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Pyrite and Silver “Bow” pin, circa 1930
Nice vintage “marcasite” pin, well-marked and identified “sterling” “Germany.”

Pyrite and marcasite have almost identical physical properties, making it difficult to distinguish them apart unless you are a mineralogist. Adding to the confusion between marcasite and pyrite is the use of the word marcasite as a jewelry trade name. Jewelry sold as “marcasite” is really polished pyrite. The term is applied to the small, polished and faceted stones that are inlaid in sterling silver. Marcasite is too unstable for gem use. Over time or with exposure to bacteria and water, specimens may break down into a crumbly mass of whitish-yellow iron sulfates.

So why call it marcasite jewelry versus pyrite jewelry? I really do not know the when or hows of that decision, but I could assume that the fact that pyrite is also referred to as “fool’s gold” may have played  a part in the marketing plan.

Pyrite has held a place in adornment history that goes back to the time of the Incas. In the history of jewelry manufacturing, it has been used as an ornamental stone by being faceted, polished and set as a jewel. It is believed that Cleopatra wore pyrite because she felt it helped preserve her beauty. Britain’s Queen Victoria popularized pyrite for over 40 years. After the death of her husband, with access to all the diamonds in the royal vaults, Victoria chose to wear black clothing and jewelry symbolic of widowhood. Her subjects followed her lead, and somber clothing and accessories in dark and muted shades were the fashion for many years. Iron pyrite’s darker hues made it ideal for this type of jewelry, and its low price tag made it a favorite.

As for the identification marks on this lovely pin, “sterling” and “Germany”, jewelry pieces marked just “Germany” are almost certain to be pre-WWII (1948) unless they are newer (1990–present). Costume jewelry produced in the divided country of Germany after 1948 bore an assortment of marks that spoke of the turmoil of the time: “Western Zone Germany,” “American Zone Germany” and “Made in West Germany.” In East Germany, items were marked “German Democratic Republic.”

Similar vintage examples marketed as marcasite are available in retail settings for $50 to $100.

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Chinese Art Deco Rug, circa 1920
This Art Deco period rug with dragon figures representing the Yin and Yang beautifully illustrates the twentieth century Chinese rug-weavers’ art under the direction of American entrepreneur Walter Burns Nichols (1885-1961).

In 1920 Nichols went to work in Tientsin for American wool merchants. As a young man, he was recognized as a first class wool grader working in China’s great wool producing region along the country’s northern border. The Nichols name has come to be used almost synonymously with the “Chinese Deco” rugs manufactured in the Northern China treaty port city of Tientsin (Tianjin) in the 1920s and 1930s. Nichols did not originate the Chinese Deco style, but he did a great deal to popularize this weaving style and to promote high standards of manufacture.

With showrooms and agents worldwide, at the height of his business in the ‘20s, he had 14 factories in China. Nichols gained and lost fortunes repeatedly. His business struggled through the Depression. Another fortune was lost in the late 1930s after the Japanese invaded China and World War II began. Nichols attempted to stay in China but soon sought safer working space in Mexico. After the war ended, Nichols returned to Tientsin to find that the Japanese had used his factory’s rug-washing equipment to wash army uniforms and turned his home into a hospital. Nichols’ former workers, delighted at his return, helped him to recover much of his factory equipment. For about two years, he made rugs again as well as important commissions. Nichols was particularly proud of making carpets for the ambassadorial residence of General George C. Marshall and, in 1947, a wedding gift from the British people to then-princess Elizabeth. In 1948, a heart attack sent Nichols to a hospital in Hong Kong. As the Communists approached Tientsin, Nichols’ business associate flew to China to close out the business and to retrieve what he could of the inventory. With the Communist takeover, Nichols’ fortune was again lost.

Constructed of high-grade wools, this charming, densely made rug with a smooth finished back should be appreciated for the “art under foot” that it is. Similar examples can be found in specialty retail markets ranging in price from $400 to $1200.

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Steuben Glass Gold “Aurene” Twisted Candlestick
Tiffany Glass Gold “Favrile” Bud Vase
The art glass of American Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) and the English-born Frederick Carder (1863-1959) became popular in America during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their glass creations were the result of personal innovations and the study of older techniques and handmade craftsmanship tracing back to antiquity. Their stories are intermingled.

With the mere mention of Steuben Glass Works of Corning, New York, two distinct styles come to mind: the first an iridescent glass called Aurene created by Steuben co-founder and chief designer Frederick Carder in 1903. The second would be crystal. Glass collectors often confuse the iridized gold glass of Tiffany and Steuben’s patented Aurene glass. Steuben was granted a patent on the technique in 1904, a year after the company’s founding. Carder’s Aurene was so successful that Steuben’s earliest years were largely devoted to its production. Gold was a favorite color, sometimes paired with white, shades of green, or red. Blue Aurene was a Steuben glass mainstay. Today, Steuben Glass continues to produce stunning crystal. But for collectors of antique Steuben, the pre-1933 Aurene remains the most highly prized.

Steuben’s and Tiffany’s creative paths sometimes led to bitter rivalry between Tiffany and Carder. In 1894, Tiffany had produced a type of iridescent glass which he called Favrile. Inspired, he said, by the shimmering wings of butterflies and the neck feathers of pigeons, Tiffany mixed together glass of various colors while hot to achieve the desired effect. Court records show that Tiffany filed a lawsuit in 1914 against Steuben for $50,000 claiming Carder copied his trademark iridescent Favrile glass.  Carder succeeded in getting the case dismissed by pointing out that Bohemian glassmakers had been using iridescent techniques since the middle of the nineteenth century.

In the art glass marketplace, it’s important to learn to distinguish makers and not place importance on signatures. With increased interest in Tiffany during the 1960s and ‘70s, people were taking any unsigned pieces and engraving “Tiffany” on them. There are many glassmakers, such as Durand, Quezel and Loetz, that sold wares similar to Tiffany and Steuben. Tiffany generally tends to sell for a higher price than its competitors.

Steuben has great iridescent glass, but it rarely reaches the price levels of similar types of Tiffany glass. On a retail market, the Steuben Aurene candlestick would retail for $600 to $700, with the signed Tiffany Favrile bud vase selling for $400 to $600.

Linda Dyer serves as an appraiser, broker, and consultant in the field of antiques and fine art. She has appeared on the PBS production Antiques Roadshow since season one, which aired in 1997, as an appraiser of Tribal Arts.
If you would like Linda to appraise one of your antiques, please send a clear, detailed image to antiques@nashvilleartsmagazine.com. Or send photographs to Antiques, Nashville Arts Magazine, 644 West Iris Dr.,  Nashville, TN 37204.

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