Rapaport Magazine

Edwardian Elegance

Diamonds and platinum set the standard for beautiful jewelry

By Phyllis Schiller
RAPAPORT... From King Edward VII’s ascension to the English throne in 1901 through World War I, the Edwardian era ushered in a period of sophistication and elegance. Fashions of the day were characterized by delicate fabrics accented by intricate details such as hand embroidery, feathers and lace that showcased white on white. Diamonds became the jewel of the day, in demand for brooches, pendants, bracelets and rings that emulated these fashionable stylings.

Playing up the all-white connection, natural pearls were used in combination with diamonds, says Catherine Mancuso Boyack of Catherine Mancuso Boyack Inc. in Los Angeles. Similarly, it became the standard that diamonds were set in a white metal to show off their whiteness. And platinum, says Michael O’Connor with Platinum Guild International (PGI), “being a natural white metal, was really the quintessential metal to complement diamonds because it allowed some of the settings to virtually disappear, giving the impression that these beautiful ornamental pieces were all diamonds; just one beautiful look.”

The problem with platinum, before that period, had been its high melting point. But as newer technology for melting platinum — by enriching the flame of a torch with oxygen — became available, it changed everything. And platinum became the preferred partner for diamond jewelry of the era.


Previously, points out Richard Buonomo, principal of New York-based Richard Buonomo Ltd., “silver was the precious white metal available to jewelers. But silver lacked a little bit of heft and preciousness and could discolor skin, so it was backed by gold. Gold added weight, as well as preciousness, and it protected the skin from the oxidation of the silver.”

Around the turn of the twentieth century, explains Diana Singer, D & E Singer, Inc., New York, the oxyacetylene torch was invented. “It was capable of making platinum workable for jewelry. And the advantage of platinum is that it is very ductile, meaning it can be drawn out in thin wires. Platinum is also flexible. White gold is less flexible because it has nickel in it, which makes it brittle. Platinum is easy to work with prongs and small thin areas. And that’s why jewelers like working with it so much.”

In fact, points out Mona Nesseth, a private jeweler based in Southern California, “Once the jewelers mastered platinum, they could do all sorts of things with it that they couldn’t do with gold. Gold doesn’t have the tensile strength of platinum. When you draw gold into a thin delicate thread, it collapses. Platinum maintains its strength.”

People wanted designs that were very delicate and very ornate and very feminine, sums up O’Connor. And the leading jewelry houses, including Cartier and Tiffany, provided glorious creations to suit the demand.


The switch from silver to platinum can be traced through the jewels of the era. “There’s a period of early Edwardian jewelry,” notes Buonomo, “where as a convention the platinum was laminated to gold for no other reason than that’s how jewelry had been made for so many years. I’ve noticed it especially among the American Edwardian jewelers — Tiffany is a great example, as well as early Black, Starr & Frost and other great American makers. The gold really served no functional purpose except as a stepping-stone from silver over gold to platinum over gold to all platinum. It’s a particularly collectible early chapter of Edwardian jewelry.”

Platinum’s strength allowed less metal to hold diamonds. In fact, says Buonomo, some of the pieces were almost “dangerously delicate, almost like a spider’s web of platinum holding a teeny diamond.” The French houses, he says, really went the lightest. But, he adds, “almost any jeweler who was in business jumped on this trend.”

Because of the tensile strength of platinum, says Nesseth, “they could do that delicate, lacelike work, the honeycomb and the filigree. It doesn’t have to be heavy; that’s part of the beauty of platinum.”


While almost all the great names in jewelry worked in platinum, not all the creations are easily identifiable. “Edwardian jewelry wasn’t heavily signed,” says Buonomo, “which is another interesting thing. Fabulous creations got out the door without a name on them.” “Back then, it wasn’t about who made it necessarily but about the piece,” adds Nesseth.

The interesting thing, says O’Connor, is that “if you look at a lot of the antique jewelry that is best preserved today, what you find is that the density of the platinum is the thing that has kept those pieces so well preserved. Because it is so dense, it doesn’t wear down like other metals.” Over time, he explains, platinum develops a beautiful patina that actually enhances the look of the gemstones that are set into the piece. It loses that bright shininess and, despite the fact that it’s a white metal, it warms slightly and it really allows the gemstones to be seen.”


While the finest examples of Edwardian jewelry are in “dramatic scarcity,” and being sold at “dramatically inflated prices,” says Buonomo, “they’re rare but they are out there — they’re not only locked up in museums.”

“A beautiful Edwardian piece of jewelry,” Buonomo adds, “trades for a great premium over its brick-and-mortar value, the diamonds and the metal and the labor.” A current piece made in the vintage look is only worth its components.
“Everything is around for a certain price,” says Singer. The trick is to know if that’s a price you can afford. “You need to really know what you’re doing. It’s very easy to buy five or six bracelets for $12,000 to $15,000 each,” but if you haven’t bought them for the right price, you’ve just spent a hundred thousand dollars on inventory, she cautions. But, she says, “I find them all the time — platinum and diamond bracelets are a very staple item for me. I always have at least several of them in stock and they tend to move pretty quickly.”

“I buy Edwardian period as much as I can,” agrees Boyack. “I sell it all the time. Just recently, I purchased a platinum piece, an Edwardian diamond pendant with a pink conch pearl, which is a natural pink pearl. The piercing in the back is so fine. The retail price, $24,000.”

“These styles are always collectible,” says Singer. “Great style always endures.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - September 2007. To subscribe click here.

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