Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Arthurian, Britain, Celts, Cleopatra, Culture, Diamonds, France, Greece, History, Incans, Jewellery, Lady of the lake, Marcasite, Mourning, pyrite, Queen Victoria, Rome, Sumptuary law
(Diamond’s dark sister)
© The Tartan Trouvere 2013
The Celtic peoples of ancient Britain believed that water was a gateway to the underworld. Dark cool bodies of water, ponds, lakes, rivers and natural weirs, all sacred groves where votive offerings were surrendered beneath the shimmering black mirror that divided the world of the living, from the world of the dead.
Arthurian legends such as the Lady of the Lake are luminous examples of Celtic religion bleeding into modern secular mythology. The story of Viviane’s hand piercing the water brandishing ‘Excalibur’, speaks directly to the heart of Celtic beliefs that embody ideas of dark watery places as focal points for magic and mystery.
If we were to search for one stone that so perfectly encompassed these Celtic ideas of water and magic, we would find it in Marcasite. Marcasite is the dark shimmering stone par excellence, one which fulfils utterly, every criterion for magic, mystery and mischief. The eye does not fall lazily upon fine bead set Marcasite jewellery.
Marcasite casts an effortless spell upon those drawn in by her dim magnificence and, like tiny dark stars in eternal supernova, Marcasite conducts a ‘seduction symphony’ before our very eyes. Subtle, understated, elegant and mysterious, Marcasite is the femme fatale of Art Nouveau period jewellery. But what of her past?
The commercial term, ‘Marcasite’, finds its origins in the old Arabic name for Pyrite, ‘Markaschatsa’, derived from the Greek ‘Pyr’ meaning fire, thus ‘fire stone’ in Arabic. Though Marcasite (iron sulphide) and Pyrite are closely related, they are not identical in composition.
Marcasite is in point of fact a more brittle form of ‘Pyrite’, and whilst the commercial jewellery trade terms it ‘Marcasite’, what you are dealing with is cut Pyrite. The two are almost indistinguishable from one another but Marcasite is far too delicate to cut and shape for jewellery, whereas Pyrite is not. Despite these differences, ‘Marcasite’ as a trade name for Pyrite jewellery has stuck, and is here to stay.
The Archaeological roll call of ancient cultures discovered to revere Marcasite, stretch from Greece and Rome, to those unearthed beneath the Incan burial mounds of South America. By the 1600’s, Marcasite was ushered into the salons of the European middle class by way of ‘Sumptuary Law’. This in effect created a class distinction between the ‘Diamond’ adorning ‘Aristocrats’ and the now ‘Marcasite’ (substitute) wearing lower classes.
Marcasite was introduced as an alternative to diamonds for those who could not afford them. However, even those who might be able to afford diamonds, were forbidden by ‘Sumptuary’ law, if they did not have the appropriate standing in society to bear the apparent weight that accompanied their wearing.
“No one but I should wear Diamonds” King Louis XIVth, France.
It was by such decrees that the jewellers of France were to discover an unprecedented demand for ‘Marcasite’, and regardless of the manner of introduction, ‘Marcasite’ was by strides beginning to find favour for its own qualities. Queen of the Nile, Cleopatra, is purported to have employed Marcasite in the service of preservation and beauty, but in Britain’s Queen Victoria we find a patron of another persuasion.
In 1861, the Palace household was plunged into darkness, after which the only light to shine in jewellery terms, would be Marcasite. In that year, Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, passed from this world into the next.
The grieving Queen retreated into a realm of muted tones, but through this disconsolate décor of mourning, something still sparkled. Through her near 40 years of mourning, Queen Victoria chose Marcasite jewellery as her touchstone – subdued, elegant, muted – and Britain followed.
From 1890-1910, the cultural synthesis of late Victorian style (no doubt enhanced by Queen Victoria’s personal endorsement) and Art Nouveau movements, propelled Marcasite into view of the popular mass market. Marcasite was no longer just Diamond’s dark sister – the Cinderella who never went to the ball – Marcasite was now worn by Queens and was at last elevated to the status of much desired fashion jewellery accessory.
The artisans of Art Nouveau made no end of use for Marcasite, where it was cut and set into sterling silver of every style and design. From rings, earrings, bracelets and brooches to the most elaborately sculpted hair clips in the form of lizards, peacocks and birds of every type. Marcasite is often found alongside its greatest companion, Garnet. When set together, Garnet and Marcasite make some of the most sumptuous pieces of decorative jewellery to grace the female form.
The popularity of Marcasite survived through the Art Deco movements and deep into the 1940’s before cultural shifts, and developments in workable materials in the 1950’s, rang in the inevitable change. By now, plastics were a new plaything and fashion for bright garish colours offered a war weary public visual inoculation from the memories of WW2.
It was time once more for our shadowy mistress, Marcasite, to gather her things and dissolve into the dark pool of history, awaiting rediscovery in a new age. Our modern age is one of near cultural ‘tabula rasa’, we can scribe and ascribe anything we like to our sense of personal expression. Not only are we free agents of fashion, we are with hindsight, cultural Bower birds. While the early 21st Century staggers along a path of zeroes and ones, bumping into signs that point the way to Narcissism, Marcasite is in great demand among the denizens of classic retro fashion.
Despite the ongoing popularity of this mysterious stone, it is unlikely we will ever again see any age as artistically striking, dominant or comprehensive as those possessing movements which celebrated Marcasite as their dark diamond supreme.
All images sourced at Wikimedia Commons