Berlin Iron is a term applied to a group of cast iron items that were produced in parts of 19th century Prussia and in the modern day Germany. The assortment ranged from small decorative items to furniture, while jewellery represented a very large portion of production. The beginning of production of Berlin Iron was marked by the establishment of the Royal Berlin Foundry in 1804. The fashion for Berlin Iron items and jewellery continued for about half a century, roughly until the 1860’s, when the production went into decline. Here is a brief history of this jewellery, as nowadays it represents the largest portion of surviving Berlin Iron and is the major field for collectors. Berlin Iron jewellery sets command exceptionally high prices in comparison to their gold and precious stone counterparts.
During the first half of the 19th century, the production of Prussian cast iron art prospered to a surprising degree. The Prussian foundries went through a period of transformation. They were no longer strictly workshops and they were not yet fully engaged in industrial mass production. Thanks to superb designs and to a perfected method of production, small artworks were created in a base metal that was considered essentially without value outside architectural or industrial applications. They were the result of collaboration between the Central European foundries and a group of talented artists, who promoted the use of iron in the decorative arts. At that time these spectacular objects reflected the mood of the era of Continental Europe – the shift to mass industrialisation and the fascination with modern materials, and today they are highly prised by museums and private collectors.
Between 1813 and 1850 jewellery made of iron wire and cast iron, also known as fonte de Berlin and fer de Berlin, became world famous products. In Germany, France, England, Italy and Sweden, as well as in North America and Russia, fashionable women purchased elaborate iron parures comprising chokers, necklaces, bracelets and earrings. This iron jewellery is something of a paradox. How had the manufacturers transformed an unsightly black or dark gray substance into precious pieces of jewellery that women sought to own and to wear? There was precedence to this 19th century iron jewellery, in the eighteenth century. Faceted steel jewellery, designed to imitate diamonds, was produced mainly in England as costume jewellery, but was highly prised and gained a recognition of its own, and not just as an imitation. The cast iron jewellery produced in central Europe in the 19th century, however, was completely different from cut steel. It included exceptionally high style necklaces, bracelets, brooches, and diadems. Initially they were worn as a fashion novelty, and like the black jewellery of jet and black glass, cast iron pieces had been considered primarily as funeral or mourning jewellery. The wearing of memorial jewellery such as black necklaces and brooches as a way of expressing grief was a phenomenon that began in the middle of the 18th century.
It could well have been that cast iron jewellery remained insignificant costume mourning jewellery, were it not for a unique combination of circumstances. A confluence of events in the first quarter of the 19th century in Prussia brought about the extraordinary success of cast iron. With its precise outlines, severe and very formal appearance, as well as the modesty that it dictated, cast iron jewellery soon became representative of the spirit of the era. Perhaps the first factor instrumental in promoting cast iron jewellery has the new image of women and the role that fashion journals played in shaping this image and in circulating new trends. At the turn of the 19th century, fashion was dominated by Neoclassicism. The lavishly ornate gowns of the 18th century, the full panniers buoyed by hoops and crinolines, were replaced by simple, sheath-like, often transparent garments with high waists, low necklines and little puffed sleeves. Dressed in these clothes, women tried to emulate the look of Greek goddesses that they saw in sculptures, painted on pottery and from drawings of the travellers that were coming from the sites of ancient Greece and Rome. In Prussia, unlike Paris, massive pieces of jewellery luxuriously set with diamonds, which had been customary in the sumptuous eighteenth century, were rejected. Classical simplicity became the goal in clothes as well as jewellery. In Prussia, a contributing factor to the success of cast iron was that such simple fashion also carries a democratic message. The young Queen Louise of Prussia was among the first to introduce Grecian-style dresses at the Prussian court, and provoked criticism. As one female member of the court said: “I cannot understand how dear king can allow his coquettish wife to dress in such a manner. This no longer is the elegant dress appropriate for an elegant court, but rather that of a pretty little actress”. Something so shocking was unprecedented. Never before had a Prussian queen been likened to “a pretty little actress”. Even so, the young queen was enormously popular and her tastes set the standard for the nation.
From the end of eighteenth century onward, fashion journals such as Journal fur Literatur, Kunst, Luxus und Mode (Journal for Literature, Art, Luxury, and Fashion), or the Journal fur Kunst Kunstsaachen, Kunsteleien und Mode(Journal for Art and Art object, Crafts and Fashion) advertised the latest trends in fashion. Through these publications, new developments reached every bourgeois household, where they prompted the desire to dress and look like the women seen in pretty coloured drawings. These publications started a new phenonomen – a fashion treadmill was set in motion and it constantly demanded novelties. Accessories were discussed in the magazines, and jewellery soon became part of the world of fashion which changed at an increasingly faster pace. There was also an intellectual appeal to the aesthetics of cast iron. Apart from those few members of royalty who had a tendency towards extravagance, the Prussian people at all levels of society were unaccustomed to displays of wealth. Prussian kings such as Friedrich Wilhelm I (1688-1740) or his son Friedrich II (Frederick the Great; 1712-1786), lived lives of extreme personal modesty, and the population followed their lead. Of course, the Prussian bourgeoisie did become richer as well as gained in social importance, similar to the middle classes in the rest of Europe, they remained true to the values that had helped them to prosper – diligence, modesty and an emphasis on education. These remained valid in the early 19th century and shaped the Prussian way of life. After 1806, the year of Prussia’s defeat by Napoleon and its occupation by his troops, modesty on the part of Prussians was coupled with patriotism, and was especially necessary to master the devastating consequences of war. Property was damaged and the French government exacted monetary retributions for the war, which left the country impoverished. Financing Prussia’s liberation from the enemy became a matter of urgency. Also during this time, the tragic early death of queen Louise occurred. During the years of oppression, she had set an inspiring example of personal courage in the face of the enemy. In her honour many Prussian women wore mourning.
Jewellery, especially Louise crosses, pendants, and brooches as they were called. These pieces consisted primarily of an iron cameo with a portrait of the queen that was based on a plaster model by famous Berlin medallist Leonhard Posch (1750-1831). It was framed by a delicate border of gold. Iron jewellery thus came to symbolise patriotism and resistance against Napoleon. During the wars of Liberation (1813-15), the production of iron jewellery having patriotic connotations increased, especially after Prussian women were called on to donate their gold jewellery to the war effort. In return the women received either a cast iron brooch with the inscription I gave gold for iron, or a cast iron ring, on which was a legend reading exchanged for the welfare of our country. Even members of the royal family wore cast iron pieces. Prince Wilhelm, for example, wore an iron watch chain from 1812 to 1822.
Many cameo images received a political meaning. In this time of oppression the wearer was looking to identify with heroes of the past and present and their victories on the battlefield. Some images also provided the educated Prussian bourgeoisie with an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology, a feature that further enhanced this kind of jewellery. Iron jewellery basically replaced gold jewellery in Prussia. Its purchase required and also represented personal sacrifice; it became a symbol of love of the fatherland and, as it has since ancient times, of strength and loyalty. Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia most certainly had this older connotation in mind in 1813 when he established the medal of the Wars of Liberation, knows as the Iron Cross. Iron replaced the customary gold and diamonds in this national emblem, and the king himself explained: “The visible symbol of this time is all iron”. This durable emblem was design collaboration between Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841) and the king himself. It recalls and earlier emblem, a black cross on white background that had been adopted by a medieval Teutonic order of knights.
As one can see, the coincidence of these different factors, development of fashion novelties, national mourning, intellectual appeal, and patriotic feelings, all allowed iron jewellery to become so popular and without a parallel.