The Cleaning and Restoration of Art Nouveau Metalwork
By Steven P. Pody, Major collector of Nouveau Jewel Boxes, Co-Author of Collectors Journal article, “Nouveau Jewelry Boxes Portray Spring Floral Fantasies” with Joanne Wiertella, and Author of the The Panoptikon: An Adventure of Poetic Thought….
Introduction of Properties Art Nouveau jewelry boxes, circa 1892 to 1915, come in several general characteristic categories. By far the greatest originally-manufactured and surviving portion are of American origin, and as such are mostly items of mass manufacture using spelter – a pewter-like alloy of lead and zinc used in era statues and a multitude of other items of souvenir and daily use. Spelter comprised the basic molded item. American boxes, specifically gold ones, will very often have a copper plating over the spelter base layer, and the gold plate or paint will be on top as a third layer. When the gold wears thin over time, this copper gives the gold very warm and soft aesthetic highlights.
In any case, the surface will have various overlays of coloring used to give the product an attractive finish.
Spelter is wonderfully moldable, but is not particularly strong, so the restoration of these items often involve the following aspects of jewelry box repair — the subsequent cracks and snapped hinges that time and ill chance have imposed.
French pieces for the common folk, often marked “Depose’ ” (which means the design is patented), are likewise of spelter construction. Better class French items, meant to be statements of high art as well as serving a useful function, are made of bronze. Bronze is a stronger metal than spelter, and carries its own characteristics. Bronze boxes are complete products unto themselves with no overlay material, but bronze can discolor in various interesting and not always attractive ways.
German pieces are very class oriented. The souvenir boxes, typically with medallion motifs on the lid bearing the souvenir subject, come in two types – silver or copper. The silver is usually a silver wash over a very thin tin or spelter body. Copper will be plating over thin spelter.
The next level up in class is a type of finished alloy (zinn or Kaiserzinn) which, through German preference, is a composition more akin to full pewter (tin and lead), than its cheaper relative, spelter (a zinc and lead combo). The underbody and surface are of one material and given a dense, fine-grain polished surface.
Top-of-the-line Jugendstil, such as crafted by WMF, may have a spelter body with heavy silver plating or may even be of solid silver.
For some unknown reason, German use of gold coloring in Jugendstil work is very rare and not particularly lavished on any special effort, but rather may be very occasionally seen on cheap pieces.
This discussion is for Art Nouveau full metalwork pieces only, though it should be mentioned that the French (and American Tiffany) liked to marry metal design with glass in some of their finest containerwork, and the Germans branched out with metal design inlaid into fine woodwork. The care and feeding of this class of items is not discussed here. While cleaning glass and metal combinations shouldn’t present a particularly great challenge, these material combinations adorn only top-of-the-line items and potentially very fragile material — a double whammy of extreme caution.
Restoration, Part I: Strengthen For Cleaning/Repair Phase Much discussion devolves herein around the fragility of the spelter alloy and the hinges of Art Nouveau jewelry boxes. Additionally, applied original paint or plating has responded to the test of time in various ways, many aspects of which are unsightly in the extreme. The interior fabric, cording and supporting structures (cotton wadding and cardboard), also show the wear and tear of heavy use and the long weight of tens of thousands of days.
Much may be done by the amateur to restore both the appearance and the structural strength of their own little Art Nouveau masterpiece. The techniques are simple, and require minimal material, basic knowledge and common sense, a steady hand, and some patience. But by the middle of this century, the better Art Nouveau jewelry boxes, or ANJB collections still in family hands, will all be subjects for major art auction-house sales and museums. Preservation should begin now to ensure the future value of the item and for the continued visual delight for those who follow. …And to enhance an item for your own visual pleasure, here and now, is no great shame either.
Now, which philosophical school of thought shall one follow? Coin collectors and certain fanatic antique-o-philes hold that an item should exist solely in its current “natural” state. Original patina or paint shows through, and our little piece of history can give us some idea of its qualities as issued and passed down to us from another world in time. Adhering to this philosophy has a consequence that there are fewer pristine-looking examples which survive, each of which are therefore so much more the valuable for the fateful luck of having experienced a mild and kind fate. “Original State” is a consideration of the historically-minded, and in its way shows a respect for the intent and vision of the creator of yesteryear.
