Scintillating Marcasite Jewellery: Everything You Wanted to Know

silver Marcasite jewellery -in a feather brooch design

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The Resurgence of Marcasite Jewellery

Marcasite is a visually distinctive, semi-precious metallic stone which is used in jewellery as many tiny, faceted pieces, offering a subtle but beautiful sparkle. It has been used for hundreds of years but, in recent times, pyrite – also called Fool’s Gold – has been used in it’s place as it is chemically identical to marcasite.

Marcasite has a distinctly vintage look which has enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity thanks to television series like Downtown Abbey, The Crown and Peaky Blinders.

Along with high profile celebrities and royalty like the Duchess of Cambridge wearing it, it is definitely back on-trend.

Made up of many tiny, faceted stones, marcasite jewelry offers a subtle but definite sparkle.

Marcasite has a distinctly vintage look which has enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity thanks to television series like Downtown Abbey, The Crown and Peaky Blinders.

Along with high profile celebrities and royalty, like the Duchess of Cambridge, wearing marcasite jewelry, it is definitely back on-trend.

silver Marcasite jewellery -in a feather brooch design
Marcasite Feather Brooch in Silver

A Vintage Look

Marcasite has a wonderful vintage appeal to it. Used extensively in Victorian times and also during the Art Noveau and Art Deco periods, the resurgence in popularity of these periods means it always remains popular.

The blackened look of marcasite works well against polished silver (as in the cat brooch below). 

Vintage marcasite pieces are still widely available now at antique fairs and many of our customers bring us pieces that they need repairing, with missing stones, that they have purchased extremely cheaply in a flea market or car boot sale. 

marcasite and polished silver cat brooch
Silver Two Cats Brooch

Understated Sparkle

The slightly blackened or oxidised appearance has been adored for centuries and it offers such a wonderful sparkle without being glitzy or over-the-top.

Many people love this look – they don’t want ostentatious, in-your-face bling but a little bit of sparkle when you don’t quite expect it. 

The Perfect Accentuator

The shimmer of this material looks fabulous next to nearly any other jewel and highlights the main stone it in a rather special way.

Because of the subtly sparkly look of the tiny pieces you will find many pieces of silver jewellery with marcasite edges, like the butterfly brooch shown below, which seem to catch the light and sparkle as you move.

Marcasite Designs

Each of the little pieces of marcasite used is between 1 mm and 4 mm across which, when set together, have a scintillating appeal. 

Because of their size, the stones offer themselves perfectly to create shapes and explore intricate designs. They are perfect to fill in shapes and swirls or setting as edges in pendants and brooches.

The swirly, intricate and floral designs of Victorian jewellery was no problem when this material was used.  Neither was the angular, geometric shapes of, first, the art-nouveau era and later the art-deco period.

The Victorian gem cutters managed to facet marcasite into little stones with pointed fronts and flat backs – known as the flattened-rose cut. This created a great play on light and makes a wonderful sparkle.

When Was Marcasite Most Popular?

The Victorian’s used these gemstones a lot in their jewellery and it was also extensively used in art-nouveau and art-deco jewellery.

We have always sold it in our jewellers and it remains consistently loved.

Popular at Christmas time and the party season for those who like to add a little sparkle to their look – it suits both casual and evening attire.

Necklaces, bracelets or drop earrings set with these stones worn with a little black dress looks simply amazing and is very elegant.

Marcasite rings and brooches remain a big hit – the effect of it as you move and the tiny pieces catch the light are quite mesmerising.

The History of Marcasite

The beautiful lustre of this material lent itself to jewellery making from early on, despite it being somewhat difficult to work with.

The ancient Greeks, when they discovered it, made marcasite ornaments to wear. South American Inca’s loved to polish large slabs of it as a table and such. Indeed, many decorations were found in Inca tombs in South America, including surfaces used in rituals and worship of the sun golds.

Even Cleopatra was found to have worn this gemstone which then made it popular with the Egyptians.

Native American Shamen’s used these semi-precious stones to heal as they believed it helped to access the soul of the person they worked with.

marcasite and mother of pearl heart pendant
Mother of Pearl Heart Pendant with Marcasite

In Place of Diamonds

In the 1600’s diamonds were heavily restricted, both the buying and selling. Louis 14th of France decreed that only he should wear real diamonds!

This, of course, didn’t stop people from wanting to wear diamonds and a black-market supply started to thrive. Marcasite offered a fabulous substitute for the less wealthy, or those who were outlawed from purchasing diamonds.

Victorian Marcasite

In England, Queen Victoria, famous extended period of mourning after the death of her beloved Prince Albert, lasted for the rest of her life – over four decades instead of what was the usual two years, at that time!

Her subsequent attire meant she wore much more toned-down pieces of jewellery. These fabulous gems fitted the bill perfectly and she wore many pieces or marcasite jewellery throughout this long period of mourning.

Of course, as is the case with modern day celebrities and royalty, this started a trend amongst Victorian ladies and you can still find many Victorian antique marcasite jewels, including brooches, in antique fairs even now.

As detailed in our article, The History of Jewellery, around the Victorian era flowers formed a massive inspiration in jewellery design and many of these intricate ornaments were floral.

Art Noveau and Art Deco Marcasite

Art Noveau style Emerald and Marcasite stud earrings

Art Noveau Style Emerald & Marcasite Stud Earrings – Gemondo

Another period when it was used extensively was during the Art Deco period.

Art-deco designs involved straight lines and angles, geometric shapes with bold, contrasting colours.

