Essex crystal pieces are formed from a rock crystal cabochon (polished domes of rock crystal with a flat base), an image or motif is then reverse carved into the flat base, and then painted, to give them impression of a three dimensional object or image encapsulated in the cabochon when viewed from above. This process of carving into the back of the cabochon is sometimes referred to as reverse intaglio, not be to mistaken with intaglio, which is designed to be viewed from the same side on which it is carved, unlike Essex crystal. Particularly when the image is of something which is itself small in reality, such as an insect, they can be very convincing when created by skilled craftsman.
Thomas Cook was believed to be responsible for introducing them to Britain from the continent in the 1860s, and there were initially sold by Hancock’s in London. During the same period the artist William Essex, was a great favourite of Queen Victoria, and known for his enamel painting and miniatures. It would seem that the public put two and two together and came up with five, in that they believed these exquisite miniature painted jewels could only have been created by such a celebrated talent as Essex, and the name stuck despite him having nothing to do with their creation.
Interestingly, William Bishop Ford, a student of Essex’s created well known enamelled miniatures set in jewellery such as stick pins during the late 1800s; particularly an image of a fox head, which was also a popular motif in Essex crystal pieces; possibly helping to perpetuate the myth surrounding his masters involvement with the craft.
Unfortunately, very few of these mini-masterpieces can be attributed to specific craftsmen, the only artist to sign his pieces was Emile Marius Pradier of Belgium, who was believed to have developed the technique. Thomas Cook made crystals himself for Lambeth & Co, and trained an apprentice Thomas Bean, who then went on to train his son and grandson. After the cabochon has been created, a mixture of oil and diamond dust is used alongside anywhere up to 250 different tools to carve the design. It is a complicated skill, the secrets of which were often kept within a particular family of craftsmen.
Those keen to avoid the erroneous name, sometimes refer to these pieces as ‘reverse intaglio crystals’. Animals, hunting scenes and flowers are the most common themes, occasionally nautical motifs also. Traditionally they were backed onto gold foil and later etched mother of pearl or plain mother of pearl, before being set in their respective pieces of jewellery. Generally these are most commonly brooches, stick pins, cufflinks, buttons and studs etc; less commonly bracelets and rings. The backing is a great way of roughly dating the piece. Towards the later years of their popularity, the 1920s/30s the market was flooded with cheap imitations, modelled in glass and even plastics. It is important to look at the piece under magnification using a jeweller’s loupe, taking note of the depth of the carving, and the quality of the painting; these signs of quality, coupled with the setting and any condition issues, are great indicators of age and quality.