However, yesteryear included two world wars, a “great” depression, and numerous generations of kiddies. Perhaps your already rare-survivor jewelry box is showing a bit of the strain. Those inclined to aesthetics would argue thusly: The Art Nouveau jewelry box is not just a lumpy historical container designed to hold a lady’s jewelry or a man’s cuff links. They were specifically fabricated to be creations of beauty, and a perpetual delight to the eye. It would be disrespectful to let such a gem rot through time when its proper destiny should be to thrill, charm and educate, again and again through the ages. If it was perfect before, let it be so again, and let it be a permanent testament of its times and the dramatic art form it represents. Restore the metal, restore the fabric, and let it once more and forever display the glory of its shining youth.
Well…, first things first. Art Nouveau metal box-ware, without altering the surface finish, and without insulting anyone, may be cheaply and critically strengthened. This is a must, for a crack is an imposed structural flaw, a weakness that will spread slowly and fatally through continued use of the item. Given extraordinary pressure, a crack can suddenly leave you with a three-dimensional jig-saw puzzle to play with. Prevention is the infinitely preferable route.
Fortunately, modern science has come to the aid of spelter-lovers everywhere. The classes of these chemical wonders include the super-glues and epoxies, in any one of their many commercial manifestations. Spelter, or pot metal, responds superbly to these adhesives, and if they can be applied without leaving glue fingerprints, you will have a clean and lasting bond. (Practice, practice, practice. It’s easier when the memories of super-glue bonded fingers come to mind!) Material like “J.B. Weld” comes in a 5-minute-set version, and is terrific to use with finger pressure, clamps or rubber bands. It is also good as bonding filler stuffed up into edge lip overlap cracks, drying with plain old gravity.
These adhesives are able to withstand smoothing (if you’ve left a rough spot), liquids – without dissolving (though there is a possibility the bond might be weakened), and also may take on any decorative coating of paint without protest. For super-glue, the most practical vise, after fingers, are rubber bands. They are a simple versatile tool and don’t glue to the surface. Body cracks, lid cracks – especially around the hinge, and the hinge tubing itself, all respond well. Given time and stable working circumstances, two-component epoxy for metal has its own unique uses that you may come to appreciate. Sometimes I will secure a broken chip (as in, from a jagged hole in the body or lid) from the inside with a super-glue anchor. After quick drying, a thick layer of epoxy will not only permanently secure the piece, but will fill in the expansion cracks and gaps, and stabilize the entire potentially weak immediate area as well. As filler, epoxy is by far the better material. Please note that it is almost always possible to apply the repair to the interior of a spelter box.
A fair number of boxes encountered have been repaired previously by the use of solder. These repairs are most likely pre-modern adhesives, and this is still probably a stronger response when dealing with high-use areas like the hinge itself. However, soldering requires a good measure of skill, and these days this technique is generally used as a radical “life or death” cure. Design is obscured, surfaces are blackened and/or blistered, and a rough, if not outright crude finish is left as a by-product of soldering. Restoration from the restoration is always necessary, and examples I have seen passed along show an uneven qualitative response to the problem. Most commonly encountered is a thick new layer of paint to hide success and failure alike under a uniform layer of glittering camouflage. Still, what was once a wreck, or on the verge, was saved for proverbial “posterity”. Finer touches may always be applied eventually. Even fifteen or twenty years ago a box requiring such radical surgery would, unless it was an extraordinary example of its kind, have been unceremoniously tossed out. Suffice it to say that super-glue/epoxy will now accomplish almost everything that once required the relatively knowledgeable application of solder.
Restoration, Part II: Cleaning The next level of restoration after strengthening the metal parts (actual fixing of hinges being a later stage), is a general cleaning. Again, this is the box-owner’s call to determine order of procedure. Evaluate the patient. If the box is very weak, with thin walls like German Jugendstil tourist boxes, the strengthening comes first. Some items won’t be able to stand even a rudimentary cleaning without strengthening and/or repair. On the other hand, if you have a thick-walled box with lip cracks, these may usually be ignored until later, so the applied adhesives don’t have to be subjected to various semi-harsh and harsh fluids, perhaps putting the applied bond at risk.
Of my over 800 Art Nouveau boxes, only a tiny portion, upon purchase, have required no cleaning at all by me. Personally, I don’t think that this makes any particular sense, as a prior owner would surely do better by displaying an item at its best. Then again, antique dealers in particular often have thousands of items, and keeping everything clean doesn’t sound like a great picnic. Anyway, from a collector’s perspective, a good cleaning is necessary for a proper appreciation of all the original texture and flamboyance inherent in an Art Nouveau design. If there is to be a next step, such as painting, than prior cleaning is a must. If done with gentle thoroughness, and no other problems surface, your job may be finished here. Many are the items that have shone in un-improvable splendor after a little patient cleaning work. The job is often easier than you may have first surmised, and when done you will be amazed that no one bothered to attempt the deed long years ago.
