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The Story of Pinchbeck

[Editor's Note:  In 1912,  MacIver Percival published a wonderful book "Chats on Old Jewellery and Trinkets".  Among chapters on ancient,  Medieval and contemporary jewelry was the following brief history of the "curious and ingenious metal" of Christopher Pinchbeck.]
Almost every dealer who keeps antique jewellery as part of his stock,  has a tray of various oddments in which we may count on finding a fair number of pieces on which he bestows the name of "Pinchbeck."  As a matter of fact,  as a rule the name is not rightly applied to one-tenth of them;  but it has become almost a general term for all jewellery made out of substitutes for gold,  so I have followed the general custom and headed this chapter with this title.  Under this generic name are included all alloys which have had originally,  and preserve to a certain extent,  a colour which bears a close resemblance to gold.  They have been given at different times various fancy names,  such as Tombac,  Prince's Metal and Mosaic Gold.  It is worth while, however, to know somewhat of the real history of the origin and composition of Pinchbeck,  as pieces which may with some probability be ascribed to the inventor,  are far more interesting than the later (and as a rule inferior) things.  The ingredients of all the alloys are copper and zinc,  the same metals which are used in compounding brass,  but in Pinchbeck the zinc is used in a lesser proportion.  In brass it varies from one to three, to two to three,  while in Pinchbeck, it is about one part to ten.  There must, however, it seems to me,  have been some further trade secret, either in the process of manufacture or in the after-treatment,  to account for the much superior wearing qualities and colour of Pinchbeck.  Possibly a slight wash of gold was used on the surface to prevent tarnish.  This has remained in the hollows,  and on the rubbed parts the very friction which wore away the gilding would serve to keep the metal in bright condition.  The metal was first put on the market by a certain Christopher Pinchbeck (1670 - 1732),  who is said to have invented it,  and it soon became exceedingly popular.  The appearance,  especially when new,  was so like gold,  that it appealed at once to all those who,  either from thrift or lack of means,  thought real gold too expensive a material to use for the less important articles of personal ornament.  Another motive for wearing it,  referred to in the advertisement which follows,  is that things made of this metal made a special appeal to travelers.  In those days when a journey of even a few miles out of London led through roads infested by thieves and highway robbers, careful folk preferred not to tempt these "gentlemen of the road" by wearing expensive ornaments unless traveling with a good escort;  so not only would a traveler with a base metal watch and buckles lose less if robbed,  but owing to the freemasonry which existed between innkeepers and postilions and the highwaymen,  they were actually less likely to be stopped,  as it was not worth while to run risks for such a poor spoil.  Therefore while of course much of it was made to enable the wearers to make a fair show at a small expense, a good deal was also made for the "nobility and gentry," who used such things as watches,  sword-hilts,  and buckles made of it.

In 1732 Christopher the first (one of his sons was also Christopher) was gathered to his fathers,  and was succeeded by his son Edward Pinchbeck,  who continued to trade in the same material.

He was much annoyed,  evidently,  at the too sincere flattery of trade rivals,  who brought out imitations,  no doubt to the detriment of his business.  He therefore inserted a long advertisement in the Daily Post of July 11, 1733,  headed "Caution to the Publick."  The following extracts will be interesting,  as they show the kind of thing principally made by the original firm: -

"To prevent for the future the gross imposition that is daily put upon the Publick by a great number of Shop-Keepers, Hawkers, and Pedlars, in and about this town, Notice is hereby given, That the Ingenious Mr. Edward Pinchbeck, at the 'Musical Clock' in Fleet Street, does not dispose of one grain of his curious metal, which so nearly resembles Gold in Colour, Smell and Ductility, to any person whatsoever, nor are the toys made of the said metal, sold by any one person in England except himself: therefore gentlemen are desired to beware of Impostors, who frequent Coffee Houses, and expose for Sale, Toys pretended to be made of this metal, which is a most notorious imposition, upon the Publick. And Gentlemen and Ladies, may be accommodated by the said Mr. Pinchbeck with the following curious Toys; viz. : Sword-Hilts, Hangers, Cane Heads, Whip Handles for Hunting, Spurs, Equipages [ i.e., chatelaines ], Watch chains, Tweezers for Men and Women, Snuff-Boxes, Coat Buttons, Shirt Buttons, Knives and forks, Spoons, Salvers, Buckles for Ladies Breasts, Stock Buckles, Shoe Buckles, Knee Buckles, Girdle Buckles, Stock Clasps, Knee Clasps, Necklaces, Corals, and in particular Watches, plain and chased in so curious a manner as not to be distinguished by the nicest eye, from the real gold, and which are highly necessary for Gentlemen and Ladies when they travel, with several other fine pieces of workmanship of all sorts made by the best hands. He also makes Repeating and all other sorts of Clocks and Watches particularly Watches of a new invention, the mechanism of which is so simple, and the proportion so just, that they come nearer the truth than others yet made."
On the whole,  it will be found that they are principally things for use as well as ornament,  if we except necklaces.

