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Ruby Lane's Past Time Newsletter for July 2009
In This Issue
- YouTube Video: Make It A Vintage Wedding!
- Join Ruby Lane On Twitter and Facebook!
- The Joy of French Art Deco Lighting by Jack Beeler of Decorum
- What's In A Name? Proper Gemstone Representation
- Shop Sampler: Collectibles
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THE JOY OF FRENCH ART DECO LIGHTING BY JACK BEELER OF DECORUM
The design and manufacture of lighting in these United States has generally followed that age-old American rule of thumb: the "KISS" effect (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Hell-bent on selling the most units at the least possible price, most American designers and manufacturers pared down their fantasies and aspirations to the lowest common denominator, choosing inexpensive materials and cookie-cutter concepts that would allow factories to crank out their product at low, attractive prices. So, for example, the vast majority of Art Deco chandeliers follow this formula: at the ceiling, you gots yer canopy. Then you gots yer chain (super important to give every customer the flexibility to hang the thing in a home with an eight-foot or a fifteen-foot ceiling). Then you gots yer decorative device, which bolts into the belly of the fixture itself, a single casting with five openings for the "slip" shades. At the bottom is a finial. I wonder how many American Art Deco fixtures fit this exact model? Or should I say, what percentage of them fit it? Ninety-five percent, would that be too high?
Now in all fairness (good luck!), among the dozens of different American chandelier designs there were a few real zingers. What we charmingly refer to as "brown-tip" bronze fixtures by Lightolier were at the top of the heap in the 20's and 30's and they routinely bring the most attention and money today. They're very ornate and fanciful, and their two-tone finish (on the bronze models) is inspired and lovely; their proportions are elegant and above all they have a certain dramatic quality about them. What more could you ask for?
The problem is that the top half-dozen American designs constitute the exception. From there it's a pretty steep downhill ride. There are really only a small handful of American lights which tip the scales toward visual excellence, let alone high quality materials and craftsmanship (tough to bring that one into the discussion). Close inspection of many if not most of American products reveals, unfortunately, their mass-produced, make-a-quick-buck roots.
In France, where for hundreds of years every young student has studied art and music -- in depth, as part of the essential school curriculum -- things have been done a bit differently, and the product reflects that.
When we look into the world of French lighting, for example, we are first struck by the seemingly unending variety! In the world of hanging fixtures -- chandeliers, for instance -- I've rarely seen the same chandelier twice. A pair of anything is almost impossible to find! (One is tempted to imagine the American worker showing up at his station and hearing "OK, guys, today we're going to crank out 50 of these things!!" In France, perhaps the worker was met with "Henri, take your pad out into the garden and sketch out a few ideas this morning. Enjoy yourself, there's a string quartet playing Mozart.")
Not only are duplicates practically impossible to find, even similar concepts are immensely hard to come by. Some fixtures have lights pointing up, some down, some sideways (that's a joke but it's close to the truth). Every imaginable combination of glass and metal is used. Pressed glass, blown glass, etched glass, art glass, wheel-cut glass, painted glass, enameled glass. Brass, bronze, copper, white metal (not so often), aluminum; machined metal, molded metal, etched metal, acid-colored metal, polished, plated and painted metal. To name a few! Why, it's as though that French supervisor came in and said to his workers: "Mes amis, we have an infinite palette of materials and techniques in front of us. Use them!"
And hang the cost, he might have added. Did you know, for instance, that Jacques Emile Ruhlmann, the mightiest design lion of the French Art Deco period, often lost money on his commissions?!! Such an exacting man, such a perfectionist, such an artist -- such a money-loser! In America the man would have been packed off on the first boat (one probably headed for France)!
But I digress; and bless you, so far you've tolerated this frailty of mine, because you've gotten this far.
We chicken farmers know we're not going to be buying any of Monsieur Ruhlmann's works anytime soon, so shall we get back down to earth?
Turning our eye back to the spread of French ceiling lighting, for that is the example we've chosen, we find such a smorgasbord of design. Looking good is one thing, but can you find the proof in that delectable pudding? With the French fixtures as well as the American, a close look reveals much.