Don’t be lazy. Any Art Nouveau jewelry box will look a hundred percent better if only paint or plate stands between you and the metal. The beautiful, elaborate surface texturing, the primary attraction for any collector, is clearer, bolder and just plain far more striking: A real eye-catcher, just as it was intended to be.
Straightforward rubbing of the surfaces with a clean paper towel or a piece of flannel will shine up the metal a bit, get rid of some surface greasiness, and even some of the tarnish as well. However, this is a rudimentary approach, quite insufficient to do justice to most examples of these stunning items. To do the cleaning job right and thoroughly, and looking close to professional restoration, the use of four liquids of increasing cleaning power are recommended.
The top three crusty cruds gumming up the intricate crevices and detailing of a jewelry box are dust, ancient face powder, and the caked powder remaining from years of accumulation of various types of metal polishes. The dust, naturally enough, comes from sitting and neglect. The face powder is a logical occurrence, coming as it does from within the front-lines environment of a lady’s boudoir, where jewelry and cosmetics are different phases of the same battle plan. Silver-polish caking is a careless and counterproductive phenomenon that comes in two forms; either a lot of buildup from household effort, or a sloppy thin smear from a dealer’s last-second desperate endeavor to make the box shiny and saleable.
Cited below is the order of attack to achieve the pristine surface that your artistic treasure was created with for original presentation and sale.
Step 1. Use a wooden tongue depressor, a potter’s wooden molding tool or the like, and gently pry out any surviving interior fabric and supporting cardboard and cotton, — the top and bottom lid and body set. When you lay it all aside you’ll want to remember what parts faced frontwards.
Fluid #1: Water. In most cases, a patient and gentle toothbrush brushing under a faucet will remove unsightly built-up material. Be very careful not to be too vigorous, as some box walls or the bottoms of the crevices in the design are extruded very thinly. Water will eliminate dust, dirt and eventually, if present, the caked-in silver polish. All but the best preserved, or those dreadful contemporarily re-silvered boxes, need this.
Gently brush as you rinse. I’ve had encrusted jewelry boxes foam up dramatically from whatever soapy silver polish (or soapy soap) was nestled in the crevices — often from years of dried accumulation. Water also softens up the dirt encasing your little gem. Again, be extremely attentive that no plating or gilding is being damaged by the abrasive brushing (plating is not scratched by this action, but it may be damaged when brushing over a plating hole or a pealing split or crack which may give access to further peeling).
The tool of greatest use is an old toothbrush, expendable and softened by use, but not quite limp-soft. Wooden or plastic toothpicks may also be considered as tools, but again beware the very thin nature of much of the metalwork. Gently dislodge resistant crud, don’t poke. Encasing a toothpick in a bit of damp flannel or paper towel and applying a moderate pressure in the crevices and along any raised detailing will help remove some of the stubborn, difficult-to-reach tarnish and/or encrustation. The cleaning material turns quickly black, yellow or green, and you have to change to fresh material often, but this trick will do a great job in cleaning out the obscuring contaminant color (which surely doesn’t belong on your box) and giving the detailing the boldness of original depth. Even if the paint is worn off of the regular surfaces, color may still be protected and present in the long, narrow depths. Restoring and revealing even just the highlights that are left will do wondrous improvement to the look of your item.
Flannel or chamois is mostly effective on the large, smooth, unadorned fields, with their accumulated dark nastiness, as they concurrently provide some polishing action. Is some of the coating nicotine? Undoubtedly. See further steps cited below, with increasing strength fluids to assault various contaminants. Yet no matter what the skuzzy film, an amazing shine usually exists underneath – which, ironically enough, may have been preserved by this dark “protective coating” over the long years.
On rare occasions I’ve even had to unlimber a small set of dental tools, but this was only for hard corrosion such as found around exposed copper, or scraping off what looks like ink (as in, from an ink-well). Ink spots are dried to pure carbon and are very stubborn. Very carefully and very lightly, direct metal-on-metal friction is used only if necessary, and strictly last resort. Use a dental pick sideways and operate over the subject spot in small, light circular motions.
Actually, after several years of looking for something less harsh to supplement my tool inventory, I finally found a satisfactory set of pointed hardwood tools at an art supply store. These blades and points are normally used for modeling clay and other soft sculpting tasks. And, in fact, my best piece is of bamboo and was crafted for calligraphic ink illustration. These tools now serve for many of my crevice-picking duties.