This early Pinchbeck is very beautifully worked up and finished,  some of the miniature cases and watches being designed and chased in a very masterly manner.  They of course followed the general type of goldwork of the day,  and the design is of the type known as Rococo.  I have seen a chatelaine of this material which had so preserved its original colour and surface,  having been carefully kept,  that it was for years considered by the lady to whom it belonged to be gold.  She was very annoyed at finding it was not of the precious metal,  and removed it from the post of honour which it had previously held on her curio table.  This seems to me a very commercial point of view.  Surely antiques should be judged as works of art and not by the worth of the material.

The fame of English makers spread to France,  where the alloy was evidently in considerable demand,  especially for watches.  In that country it was known variously as Pinsbeck,  Pincebeck,  and Pinsbek.  A metal of the same character was invented by a Lille jeweler named Rentz,  but it had one very important failing  -  it lost its colour very soon.  Before it could held to justify the name of "similor" it had to be perfected by Leblanc,  a worker in the Royal employ,  who somewhat altered the manufacture of it and obtained a really good imitation.  A great deal of jewellery was made out of it,  and it was very well patronized;  but it aroused the indignation of the workers in the genuine metal,  and legal proceedings were instituted,  with the result that after a time the alloy was only allowed to be used for such things as shoe buckles,  buttons,  &c.,  which did not much compete with the regular goldsmith's work.  It has been said that with Edward Pinchbeck's death the secret of the correct method of making it,  whatever it was,  died out,  but metal bearing a close resemblance to it continued to be used well into the nineteenth century  -  in fact,  until the process of electro-gilding made it easy and cheap to deposit a wash of gold on any metal as required.  Brass articles with a coating of gold are often passed of as Pinchbeck,  and even if they are without the gilding some dealers think "Pinchbeck" sounds better and helps to sell their stock.  If unacquainted with the respective appearance of the metals,  brass may be distinguished by having a metallic smell,  especially when a little warmed by being held and rubbed in the hand.  Rolled gold which is sometimes offered for it is quite a modern invention,  and consists of an exceedingly thin plate of gold on a background of inferior metal.  The gold forms a part of the sheet,  wire or whatever it is,  before being made up,  and is not a wash or coating added after.

A very charming collection illustrative of the general forms of the eighteenth-century jewellery might be got together,  consisting of work in this metal,  probably at one-twentieth of the price which would be paid for the same things in gold.  Besides the price is further reduced because as a rule the stones are not real;  and buckles of Pinchbeck and paste,  mock pearls,  or coral will serve to illustrate design and workmanship as well as the finest diamonds and purest gold.  Really good Pinchbeck is not,  however,  very cheap,  watches especially being much collected,  five to ten pounds being sometimes given for a nice,  early specimen by a good maker.  On the other hand buckles of early design may be obtained for about five to ten shillings each;  a nice chatelaine would probably be worth thirty shillings or more.  A very handsome pair of buckles,  most beautifully chased,  were offered me the other day for fifteen shillings.  The colour is as good as the day they were made,  and the cost of making them a hundred years ago must have been considerably more,  as the workmanship was that of a master-hand.  Snuff-boxes in good early styles are always of value,  and according to the amount of decoration may be worth from five shillings upwards.  Buttons are not much collected,  and there are a good many about which can be obtained at a shilling each or less.  Of course, when we come to those which are set with such things as Wedgwood cameos and Tassie gems,  though the setting is somewhat later than the original maker's productions,  these charming copies of the antique have a certain value of their own apart from the mounting.  Rather later, Pinchbeck and similar base metals were used for the cheaper kind of jewellery which had such a vogue during the Directoire and Empire periods especially for the mounting of the high combs,  set with modern cameos,  mock pearls,  coral,  tortoiseshell,  and such materials,  which were almost universally worn at that time.  These,  though so plentiful in their day,  do not appear in any quantity in dealer's shops, as a rule.  Whether they are really scarce or whether there is only a small market for them and so are not made a feature of is uncertain.  Probably if there was a demand for them numbers would appear from somewhere.  This is not meant to infer that they would be imitations,  but simply that people seeing they had a pecuniary value,  would turn out their stores and produce hidden treasures in the same way they have done lately with lustre ornaments.  Five years ago one hardly saw one about.  Now every curio shop has a few for sale.  A very frequent ornament for the hair was a bunch of wheat,  and this,  like every ornament of the early nineteenth century,  was copied in Pinchbeck.  It had a very pretty effect,  but there is not the same perfect workmanship in the work of those later times as there was in that made when the original firm worked;  and though interesting as examples of a certain class of ornament,  they are not in the same category as to craftsmanship as the earlier pieces.

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