That "close look" is gained, in the instance of nearly every French fixture I've got for sale, by its disassembly for renovation -- which normally includes replating -- and reassembly and rewiring. When I take a fixture apart, I'm always struck immediately by the "one-off" quality, the uniqueness of the French pieces. For instance, there are never any stock parts employed. Each chandelier, having been designed as an entity unto itself, has its own particular group of parts. The "body," that part where the wires come together, is designed and executed with nothing else in mind but the aesthetic of the rest of the piece. There isn't a standard size, a standard configuration, a standard shape. It might be tiny, to give emphasis to the size, shape and flow of the arms; or it might be large, to de-emphasize the arms and draw attention to itself. The canopy, or "escutcheon," (a bizarre word I just love to hurl around) which obscures the hole in the ceiling, might be uncommonly large or small, it might be any shape imaginable, and it might be decorated as never before seen! I always notice that the quality of connections between the various parts is exquisite! Parts have been exactingly machined, then seamlessly fitted and braised or welded together, with any imperfections long-since filed and buffed away.
I also notice that decorated elements are cast with intricate detail and depth. Brass and bronze were used almost exclusively, and castings profited from the use of those materials in their exactness. Parts must have been faithfully and carefully machined individually to have such detail and fineness. There had to be uncommon pride on the part of the craftsmen. And lemme tell you about the time it took to make these things! Yikes!
I know, because I take them all apart and inspect and tweak every piece that needs it in preparation for replating. Every item is photographed, measured and listed, and then off they go to my SECRET, TOP QUALITY PLATING SHOP where the grunt work is done. Every piece is stripped and polished or burnished (for the satin/brushed effect). Then they're all electro-plated, and after the ride home the fun of reassembly begins chez moi. This can take days, I'm sad to report. Why? Well, first I apply my famous SECRET PATINA. This amounts to putting black in all the crevasses and at other strategic points, to restore the antique look of the item. We don't want old wine in new bottles, do we?! I mean, what could look worse than an 80-year-old fixture that looks like it was replated yesterday?! Note and beware: most if not all other purveyors (read: my competitors) of restored Art Deco lighting SKIP THIS IMPORTANT STEP It's the ghastly truth, and if you're buying from pictures on the web, it's particularly hard to tell what you're really getting.
Good design is good for a reason -- it pushes the envelope, it meanders into the realm of the improbable. This means that reassembly and particularly rewiring can be downright crazy-making. This fixture, the "final challenge" of my illustrious career, took OVER a day just to rewire! Not only did I have to pull out my few remaining hairs just figuring out how to go about the gruesome task, but... well, how would you get a wire through the angles? The long and short: now you know why, as you're looking at the piece, something in the back of your mind is saying: "Hmmmm... there's something really special about this moment!!" It's the "je ne sais quoi" factor!!
As I've mentioned, American Art Deco fixtures tend to follow a basic five-part template (canopy, chain, decorative element, cage, and finial), and for the most part there was little hand-work beyond screwing the parts together or wiring the piece.
As for the glass, it was much more colorful, in general, than the glass on the French Art Deco fixtures. Alas, the color was often painted on the glass, not molded into it, and the ravages of time can compromise that finish fairly easily. Being a lot thinner, the glass is subject to breakage a little more easily. Details, such as floral design, tend to be pretty mooshy.
Ah, but are you thinking that Jacques, he has gone over the line and joined the "French snobs?" Does he think, "If it's American, it's trash; if it's French it's treasure?!"
Hardly! And if you're getting that impression, let me take a step back! After all, here we are in America! The reality is that the American pieces evoke our "Americanness", and rightly so. My first Art Deco chandelier, which I proudly hauled home from the famed Marin flea market some 25 years ago, was a Lightolier. There were rave moments in the world of American design, and if you care to search out the rarest jewels by designers such as Walter Von Nessen, you'll end up with some extraordinary pieces. And, if you're going for "quaint," the American fixtures can help you achieve that effect. Each to his own!
BUT, in my humble opinion, French lighting and French design in general, can "take off the top of your head" by asserting its extraordinary beauty. When I go to France and chase around after these things, I will sometimes round a corner and just gasp at the feast before me -- some object that dances before me, shaking its gorgeous little design-booty and calling to that deep place within me that says, "you owe it to yourself to bring me into your life!"