Fluid #2: Nail Polish Remover. (First, make sure the surface is dry from your prior water-cleaning efforts.) Then the next level of assault is scentless, plain nail polish remover. Generic or house brands from grocery or drug stores are best as they are straightforward and strong, unfancy and unbuffered. This substance contains acetone and/or toluene, essentially light-duty oil and grease removers. Apply with balls of cotton, and for finer work use Q-Tips for hard-to-reach design devices and creviced surfaces. You can also mildly push into crevices with a wooden tool to give some slight abrasive action, when your fingernail pressed through the cotton won’t do. Nail polish remover will remove or discolor the surface of a lot of modern materials, but it will do nothing negative to an original Art Nouveau jewelry box. Not only is the box paint of the era often infused with gold or silver particles, but in all probability is also lead-based as well, and as such is totally inert and non-reactive to nail polish remover. So why use this? Second-stage cleaning with nail polish remover attacks three very important enemies of a clean box surface – a hundred years of oil-based finger grease film; the greenish crud often infesting box surfaces — which I believe to be an accumulated combination of humidity and cosmetics dust; …and a slimy film of nicotine. It was just becoming fashionable for ladies to smoke during the liberating and concurrent nouveau/suffragette period, and even if undetectable through smell (though it may be in the fabric), nicotine is very often present. After water, I recommend this further stage for every spelter box also (DON’T USE ON PERIOD TOLEWARE!), and be especially vigilant cleaning around the various tabs that fingers have been touching all these years to open the box. Do not use around the perishable, non-metal aspects that might be on or in your jewelry box – interior lining fabrics, fabric half-sphere pin-cushion tops, and medallion celluloid coverings of the souvenir type.
Fluid #3: Tarnish Remover. In most cases the metal item you are concentrating surface-cleaning efforts upon is now restored – if you are down to the original finish. At this point, if the item is silver, the application of a reputable tarnish remover might be advisable. In some cases this can do wonders, though often the surviving plate is of uneven quality or even leached of all its original silver. This is due to a terminal silver-oxidation deterioration of the plate (which can also strip off in appalling pieces), or the many years of pressure/friction polishing which have worn away the plate on the highest and most exposed features. Products, such as Tarn-X, work well to reverse some unsightly tarnish, or at least diminish some measure of the damage. One loses silver either way – though the use of polish or through the tolerance of tarnish, but at least the polish will serve to temporarily stave off further damage from corrosion cancer.
Fluid #4: Paint Remover. If, however, unoriginal paint has been badly applied sometime over the years, it will be time to call upon (and this is going to shock your antique-o-phile sensibilities, so sit down) the industrial-sounding response of paint remover. …And it is infallible. Remember that part about era paint being lead based? Paint remover, such as “Dad’s”, brush or spray applied, will remove every bit of paint, or clear-coat lacquer or varnish, except the original factory-fresh paint surface of the box, as issued. Repeat: Courtesy of this trait of late-19th and early 20th Century protective coating technology, paint remover will not harm the original finish of your item.
Varnish or lacquer may have been applied to a jewelry box by the manufacturer or added at any point in its career. This was meant by the applier to be a protective coating, and additionally to brighten up an object, giving original surfaces more glow and intensity. However, just like the same mixtures applied to old Master’s paintings, this coating must go in the restoration process. Clear coatings do not age well, turning yellow, and sometimes brittle. A temporary solution by some is another coat of lacquer application, and everything looks brighter/shinier again. …But this is increasingly a cheat on what the designer really wanted you to see. Eventually, the coating or coatings are counterproductive and mute surface reflectivity and color. Even in this stage, the coating is protecting the original surface, but unfortunately, the original surface may now be hard to discern through blotchy, often yellowed dullness.
Many boxes have been repainted, sometimes multiple times. Once you are used to original surfaces from pristine Art Nouveau-period examples, it is easy to tell the difference. I only have two cautions: If you have an original “Ivory” box (one of four original surface finishes – gold, silver, copper and ivory) you will probably not want to remove this. And second, a strong constitution, sense of curiosity and a measure of faith are needed, for there is no guarantee what you will find when you go down to the original surface. You may very well find out, for good or ill, why subsequent owners over-painted your item. Reasons may have been to cover extreme wear of the original color/surface, or perhaps to cover up cracks, repairs and fill material over holes large and/or small. I once purchased a heavily painted item and basically found out that the paint was holding the multiply-cracked item together. Sometimes, and not infrequently, I’ve removed ugly, clumpy gold paint and found a superbly preserved silver box underneath. A previous owner possibly had simply preferred a golden color, and by applying such paint had accidently sealed off the silver from any subsequent oxidation. People often do odd things, and you’d be surprised how much information you can glean from the history of the box and the motivations of prior owners by experiencing what lies between the present you and the original circa-1905 box surface.
