A few years ago, I bought a pair of stunning clip earrings made with sparkly rhinestones, white milk glass, and black metal from an antique dealer. I always like to find out all I can about the vintage costume jewelry I purchase, so I asked if she could kindly give me the history.
Since they were not signed, all she could tell me was that they were mid-century pieces and were “japanned.” I figured that meant they were made in Japan. I really liked them, so I made my purchase and went on my way.
After a little research, however, I found out “japanned” had a completely different meaning…
The art of japanning began in the 17th century when Europeans in Britain, France, and Italy were fascinated by the beautiful lacquer work that came out of Japan, China, and India as a decorative coating for pottery.
Several companies experimented with a variety of varnishes and lacquers before producing a thick, black lacquer with a resin base similar to shellac. It is applied in heat-dried layers which then hardens to a glossy shine. This lacquer also comes in red, green, and blue but the main color used is black.
Its traditional form can be seen with gold designs and pictorials which contrast well with the black base color. A variety of other surfaces can be japanned ranging from wood, ironware (to keep it rust-proof), and metals. Many exquisite japanned pieces can be seen on display in European museums.
Japanned Victorian letter holder from 1850; Wolverhampton Arts and Museums Service
Pieces coated in this black lacquer were at one time known as “Indiawork” but “japanned” caught on to describe this style instead.
Jewelry manufacturers were fond of using it because it gave a unique look to the finish of the metal, much like enamel paint. Here is a japanned 1960s daisy pin:
When Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert passed away in 1861, she went into deep mourning and popularized mourning jewelry which she and the members of her court would wear along with black clothing.
Many widows then began the tradition of wearing it to mourn the loss of a loved one under strict Victorian rules of etiquette. Mourning jewelry was usually black and quite plain without much detail. It was made from a variety of organic, naturally dark materials including jet, gutta-percha, and bog oak.
Metal with a japanned finish was also used to make mourning jewelry. As jewelry began to be mass-produced during the Victorian era, it became much more affordable.
Mourning jewelry is no longer fashionable, but if you like the look of a japanned finish, you can still find mid-century japanned vintage costume jewelry like this clip earring I repurposed into an adjustable ring. Made in America, not Japan.
*Japanned letter holder – photo credit: Wolverhampton Arts and Museums Service
Kimberly Moore is a vintage costume jewelry expert, blogger, speaker, and author of Beauty in a Life Repurposed. To learn more, visit her website at kingdomsparkle.com.
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