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chunk of brass gold Pyrite

Fool’s Gold: Focus on Marcasite Jewelry

Jun 9, 2023 | jewelry materials

I have a new-found love of marcasite jewelry because it’s so easy to find, because it’s affordable, and because it comes in so many unique shapes and designs, from animals and insects, to planes and ships, to Mughal-inspired and Art Deco geometric abstract designs.

Collection of marcasite and sterling jewelry | minusOne jewelry

What is marcasite, anyway?

In short, marcasite is pyrite.

If you ever as a kid played in a creek or dug a hole in the woods, you probably came across a rock or two that sparkled and made you think for a moment you’d struck gold. What you’d found was pyrite, aka “fool’s gold”.

If you’ve ever been conned into buying fake gold, that’s something different. Read more about the Autobahn and fake gold.

Pyrite with large striated cubic crystals of pyrite (iron sulphide). It was acquired by Albert Chapman from the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in the USA.

Pyrite is what Laura Ingalls found in that episode of Little House on the Prairie, the End of the Rainbow (S2E10). It broke her heart.

I’m not a mineral aficionado, but there’s so much to learn about rocks, I can see how a person might fall deeply in love with the study. Where we live in Ithaca, NY, a successful mineral store has been in business on the Commons for as long as I’ve lived here. The Australian Museum has a fascinating introduction to crystallography that gives a hint of what could be in store.

Marcasite jewelry does not actually contain the mineral marcasite, which is too brittle for jewelry making. But pyrite is 6–7 on Moh’s hardness scale, alongside opal, peridot, tanzanite, jade, and garnet. It’s both easy to work with, and durable enough to sustain wear.

Marcasite and sterling ring.

Read about jadeite, another affordable semi-precious stone used in Art Deco jewelry designs.

For wordlers out there, the origin of the word marcasite is the Medieval Latin “marcasita,” which is connected in turn to the Arabic word “markaschatsa.” These terms mean “fire stone.” Marcasite was actually an important fire-starter, creating a spark when struck with iron or flint.

Pyrite is only one stone of the marcasite fire-starter family. Other stones named for their ability to help people make fire include pyrrhotite, galena, sphalerite, fluorite, dolomite, and calcite.

Here, for example is galena, a fire starter in the marcasite family that has a lead-grey metallic color.

galena, a fire starter in the marcasite family.

But for the beauty of its brassy gold metallic shine, its ubiquitousness, and for its balance of malleability and durability, pyrite became the marcasite of marcasite jewelry.

How is marcasite jewelry made?

Faceted chips of pyrite are bead set, a setting used where drops of metal are used to hold the gem or stone in place. Bead setting makes marcasite jewelry’s signature bumpy texture.

The pavé style of marcasite jewelry became widely used during the Art Deco era. Pavé relies on bead setting for the expansive paving of gems or stones over larger surfaces.

Judith Jack 1980s Art Deco revival cityscape sterling brooch

The pavé setting is used in this Judith Jack 1980s Art Deco revival cityscape sterling brooch.

Read more about bead setting and pavé style jewelry during the Art Deco era.

Is there fake marcasite jewelry?

In general, pyrite is so inexpensive that fake marcasite jewelry is unusual. However, the production of marcasite jewelry can be labor-intensive, because of the large number of stones being cut and set. Fake marcasite jewelry can be made from casts, like this clasp which appears to have been made from the mold of an authentic marcasite finding.

clasp which appears to have been made from the mold of an authentic marcasite finding.

Marcasite jewelry is most often found with silver settings. Read about why silver tone Art Deco jewelry was more popular than gold during the 1920s.

Ancient marcasite jewelry

Pyrite was used in jewelry thousands of years ago by the ancient Greeks, ancient Egyptians, and Ancient Americans (Mayans, Incans, Tenochca).

The MET in New York currently has in its collections ancient beaded necklaces including pyrite cylinder beads, bead-making being one of the oldest forms of decoration. Found in Iran, this necklace dates to around the 9th century BC (an Iron Age almost three thousand years ago), and includes beads of stone, shell, glass, and pyrite.

Title: Necklace of three strands
Period: Iron Age II, Hasanlu Period IV
Date: ca. 9th century BCE
Geography: Iran, Hasanlu
Culture: Iran
Medium: Stone, shell, glass, pyrite

How the ancients used pyrite is very different to what we consider marcasite jewelry today.

Marcasite and Victorian Mourning jewelry

Marcasite (pyrite), like onyx and jet, became popular in the Victorian Era after the death of Prince Albert (1819-1861). Queen Victoria’ restricted her own clothing and that of her court to black or dark-colored mourning jewelry and dress.

This Victorian era gold locket with turquoise and pyrite brooch might not have been allowed because of its colorful stones and gold setting, but the pyrite chips can be see in the pattern alongside the turquoise and jadeite.

Victorian era gold locket with turquoise and pyrite brooch

“Queen Victoria was the monarch of mourning. After the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, she famously spent the next four decades shrouded in black dresses and jewels—lots of jewels. She had what you could call an obsession with jewelry and commissioned countless pieces to remember her dearly departed husband and close relatives.”

Town and Country claims, “The monarch didn’t just adopt traditional mourning attire, she ushered in a new era of fashionable jewels.”

This French Georgian revival marcasite and silver statement necklace with etching on the reverse was found for sale on 1stDibs for US$1,400. Dated circa 1860s.

Art Deco marcasite jewelry

Marcasite found its way into both fine jewelry and also costume jewelry in the Art Deco era to such a large extent that often when we think of marcasite jewelry, it’s as an example of 1920’s aesthetic.

Judith Jack, a mid-century costume jewelry brand, anecdotally couldn’t keep their Art Deco marcasite jewelry in stock during their early days as estate jewelry sellers. Seeing a gap in the market, Judith Jack mass produced Art Deco revival marcasite jewelry in the 1970s and 80s.

Because of its easy availability and rock-bottom affordability, pyrite was an easy stone to commodify for the masses.

Judith Jack’s marcasite jewelry became so successful that the brand partnered with the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and Disney.

A quick search of Ebay or Etsy will show you many of the Art Deco style pieces made and sold by Judith Jack available today usually for between $40 and $100.

How to clean marcasite jewelry

Marcasite jewelry is easy to clean with warm, soapy water. A toothbrush or other soft-bristle brush won’t damage the pyrite. Because marcasite is most often set in sterling silver, a silver polishing cloth can also be used to buff the setting.

There’s really no reason not to try a piece.

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