The techniques for using paint remover are straightforward, but caution must be observed. Anything that can eat through paint can eat through you, and a few tools and procedures properly used will stand you in good stead against chemical burns. …Again, not rocket science or evil alchemy. Help this material to help you.
Firstly, do the job outdoors: all petrochemical and anti-petrochemical products need plenty of ventilation. Place the jewelry box on a pile of newspaper, which could be on an outdoor table, …but I prefer the ground. Have a hose with running water handy. Tool #1 for your protection is a pair of Bluettes. These are chemical-resistant gloves (and blue!) that used to be available in every supermarket but now, more reliably, may be found in its different sizes on eBay. If you wear glasses, those will also serve a protective purpose. If not, you should probably wear safety goggles.
Place the box on the paper, have an old toothbrush at hand, put on the gloves and glasses, and turn on the hose. I sit on a foldable camping chair. Mostly, the running hose will be within reach, with the water at a steady stream running off somewhere while you work. You will need this water to rinse your box off, and it may take 2, 3 or even 4 application cycles to remove all of the paint. Apply the paint remover, by spray or by brush, and let it sit for 10 minutes. I normally use a spray can and spray the whole box. Through various cycles you will be concentrating down on those small areas where paint remains in crevices and design devices. After 10 minutes, which have allowed the chemical to break down the paint, hold the box and gently work the dissolved and semi-dissolved paint off with the old tooth brush. This is a danger point for your antique, because it is covered in a foamy liquid and will be slippery. The nature of Bluettes will be an advantage because they grip well, but hang on and pay attention for every second that you have the box in one hand and toothbrush in the other. Slow and gently goes the pace. Rinse off the box, let it dry (or wipe it off), and then apply paint remover again, if needed. I like to accumulate multiple boxes for mass treatment, and so don’t have to sit through ten minutes doing nothing while the paint remover is doing its work on the first item. Remember (and you will!) that that nearby water is also for you, because you may splatter some paint remover (and paint) on yourself through the workings of the toothbrush. Rinse quickly if splattered and no harm will happen. Wear old clothes. The monetary outlay for all of this is pretty minimal, but mastering this will put you a long way on the route to having your own personal restoration laboratory. Once you have seen the original surface of a box shine out through your efforts, you will realize that the effort has all been very much worth it.
Restoration, Part III: The Operational Structure And now, after cleaning, the jewelry box is as perfect as can be made without having added anything radical to the condition of the piece as it was found. If in decent average shape to begin with, it is now a cleaner, sounder example of the scarce survivor of the era to which it lays claim. It is now time to make the item operational, — to make it work properly as a hinged container. This is accomplished at this stage because, first, the box had to be strengthened before the stress of cleaning, and then the item surfaces (lid and body together or separate) had to be handled at various angles with varying pressures applied. This is stress tempting fate.
To begin with, some jewelry boxes entered my collection very inexpensively simply because the seller couldn’t surmount the hurdle of cutting a proper-fitting piece of wire to insert into the hinge and make the box whole again. Sometimes the gauge of the wire is too large to allow for proper hinge movement or the wire has become rusty, making the lid immobile. In fact, aside from gravity accidents, and the dynamics of a heavy lid with soft spelter components exceeding the carrying capacity of the hinges, too large or too rusty hinge wire is probably the third most common cause of hinge tubes snapping off.
Conversely, too small diameter piece of wire makes the lid rattle, and I’ve often found bodies and lids joined by safety and bobby pins, as well as nails. (All good signs for the pushy bargainer!) Yet there is no big secret; wire comes in all degrees / gauges of thickness. In fact, an effective diameter can often be found in the closet, as useful sized coat-hanger wire seems to be a common jewelry box standard and often provides a very successful short snippet. Nails, upon consideration, are also, technically, pieces of wire. When I find one in a box hinge it always seems to still retain the point and the strike head. A wire cutter will give back a proven diameter wire for the hinge, but without the low-class tool aspects. Spool wire, wire coat hangers or nail wire are all viable, and those who maintain large collections of boxes generally have various sizes on hand and at the ready. When cut to proper length, leave the wire piece a bit bowed, and insert. Slight bowing will keep the piece from shifting or even sliding out.
