Of Neoclassical inspiration, each designed as a series of five oval-shaped polished steel plaques, set with a cast iron cameo of Classical inspiration, to a reeded gold border, within an annular ironwork surround, between lace-like floral and foliate links, German, circa 1820. Length of each bracelet 17cms. Largest plaque (forming the clasp) 4cm tall, 3.5cm wide. Each bracelet weighing 33 grams.
Iron has of course been used in jewellery manufacture since ancient times, however its emergence in the style that we now call ‘Berlin ironwork’ was the result of many converging factors in Europe at the turn of the 19th Century. As usual, jewels serve as a wonderful lens through which understand a historical landscape.
Michael Stratton wrote at the time of the exhibition 'Cast Iron from Central Europe 1800 -1850' held at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in 1994: "Iron was hailed as the outstanding symbol of the British Industrial Revolution. It not only played a crucial role in technological developments such as steam power and railway transport, but its use for some of the key building types of the age - textile mills, bridges, and later exhibition halls - fired the educated imagination across Europe and in the United States."
In Prussia, this revolution lagged initially but with the importation of British expertise and the French occupation from 1806 - 1813, this sober and practical metal become something of a national symbol. Prussian citizens were encouraged to donate precious metals in exchange for iron in an effort to bolster the national coffers. In Berlin alone 160,000 little cast iron rings bearing the inscription "Gold gab ich für Eisen" (I gave gold for iron) were exchanged and iron jewels became a badge of national pride.
Archeological excavations in the 18th Century had seen a surge of admiration for the Classical world, coming to a head in the late 18th Century and permeating the European vision for life, In Prussia this shaped educational reforms spearheaded by Wilhelm von Humbolt (1767 - 1835) and the very structure of the cities themselves as architect, designer and painter Karl Friedrich Schinkel's (1781 – 1841) profound influence on Prussia's landscape began to take shape.
Neoclassical aesthetics are clearly seen in the early examples of Berlin ironwork using cast iron cameos of Classical inspiration. These scenes had been brought into the vernacular by engravers such as William Tassie, Lorenz Natter, the Pichlers and Nathaniel Marchant who were reproducing, in paste and glass as well as more noble materials, either well-known ancient cameos and intaglios or drawing on these to create "Classical" scenes of their own...as can be seen in these bracelets...and whose reach would continue to be seen throughout the 19th Century.
These bracelets are a particularly fine example of this inspiration and of the virtuoso casting techniques the Berlin Iron Foundry was capable of by the 1820s...the perfect symbol for a country in the aftermath of occupation, determined to diligently embrace the new world of industry but using the lessons of the ancient world to guide it.