Have you heard the term “Pinchbeck” used when referring to antique jewellery and wondered what it meant? It’s a Victorian Jewellery term which is much overused. Here’s what I’ve learnt about it so far.
Pinchbeck is named after its inventor Christopher Pinchbeck who was a London clockmaker and is thought to have lived about 1670 to 1732. He invented this material which looks like gold in the 1720s not long into the Georgian era. It is a metal alloy which consists of Copper, Zinc and Brass and may also have a light wash of real gold over the top for added shine. Pinchbeck has the advantage of retaining its bright gold colour and not fading like many of the other gold substitutes available at the time. It looks like and imitates real carat gold but was much cheaper than the real thing. It was mainly made in Britain and is rarely found in jewellery, not of UK origin.
What else was available
At the time Pinchbeck was first produced the only legally used standards of gold were 18 and 22 carats which made gold relatively more expensive than a nine carat gold piece would be today. Nine carat gold was not introduced as a legal standard until 1854, the availability of nine carats was one of the main things which drove pinchbeck out of regular use. Also, many of the world’s largest gold sources were not discovered until the Victorian era and it was not readily available. This made a cheap and reliable gold substitute and it was very popular until the price of the real thing came down.
Pinchbeck could be made into the very intricate and detailed shapes needed for imitating fine jewellery well. It is also lighter in weight than gold and so large pieces of jewellery made from Pinchbeck can be easy to wear.
During the Victorian era Pinchbeck faded from use being replaced by 9 carat gold, rolled gold, gold plated and gold filled alternatives. To the best of my knowledge, none of this jewellery has been made since the 1800s making every piece you find a genuine piece of antique jewellery. It is thought that the recipe for the genuine article is lost forever.
Identifying Pinchbeck Jewellery:
Looking at a piece of old jewellery and wondering if its pinchbeck? I don’t know a definitive test but after handling a few pieces you will come to recognise it and these facts will help you:
All pinchbeck is Victorian or before so if its a 20th century piece it has been made from something else.
Pinchbeck retains its bright gold colour even today, it does not go rusty. Check on the inside, round the edges and where the piece of jewellery may have become rubbed – has it faded or gone green?
It is lightweight compared with gold
It is often ( but not always) very intricate in design – look at the detail on the picture of the locket above
Care of Pinchbeck Jewellery
Always clean your antique jewellery with regard to all the materials it is set with. For example, if there is a shell cameo, pearls or other more delicate material set into the piece clean with regard to the most delicate material rather than the pinchbeck.
I like to firstly dry clean with a very soft dry toothbrush or clean makeup brush to remove all dust and loose dirt. If your jewellery still needs a clean then you can lightly dampen the brush with a little clear liquid cleaner and finish with a brush dampened with clean water to rinse. Pat dry and leave in a warm place for the last of the moisture to evaporate, this is important as over time moisture can cause problems. Do not use silver dip. I would personally avoid an ultrasonic machine for all pinchbeck jewellery as some of the joints and seams may not stand the treatment and it would mean total immersion which I also do not recommend.
Buying Pinchbeck Jewellery.
Popular items made of Pinchbeck originally included chains, bracelets, brooches and earrings. Earrings could be much larger than those made of solid gold due to the materials lighter weight. I like to offer antique Pinchbeck Jewellery but rarely have more than 2 or 3 pieces available as it is quite difficult to find.
Further Pinchbeck information
Since I first published this article in 2007, I’ve found a little more detail on Pinchbeck in an old book called “collecting copper and brass ” by Geoffrey Wills. Here it claims that the material is three parts zinc and 4 parts copper and that the recipe kept the secret in his lifetime so only he could make the metal until after his death. apparently, he took out an ad in the Daily Post of the time which made it clear that only he sold it and no one else could sell anything made of it. Sounds like modern day copyright.
Do you have any further information relevant to this article? If so then please do get in touch.