Camphor glass jewelry is beloved by Art Deco aficionados. Unique and distinctive, it instantly evokes the slinky dresses and smokey speakeasies of the era. Below, we take a deep dive into the history of camphor glass and its somewhat macabre origins.
One can trace the origins of camphor glass all the way back to the mid 17th century, where rock crystal (clear quartz) was cut with a flat top and faceted sides into “Stuart Crystals”. After King Charles I, part of the Stuart Monarchs in England, was executed in 1649, his followers began to wear these Stuart Crystals set atop rings featuring his initials, portrait, or even locks of his hair, to show their loyalty to him. In that style, Stuart Crystals were also used more widely in memento mori and mourning jewelry in the Georgian Era.
Rock crystal would continue to be used throughout the Victorian Era, where it would start to take the form of carved intaglio and cameo designs. When the crystal was carved, it would take on a cloudy finish. It was this look, the soft translucency, that the makers of camphor glass would later seek to imitate. In the meantime, the use of rock crystal would continue to innovate, with geometrically carved plaques (flat designs). These plaques would be set with a small accent gem, often a diamond, at the center. This is the design that was most often used when camphor glass would begin to replace rock crystal.
The great French jewelers (Cartier, Boucheron, Mauboussin, and Fouquet, to name a few) were all using rock crystal in their jewelry designs by the mid 1920’s. This material was not viewed as a cheap imitation of precious gems, but rather a thing of beauty in its own right. Used in both transparent and opaque forms, it was favored for its flawlessness and versatility. Due to its accessibility, crystal glass could be used in costume jewelry, as well, which contributed to its popularity. The fashionability of the style, combined with the mass production mentality of the era, opened the door for camphor glass to replace rock crystal.
Camphor glass is made by treating clear glass with hydrofluoric acid vapors to achieve the signature frosted finish. The word “camphor” refers to gum camphor, a kind of resin extracted from camphor trees, which has a cloudy transparency. The use of camphor glass in jewelry in the 1920’s was in the same plaque style of rock crystal. It would often feature a radiant star design that would draw the eye to the center, which was usually set with a small diamond. The glass would be treated the same way a gemstone would, set into a delicate filigree frame, and worn as a pendant or earrings. The glass was often colorless, but could also be blue or pink. In addition to jewelry, camphor glass was used in homewares and objet d’arts.
Camphor glass jewelry continues to be prized by collectors. The frosted look has a timeless elegance and refinement that elevates it beyond the sum of its parts. Available in both fine gold and costume pieces, camphor glass jewelry is an accessible way to start your Art Deco jewelry collection.