We invite you to visit: Decorum
WHAT'S IN A NAME? PROPER GEMSTONE REPRESENTATION
"What's in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet"
What Shakespeare said over 400 years ago in Romeo and Juliet is still true. This does not mean that the Bard of Avon spent his spare time misrepresenting other flowers as roses.
A gemstone will look the same, no matter what it is called. However, if you are a seller of jewelry, you are obligated to present any gem materials accurately and honestly. If you are a buyer of jewelry, it pays to be informed.
For example, when one describes a gemstone as a Ruby, it must in fact be a Ruby: a naturally occurring variety of the mineral Corundum, normally getting its red color from the traces of chrome which nature added to this aluminum oxide mix. If it is a man-made Corundum with this chemical formula, with identical optical and physical properties, it may be referred to as a synthetic Ruby. This material was first synthesized in the early 20th century, so the fact that an item is old does not guarantee that the material is not man-made.
If it is glass or another man-made material, merely resembling Ruby, it should be referred to as an imitation Ruby or simulated Ruby. A phrase such as Ruby Color Glass or Ruby Color Rhinestone may also be acceptable. If it is another natural gem material such as Garnet or Spinel, it should be identified by the proper name. These identifications may require the use of proper testing equipment or consultation with a trained gemologist. The Black Prince Ruby in the British Crown Jewels is actually a Red Spinel, and this identification was not made until the stone had been in the possession of British royalty for over 500 years.
Many of the accepted simulated birthstones require special care when being described. Much of the older material represented as synthetic Alexandrite is actually synthetic Spinel or synthetic Corundum, with a color change engineered into it. Natural Alexandrite is a variety of the mineral Chrysoberyl, and these imitators may only be referred to as simulated or imitation. Similarly, Aquamarine is often imitated by synthetic Spinel or corundum in the proper color. Synthetic and simulated have different meanings and are not interchangeable terms.
Many gemstones acquire incorrect names over time, often related to a material in a similar color. While some of these names, like Crazy Lace Agate or Landscape Jasper, are quite acceptable, others mislead consumers or cause confusion. Here we'll will summarize some of the best known of these misnomers and misidentifications.
Crab Fire Agate: Over the last several years, a material has been marketed in the gemstone trade under the name "crab fire agate". This material does not resemble true Fire Agate whatsoever. No firm gemological definition has been attached to this material yet. Some examples appear to be a material which may best be described as treated Carnelian, Sardonyx, or Agate, with a spider web pattern. The pattern appears to be a result of treatment, most likely heating and quenching. However, some of the material being sold as "crab fire agate" appears to be a man-made material, possibly a glass or ceramic material.
Diamond: Almost any locale name used in association with the name diamond is improper. Herkimer Diamond and Cape May Diamond are the best known of these, and the stones are actually quartz. Arkansas Diamond may also be used incorrectly for Quartz, although Arkansas does actually have a producing diamond field.
Emerald: A number of names may preface the word emerald, and in almost all cases, the material is not emerald. Dyed Quartz may be misrepresented as Indian Emerald, and varieties of the mineral fluorspar have also been improperly represented using the Emerald name. Evening Emerald has been used for some time as a nick-name for Peridot. This might add a little historical color to an item description, but the gem should also be clearly identified as Peridot, in close proximity to any anecdotal use of the phrase Evening Emerald.
Green Amethyst: This name is quite commonly used these days to describe green Quartz, more properly identified as Prasiolite. These situations do develop, with different sellers adopting different practices. However, a shopper searching for "Prasiolite" will not find a "Green Amethyst", and vice versa. In these rare cases, describing the material as Green Amethyst (Prasiolite), or using a description which uses both names, will aid your items in search. It will also avoid irritating those that may have strong feelings about which term should be used.
