From Grief to Glamour: The Enduring Beauty of Camphor Glass

I’ve had this necklace and bracelet forever.
I can only assume it originally belonged to my grandmother and was passed down to my mother.

Esemco camphor glass necklace, circa 1920

Esemco camphor glass necklace, circa 1920

 

I had no idea what it was, but I loved to wear it on special occasions (the bracelet is far too small). Then one night I found the pendant and chain tangled in my sweater — the bail was missing. I was heartbroken, but thankful that the bail was the only thing that was gone.

Suddenly I wanted to know more about the treasure I’d almost lost. It took hours of typing in “glass,” “filigree” and “silver” to discover that it’s camphor glass.

Esemco camphor glass bracelet, circa 1920

Esemco camphor glass bracelet, circa 1920

What is Camphor Glass?
According to the Antique Jewelry University, “Camphor glass is clear glass that has been treated with hydrofluoric acid vapors to give it a frosted whitish appearance. This effect resembles gum camphor (a fascinating thing to learn about itself!), hence the name…In jewelry the glass was often cast with a star pattern on the reverse to give it a radiant appearance. Camphor glass was made to imitate the carved rock crystal quartz (a semi precious stone) that was popular from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1930’s.”

Vintage camphor glass jewelry is quite distinctive, with its square, rectangular or oval shaped glass, typically framed with silver filigree metal (either pot metal, white gold, platinum or sterling), and featuring a single marcasite gem at the center. Some pieces have “rays” emanating from the gem; others, like my pieces, are plain. While most camphor glass is frosted/clear, some have been made in pale greens, pinks and varying shades of blue.

Art Deco glamour that began as a sign of sadness.

Antique White Gold Camphor Glass and Diamond Filigree Pendant Photo courtesy of The Copper Canary, Etsy

Antique White Gold Camphor Glass and Diamond Filigree Pendant
Photo courtesy of The Copper Canary, Etsy

The oldest necklaces and brooches were made in the Midwest in the 1890s as mourning pieces (the Victorians were big on celebrating death). They became extremely popular in the 1920s and 1930s, with their lovely filigree and Art Deco lines. I was surprised to learn that they were produced until the 1940s, primarily by two companies.

The most prominent seem to have been the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company and Esemco (which later became Shiman Mfg. Co.). It seems next to impossible to find out much about Esemco, but their marks are listed here under the Shiman name.

Esemco logo, date unknown

Esemco logo, date unknown

Camphor glass is rapidly becoming more popular, and prices reflect the demand. I have no idea what my necklace and bracelet are worth, but I’ve seen some beautiful pieces for thousands of dollars! And some authorities claim that blue camphor glass made by the Sandwich Glass Company is “extremely rare.” Alas, mine is Esemco.

Naturally, reproductions abound.
Prices for camphor glass can range from the low hundreds to several thousand dollars. It can be difficult for the layperson to distinguish the old from the new, but here are some guidelines:

  • Check out the clasps. They can often help you date any piece of jewelry. Before 1930, the C clasp was in use.
  • Be suspicious of “customized” pieces. Most genuine antique camphor glass pieces have a simple marcasite gemstone or diamond in the center. But some pieces feature coral flowers, Eastern Stars and other ornamentation. This may indicate a newer piece by an original manufacturer or one that has been customizedIf in doubt, check with someone who is an expert before paying a high price.

The beauty and style of camphor glass lives on.
Many artisans are updating the look and creating new pieces that complement today’s styles. Some use flawed camphor glass; others re-recreate its look in new materials. Either way, camphor glass has a style all its own!

Dragonfly earrings camphor glass style Photo courtesy of BrightEchoVintage, Etsy

Dragonfly earrings camphor glass style
Photo courtesy of BrightEchoVintage, Etsy

PS: If anyone recognizes my necklace and knows where I can find a replacement bail, I’d really appreciate it. I’m dying to wear it again!

 

 

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About sarathurston

I'm a marketing communications writer who also loves antiques and collectibles. You can find my shop on Etsy at http://www.etsy.com/shop/JanvierRoad
This entry was posted in Antiques, Etsy, Vintage Jewelry, Why Are Antiques Important? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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