Berlin Ironwork is an interesting branch of jewellery history, as it arguably contradicts many of the assumptions we make regarding jewellery and its purpose. For example, its roots aren’t in the fine craftsman ship of the jeweller’s bench, but in the iron foundries and armorers of late 18th century Europe, who were beginning to turn their talents to increasingly intricate decorative design such as fences, bridges and garden furniture.
Rather than being a made to overtly flouting ones wealth and refinement, as was the case with traditional gem-set and precious metal jewellery; wearing a piece of Berlin Ironwork was directly the opposite. Believed to have begun in 1804 in the Berlin Royal Factory, they were a statement of patriotism and sacrifice. During the Franco-Prussian wars, particularly the War of Liberation 1813-1815, the Prussian state encouraged wealthy families to donate their precious jewellery to the war effort and the fight against Napoleon. In return, they were presented with these glorious pieces of Ironwork and lacquered jewellery created by their national foundries, and often bearing the patriotic inscriptions ‘Gold gab ich fur Eisen’ (I gave gold for steel) or ‘Win get auscht sum wohl des Vanderlands’ (Exchanged for the welfare of the Fatherland).
Rather than relying on the ‘wow’ factor of precious materials, these jewels were more subdued, and serious, given for a grave and worthy purpose. Their appeal was in the foundry’s workmanship, and their ability to craft the intricate moulds than turned out hundreds of these jewels. It is also worth mentioning that a sun-tan was not a popular aspect of women’s fashion at this point, pale skin being favoured by the refined and well-bred ladies of Europe, these jet-back jewels would have offered a striking contrast against their skin.
Berlin Ironwork remined a popular branch of jewellery throughout the early Victorian years, but died out with the decline of the gothic revival aesthetic of the 1850s and 60s.