Jade: Jade may properly refer to examples of two different minerals, Nephrite and Jadeite. Many other materials have used this name incorrectly: Pectolite (Alaska Jade), Amazonite (Amazon Jade), Grossular Garnet (African Jade, Transvaal Jade), Bowenite (New Jade, Soochow Jade), Steatite or Soapstone (Soochow Jade). We have seen some gem sellers describe material as Jade, and yet acknowledge that the material is actually another material in a small note or disclaimer. Descriptions should always eliminate any confusion like this, by clearly and properly identifying gem materials. Jade may be the most misrepresented gem of all time.
Quartz: Quartz comes in a large variety of forms and colors. Many misrepresented gemstones are actually Quartz, such as the Herkimer Diamond and Indian Emerald mentioned elsewhere in this article. Dyed varieties of Chalcedony or Jasper often mimic the appearance of Jade or Lapis, and are sometimes incorrectly referred to as Swiss Lapis or Swiss Jade.
In recent years, many advances have been made in Quartz synthesis. New materials have appeared on the market, first identified as quartz and then as a synthetic Quartz. Some of these materials, like the sudden supply of "cherry quartz" several years ago, turn out to be glass when testing is finally done. The material sold as Pineapple Quartz appears to always be glass, and some materials represented as Strawberry Quartz and Lemon Quartz may also merely be glass. New gem varieties are found from time to time. While we all want to be the first kid on the block to examine and sell them, caution and proper identification are called for.
Ruby: Many red stones have been incorrectly identified as Ruby, including Spinel (Balas Ruby), and Garnet (Australian Ruby, Bohemian Ruby, Cape Ruby). Many localities have their name affixed in front of a gemstone name, as in Colorado Ruby or California Ruby, when the material is in fact a variety of Garnet. In other cases, a term like Montana Sapphire or Carolina Emerald is used to indicate a natural and properly identified gemstone from a specific location. A description of an item for sale should always clarify matters like this, and no one should hesitate to ask a seller just what they mean when they use this term.
Special Note: In recent years, natural Rubies with large cracks and fissures have been "fracture filled", with a glass like substance used to fill void in the stone. The stone may be reheated after this treatment, fusing the natural Ruby and foreign material, to some extent. These treatments may not be permanent and should always be disclosed. Some gemological laboratories will not identify the latter material as Ruby, due to its altered state. Any gemstone treatment or enhancement which is not permanent should be revealed by the seller.
Sapphire: Sapphire is not plagued by too many confusing misnomers, despite its many colors. Water Sapphire is sometimes used to incorrectly identify gem grade Iolite. While this may be mentioned anecdotally, a seller should always make clear that the material is not sapphire.
Smoky Topaz or Smokey Topaz: There is no such material. The name is often applied to a brown variety of Quartz, which should be referred to as Smoky Quartz or Smokey Quartz.
Tourmaline: Due to the wide variety of colors available, Tourmalines have been misrepresented as other gem materials in the past. In Sri Lanka, miners actually used the term "toramalli" to describe any number of different colored gems. These stones may be represented as Tourmaline when changing hands until someone actually tests the material and realizes they have something else.
Turquoise: Turquoise is not plagued by too many misnomers. However, material is quite often represented as Turquoise when it is actually something else. Material sold as White Turquoise or White Buffalo Turquoise appears most often to be a blend of Quartz and Calcite, which sometimes contains traces of Turquoise, or the mineral Howlite. Howlite is often dyed and represented as Turquoise, and sometimes as Lapis. As most Turquoise is treated or enhanced, and numerous methods are used in alteration, a buyer should assume that the material has been treated, unless told otherwise. Sellers should make all attempts to identify and disclose treatment.
Remember that definitive identification of many gem materials may only be accomplished by trained professionals with proper testing equipment. The fact that a material is represented as being one thing does not make it so. Using misleading names and misnomers only multiplies the confusion. Some sellers like to "romance the stone" a bit. This is fine, as long as clear and accurate information is provided in conjunction with the sales puffery.
All those involved in the sale and re-sale of gems and jewelry should familiarize themselves with the Federal Trade Commission Guides for the Jewelry, Precious Metals, and Pewter Industries. The guides address many of the requirements for selling gems and jewelry in a proper and legal manner, including disclosure of gemstone enhancements. Again, if you're a buyer, being well-informed is well worth the effort.
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