Materials in Antique & Vintage Homewares Explained

Periodic table of materials

Each item is made of something. That’s simple. But some materials used in vintage and antique homewares can be confusing. We explain in a simple form what each material is, how it looks and where it comes from.

Bone — often this is used as a substitute to ivory and is made of animal bone. It can come from cow, buffalo and many other animals.

Bone china — a white bodied ceramic that was developed in England in the mid 18th century. Crushed bone was added to clay in order to achieve white colour and durability. Bone china is thin and very finely potted.

Brass — this is a metal alloy made of copper and zinc. Highly polished brass has the colour of gold and was used in order to imitate gold in homewares.

Bronze — a metal alloy mainly made of copper with a small addition of tin and sometimes other metals. Bronze is heavy and is the preferred material for making sculptures. Bronze oxidizes and gets a very attractive dark brown patina. The surface is very smooth to the touch.

Cast iron or iron — as the name goes, this is cast iron with a small content of carbon. Cast iron was mainly used in sculptures and architectural fittings. In 19th century Europe cast iron became very popular for use in jewellery and homewares, it is known as Berlin Iron.

Cloisonne — this is a type of enamelling on metal. The decorative pattern is first built on the metal surface by applying wire, which creates partitions. Then the different parts are flooded with liquid enamel (i.e. glass) in different colours. The item is fired in the kiln and the enamel solidifies.

Copper — a common metal of dark orange colour, pretty soft to work with. Copper oxidizes and gets a green patina, which gives it a distinctive pleasant look.

Earthenware or terracotta, commonly known as pottery — these are ceramics made of the basic clay. Earthenware is fired at about 950 to 1150 C. It can be glazed on unglazed.

Ebony — it is an extremely hard and dense black wood that can be polished to a very high gloss, so much so that its look can be confused for plastic or resin. Ebony is mostly used for small ornamental items and candlesticks and as an inlay in furniture. Ebony wood is not good for raft building, it sinks in water like a rock.

Glass or crystal — most old glass, especially cut glass, is made of crystal, which means it has some lead in it. Modern crystal contains lead too. Lead-free glass is called silica glass or soda glass. This typically has dull colour, without much sparkle. Crystal glass is heavier than non-crystal. In colouration crystal glass varies from a fairly dark grey to a sparkling clear diamond.

Horn — a natural material; typically bovine horns are used (cow and buffalo horns). It was often used for making handles in old cutlery. Horn can be hot-steamed and pressed into different shapes.

Ironstone — a ceramic very similar to earthenware, but of a higher quality and more durable; made of a finer clay, much closer to porcelain. English manufacturer Masons was one of the largest producers of Ironstone ceramics. The material is often mentioned in the maker’s mark on the item. Ironstone and stoneware are practically the same materials.

Ivory — the bone material of which tusks and animal teeth are made. The most commonly known is elephant ivory, but ivory also comes from walrus, hippos, whales etc. As a rule of thumb trade in ivory is prohibited and trade in antique ivory (100+ years old) is permitted (proof of age is required). However, the laws change continuously and may be different in a specific country. Do not buy modern ivory — let the elephants live.

Lacquer — we use this term in a broad sense to refer to an item made entirely of shellac or an item covered in lac or varnished. Lac is either made by the lac insects, shellac, or it can be a tree sap.

Mahogany — this is a tropical hardwood growing in Central and Latin America. It is a very durable timber, of a dark reddish colour with a very beautiful and sophisticated grain that can be highly polished. Good old furniture was made both in solid mahogany and with mahogany veneer. Nowadays mahogany is grown commercially.

Malachite — natural dark green stone that contains copper. Polished malachite displays a very attractive surface pattern and is typically used for making decorative elements.

Marble — it is a limestone with decorative veined pattern that comes in a variety of colours, from white to black and everything in between. The stone surface can be highly polished.

Mother of pearl — this is the lustre shell layer of a mollusk.

Oak — hard and very strong wood, it is one of the predominant timbers in furniture making, especially in old furniture. Oak has a very distinctive long parallel grain. The wood is very robust and does not rot easily, and it has a high resistance to wood worm. Oak was the timber of choice in the British Arts & Crafts fashion of furniture making. Oak trees are widespread.

Onyx — a mineral stone variety of chalcedony. It is similar to agate stone and has been used since the ancient Roman times in jewellery and cameos. Onyx can appear in many different colours.

Porcelain — ceramics made of fine white clay. The clay can be thinly potted and allows to sculpt small and very fine details. Chinese porcelain had been in production for almost 2000 years. In Europe true porcelain was discovered in the 18th century in Germany. Meissen was the first European maker of porcelain. British bone china was invented to simulate porcelain qualities.

Rosewood — typically this wood is dark reddish in colour with rich veined pattern. There is a variety of rosewoods and most have a pleasant sweet smell, which gave it the name. Because of its decorative qualities rosewood timber is often used in marquetry and parquetry inlays and as a decorative banding on furniture.

Silver — a natural noble metal. In our context silver refers to any metal item where the silver purity is either less or more than 925 (sterling silver). This means that any silver item we describe is typically not British, unless it bears British hallmarks. When the silver is British, we will say sterling silver.

Silver plated — base metal, usually brass or copper, covered with a layer of silver as a cheaper replacement to solid or sterling silver. High quality silver plated items have a thicker layer of plating, and can be re-plated repeatedly.

Spelter — in sculpture spelter means an alloy of zinc and lead. It was used as a cheap alternative to bronze. Spelter is a very soft metal.

Stainless steel — this is a steel alloy that does not rust, it has a portion of chromium in it. Stainless steel was widely used in old cutlery. It is also known as Inox from the French inoxydable, meaning that it does not oxidize.

Sterling silver — is silver alloy with the purity of at least 92.5% of silver, meaning that the item must have at least 92.5% of pure silver. Sterling is the British silver standard and nowadays mainly refers to British silver or silver bearing British hallmarks.

Stoneware — this is basically the same as Ironstone. High temperature fired clay, closer to porcelain. Stoneware is a very durable ceramic and is typically used for making utilitarian items.

Walnut — is a tasty nut, but it is also a very dense hardwood, with a very decorative grain. It is widely grown and had been used in furniture making for centuries.

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