Cut-steel jewelry is made of steel studs that resemble faceted mini mushrooms attached to steel frames. The highly polished studs resemble gemstones were considered fine jewelry imitations. Both the cut-steel mushroom and the settings were made of the same material and often were mistaken for marcasite.
Cut-steel jewelry appeared in the 17th century and grew in popularity until the switch was made from hand production to mechanical mass production in the 19th century. Quality suffered with the switch as did popularity of the faux gems. The more facets on the mushroom, the more the faux jewel would shine. With the automated process the number of facets were reduced, thus producing an inferior product.
The very early pieces were mostly utilitarian - belt buckles and sword decorations - but eventually production branched out to every category of jewelry. It is interesting to note that when French aristocrats had to donate their precious jewels to support the Seven Years War they replaced them with cut-steel baubles from England. England was their enemy but was the best source of cut-steel jewelry at the time. Eventually French artisans became adept at producing the jewelry, satisfying and profiting in the local market and circumventing the English craftsmen.
Some maintain finding examples of this jewelry is becoming difficult due to much of it being melted down and repurposed over the years. This plus the deterioration factor steel exhibits has caused much of it to disappear over time.
Even so if one is looking for quality in an example of cut-steel jewelry they should look for the older Georgian style examples rather than the Victorian renditions.
The Georgian period lasted from 1714 through 1847, and the jewelry fabricated during this time was incredibly intricate and ornate. This attention to detail could only be done by hand which made for some very beautiful cut-steel jewelry. In fact it was so well made that it wasn't just worn as a substitute for precious gems but because it was lovely in its own right. It perfectly fit into the mourning jewelry motif of the period with its black and dark gray appearance.
Today prices of the jewelry are quite high for the authentic Georgian examples yet there seem to be lots of it advertised for a pittance. As always buy from a reputable dealer and do your homework.
Jean McClelland writes about antiques for The Herald-Dispatch.