As the primary metals of the day were sterling silver or platinum with diamonds or bright crystals, the jewellery designers used marcasite along with darker gemstones, such as onyx, for high contrast.

These plain, geometric shapes of art-deco jewellery, were beautifully accentuated by the tiny facets.

what is marcasite?

Marcasite vs Pyrite

The true mineral marcasite (pronounced Marc-a-seet), is white iron pyrite (an iron sulphide).  At one point it was used in all marcasite jewellery.

It is a relatively hard, measuring 6 – 6.5 on the Moh’s scale. But it is quite brittle and unstable to work with.

Therefore today, and even in antique jewellery, a gold-coloured stone called pyrite, or “Fool’s Gold”, is used.

Pyrite is also an iron sulphide. It has a metallic lustre and a yellow-ish hue, hence the name ‘Fool’s Gold’.

Whilst the mineral marcasite and pyrite have the same chemistry, they form into different crystal structures. Marcasite has an orthorhombic crystal structure (meaning it forms into columns) whilst pyrite has a cubic crystal structure making it more stable and less prone to splintering.

Because the columns formed in the mineral is brittle and can be fractured easily, leading to a fragility that is hard to work with, using pyrite instead eliminates this risk.

For this reason, it is not uncommon to see many examples of ornaments from the Victorian era, still in excellent condition.

Marcasite Gemstone Occurence

Pyrite is found near the surface in sedimentary rocks like clay, chalk and limestone and is common in hydrothermal veins.

It is found in many places around the world, including the USA where it is mined in Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri.

In the UK it is found in Derbyshire and Dover.  It also occurs in France, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic and some countries further afield like China, Peru and Mexico.

Silver Marcasite Drop Earrings with Green CZ Carathea
Silver Marcasite Drop Earrings with Green CZ

CARING FOR YOUR MARCASITE JEWELLERY

The usual adage that your jewellery should be the last thing you put on in the morning and the first thing you take off when you return home, applies even more so when wearing this jewellery.

You should ensure that your marcasite jewellery never gets wet or even near moisture. This is particularly important with marcasite rings, which you are more likely to forget you are wearing when you wash your hands.

The intricate pieces are often set with jewellers glue and any liquids could dissolve the glue meaning you may lose little bits of the gemstones if you get your jewellery wet.

Cleaning Marcasite 

As we’ve explained, because it should never be immersed in any liquid this also means it should never be dipped in sterling silver cleaning solution or placed in an ultrasonic machine.

Putting your precious trinkets into an ultrasonic cleans them by agitating the debris – this will losen the tiny pieces and you may discover many little bits in the bottom of the machine after you’ve finished cleaning.

The best way of cleaning these jewels is to wipe over the surface with a barely damp cloth and then immediately dry with a lint-free dry cloth. 

Alternatively clean the piece with a soft silver jewellery cleaning cloth like this one.

IS MARCASITE VALUABLE?

As marcasite and pyrite are relatively abundant and appear close to the surface of the earth, its price is relatively inexpensive gemstone.

Antique and unusual pieces will fetch higher sums due to their age, rarity and design.

butterfly brooch with marcasite
Marcasite Butterly Brooch

REPLACING MISSING MARCASITE STONES

It can be incredibly disappointing to notice a tiny piece missing from a favourite jewel.

These metal pyrite stones are now available in a variety of shapes, not just the flattened-rose style pieces.

Our workshop keeps plenty of spare pieces so we can replace missing stones for you. The skill is in ensuring the pieces match.  Do send us an enquiry here if you need pieces replaced.

How To Spot Genuine Antique Marcasite

Whilst it can be tricky, there are a number of pointers to look out for when you shop if you are trying to ascertain if a piece advertised in a collection is antique is or not.

Test With A Magnet

Some fake pieces (even in old pieces of jewellery) can be set with steel and not marcasite or pyrite.  If so, they will be attracted to a magnet.

Do note that the clasp of the item you are looking at may be made of base metal in which case this will be attracted to the magnet – so test on an area away from the catch.

Rivets

The tiny pieces in fakes were often “stamped” into the base plate.  If you look at the back of the item of you are inspecting, you may be able to see the rivets poking into the base, from the underside.

Silver Instead of Marcasite Pieces

Another tell-tale sign is if you look very closely at the piece you are inspecting you may notice that most of what you thought were little pieces of marcasite are just “beads” of sterling silver.

From a distance, it can be quite convincing but it won’t give the sparkle that the real deal does – this is sometimes done to create the illusion of a cubic zirconia or diamond also.

How Has The Marcasite Been Set?

The third check is in looking at how the small pieces of faceted stones have been set. 

If it’s the genuine article, you will often see a tiny bit of silver holding the very edge of the gem.  This little ‘bead’ of sterling silver, although not quite a claw, acts like a claw holding the very edge of the piece of marcasite in place.

These are the best pieces and well worth finding.

Sometimes, the pieces were set with an edge of silver hammered around the stone to hold each piece.

Just imagine how time-consuming many of these processes were!  You can understand why glueing the individual stones into sterling silver became a much more efficient way of creating a piece of marcasite jewellery.

To Sum Up…

We hope you now have an appreciation for the beauty and workmanship in the wonderful pieces of marcasite jewellery you see. We are often amazed at how reasonable these pieces are to buy, considering the intricate work that goes into creating them.

It could turn into the most wonderful hobby, in finding some fabulous designs in charity shops, or car-boot sales.

Do share your comments (or finds!) in the comments below.

Sources:
Gem Society
Modern Vintage Style
Junkbox Treasures Antiques and Collectibles

 

 

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