. You could say the concept of costume jewelry is at this point deprecated, and we see the name of the designer or the fashion, though with less frequency, commanding a higher price than is relative to its production. With the particular exception of the gemstone market, particularly diamonds, the place of precious materials is closely tied to skilled manual labor, and just being gold or silver means less now that its semblance, or appearance, is easily had. The shiny, the colorful, all can be had for a bargain, but the manual skills behind fine jewelry could not be supported without the existence of value – of paying a premium for design. On a small collector scale, such work becomes an artist’s market. But when a culture turns its aesthetic around its movements in time, there are openings where economy and ornament meet. As a result, in the modern economy, while traditional skills are micro-preserved by specialists, we still have the mediating capacity of style, to which people have adapted by accelerating – each generation now offers its own patterns for production.