Vintage Marcasite Jewelry

iron pyriteMarcasite Jewelry is like any other jewelry in that it can either be high end or very low end.  There is even two types of jewelry that can be confused with Marcasite. Knowing a bit more about it will permit you to make better choices when a piece catches your eye.

So, what is Marcasite? Not to get too technical, but it is actually not Marcasite at all, but pyrite.  True, both Pyrite and Marcasite are in the same family of iron sulfides, but when you think of Marcasite jewelry, think of Fool’s Gold. That is what pyrite is and that is what is used to make this phenomenal jewelry known as Marcasite.

Although Pyrite has been used in jewelry making since the time of the ancient Greeks, Marcasite jewelry became popular in the 1700s. Instead of using precious stones, the pyrite was cut, polished and then set and sold to the commoner. It retained its popularity right through the end of the 1800s and although still used to this day, it does not have the appeal that it once had.

Marcasite pinned

This marcasite is set or pinned. It may have glue as well. Notice how the dots of silver overlap the edges of the stone.

So, how does one go about identifying Marcasite?

Yes, I can hear you thinking….by just looking at it.  It’s easy to figure that one out.  But is it? And what denotes quality? What kind of metal is Marcasite often set in?  Oh yea, there is a lot more to the story than just simply “knowing”.

These are things you need to know:

  • Marcasite are faceted stones that are either set or glued to the base piece
  • All the ones I have seen are 6 sided.  Most come to a point but there are some I have seen that are flat topped.
  • Marcasite glitters in the light, almost like diamonds
  • The base metal is almost always sterling silver

There are two types of jewelry that can confuse some people when it comes to Marcasite and that is cut or stamped steel and stamped sterling.

cut steel

Close up of cut steel. This particular piece is actually faceted balls attached with rivets.

Cut steel jewelry was popular in the 1800s prior to the time when rhinestones became readily available. Cut steel jewelry are also faceted stones that are cut from steel and then attached to the base metal.

There are two ways to differentiate cut steel from Marcasite. The cut steel stones are riveted to the base metal. So flip that piece of jewelry over to see if there is a rivet pattern on the back.  Secondly, being steel, it is magnetic.

Later, to lower costs and increase production, cut steel made way for stamped steel jewelry. There are also two ways to tell the difference between cut steel and stamped steel.  First, the cut steel has the rivets while the stamped steel is all one piece.  Secondly, if you study the faceted steel stones, with a stamped piece all the facets will be facing the same way.  In other words, too perfect. When the steel stones are actually set, they will not all sit with the facets pointed the same direction.

You can actually see the rivets on the backside. This also insures that it is cut steel, not stamped steel.

You can actually see the rivets on the backside. This also insures that it is cut steel, not stamped steel.

The second type of jewelry that can sometimes be confused with Marcasite is stamped sterling. The facets are not separate stones but just part of the design. Sure, they shine a bit but they are not the real deal.  Make sure that the stones are separate from the base metal.

From this distance it appears that the stones are set. They are not.

From this distance it appears that the stones are set. They are not.

Now that you are sure that the piece of jewelry is in fact Marcasite, let’s talk quality. Originally the stones were mostly set by placing a tiny button of sterling that overlapped the stones in several places thereby holding the stone in place. These were of the highest quality of Marcasite jewelry.

Always trying to improve the amount of time it takes to make something and the costs of doing so, stones that were glued in became more prevalent. I don’t want to take anything away from these beauties because it still was time consuming to make the piece of jewelry and the quality of silver work was still high.

One of the things that they did was continue to design pieces with tiny buttons of silver on several sides of each stone. This practice made it look like the stones were “set” but in fact, they are glued. So in studying your piece of jewelry pay close attention to those buttons and whether they actually overlap the stones or are just made to make them appear to be set.

Looking close up you can see the sterling buttons do not overlap the stones.

Looking close up you can see the sterling buttons do not overlap the stones.

Stones that are set are rare. By looking at the rest of the jewelry piece, the design, any markings, and the findings will help you in dating the piece but in most cases it is the assumption that set Marcasite stones are earlier.

If glued, look at the workmanship with a loupe. There should be no excess glue.  The stones should sit centered and straight. If viewed under black light nothing should fluoresce. If it does, it means the glue oozed out and so the quality is just not there. Keep in mind though, that early jewelry glue did not fluoresce since it was made from animal bi-products so you are still going to want to view the stones closely to see the level of quality to the settings.

Marcasite jewelry is very collectible. I think it important to buy the best pieces possible either for your collection or for resale. Truly examining the piece prior to purchase is going to go a long way in finding the right pieces.

As a note, you should always have a magnet with you, a loupe, and a black light flashlight.  Those three things will save you a lot of mistakes in the long run.

Written by Daye Salander, avid collector, researcher, and antique dealer. She spends her time between antiques and blogging along with research on an upcoming book on Siam Sterling jewelry. With a strong background in IT, business, and social media, her blogs freely provide information in hope of helping others along the way.

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