Essex crystals are also known as ‘reverse intaglios’. They are a cabochon of colourless rock quartz that has been carved on the flat side after which the details of the design are painted, creating a three dimensional ‘trompe l’oeil effect’.

Essex crystals acquired their name from William Essex, an artist who was recognised for his miniature enamel work created in the Victorian & Edwardian times. However, this was wrongly attributed and the only artist who made signed reverse intaglios was Emile Marius Pradier of Belgium.

Originally, reverse intaglio were made from rock crystal and were very popular from roughly 1860-1930. The rock crystal is shaped into its cabochon form and the image is drawn on the reverse side in watercolour paints. A scribe pencil and as many as 250 different soft steel tools in combination with a paste made out of diamond powder and oil are used to carve the image. After the design is carved in, the detail is painstakingly painted in using very fine brushes, some of which may only have consisted of one single hair!!

Depending on the era, cabochons were fashioned out of rock crystal, glass, clear bakelite and transparent Lucite. To enhance the three dimensional effect, the earliest crystals were backed in gold foil, followed by etched mother of pearl and then plain mother of pearl.  Initially, crystals produced in the Victorian times were framed by mounts made generally out of sterling silver, 18ct or 22ct gold. As time moved on the use of plastic to create the domes signalled the end of mounts as plastic is not as fragile as glass, so protecting the edges wasn’t as necessary.

Inspiration for the images within the crystals fell into four main categories. Animals , birds, flowers and nautical themes. Most often depicted were dogs, cats, racing horses, insects, foxes, floral scenes, monograms or coaching or gaming scenes. The crystals were not only used in jewellery, but also buttons, tie pins, cufflinks & stickpins. Occasionally two crystals were fitted back to back creating a sphere shape pendant showing  the front and back of one image.

We have three exquisite examples of Essex crystals showcased in our catalogue this year. The first is a very sweet Victorian bracelet with crystals attached portraying a dove carrying a letter, ‘Love’s Message’.  The second is an Austrian reverse painted intaglio crystal brooch depicting a bouquet of flowers and the third is an Essex crystal parrot brooch circa 1870.

Amina McPhee

The French Jewel Box