More advanced restorers will also have different sizes of copper tubing available, which may be purchased online or in hobby/craft stores. These are easiest cut with the light but steady application of a metal saw blade. Snipping the tubing with metal shears crushes and closes off the ends and extra effort must be made to reopen the tubes. A set of hobbyist micro-files can be used to smooth off the tube ends after sawing, and then the tubes may be epoxied in place. Remember that this will be almost the last-stage of your restoration, usually followed by just some matching touch-up paint on your new hinge, and you’ll want to have all of the reinforcing and cleaning work done first. The hardest step, but a little initiative could restore your low-tech possession to complete splendor. Don’t be afraid to try.
The proper length of tubing may be measured from either the existing pieces still attached, or by the marks left behind when the original tubing parted company with its relevant lid or body. Whether loose original tubing or newly-cut tubing, make sure the original channels in which the tubing lay are unobstructed and then use J.B. Weld epoxy to reattach. Reattachment can involve different techniques depending on circumstance. Sometimes it is possible to glue several tube pieces in place with the wire already inside to assure alignment. Usually, it will be necessary to glue in stages. If both the lid and body are involved, affix tubes with epoxy first to one part, and then the other. Simultaneously, one must do one’s best to maintain an alignment to accommodate the insertion of hinge wire when everything is solidly in place. Your call, depending on what needs to be confronted.
Frankly, with the current strength of epoxies on the market, and the quick-drying nature of many of them (as little as 5 minutes), I haven’t found it necessary to resort to soldering in many years. Solder welds are very strong, but are a difficult thing to achieve when working with spelter. Use of solder on such material requires advanced experience. The melting point of the zinc and lead in spelter is low, and the potential for box-part damage from a soldering iron may therefore be very high. Also, juggling the soldering iron, solder and hinge all at once is a delicate operation and chances for mal-aligned hinges when it is all over is much greater than with the simpler application of epoxy.
After the hinge has been repaired, use micro files to smooth any rough points in epoxy. Also, remove excess accidently covering parts where holding strength is not needed by filing down to the metal surface. After filing, use touch-up paint to blend the hinge back into being part of the whole artistic statement that it originally was.
Last in the restoration cycle comes the life-or-death repair, quite beyond the soldering of hinges or repairing of cracks. I once had, for instance, a large Art Nouveau jewelry box with a hole in the lid (through the center of a flower, no less) about the size of a large caliber bullet hole. Where metalwork repair seems too technical or crude, a plastic alternative exists. This plastic can be bought in flat strips and cut to whatever size is desired. When placed in boiling water the plastic becomes soft, and when removed from the water it cools to a holdable level very quickly. Then you have about five brisk minutes to do something brilliant, for during this time the surface is totally malleable and can take the form of any bumps or impressions that you might care to make. Pressing the ends of the finished product into the edges of a hole as the plastic cools will hold all in place quite securely (a little added super-glue wouldn’t hurt). When done, the plastic can be painted with the rest of the box, and is thoroughly indistinguishable (if you were up to creative par) from the rest. This versatile material is yet another American Art Clay Co., Inc. product, and goes by the name of “Friendly Plastic”® (“The ultimate modeling material.”).
Now remember, please, that I advocate this sort of radical hole repair not to fool purchasers, but to restore the grandeur of a wounded work of art in a personal collection. No doubt, there are many other ways and tricks to fill gaps and build up details. Superficially, some monetary value may indeed be restored, yet it does honor to a piece to give it your very best in an effort to save the magnificence of its existence. Good restoration work to a piece renders proper and continuing credit and respect to its turn-of-the-century designer/creator. Quite enough beauty is lost forever. A true connoisseur, a real collector, will give no more ground to oblivion.
Restoration, Part IV: Surface Rejuvenation Next rung up on the more radical restoration techniques is the application of paint. Paint not only gives the item attractive color, but is also a protective coating shielding your metal surface from oxidizing effects. Personally, I’ve always felt that the least amount that can be applied is the best response. After a quarter of a century of collecting over 800 items, I’ve completely painted exactly one small box. All other work has been simply matching-paint touch-up work in crevices and creases that were black from lack of paint, or over a small area to provide uniformity where various stains or abrasions have intruded, or to blend in repaired cracks, hinges or other micro-local restorative work. Touch-up paint should be hard to detect and is used to enhance the current condition of an item. A full paint job is hardly ever justified, is hardly ever done correctly, and never passes for original. Some people, of course, paint for personal interpretive pleasure, like the boxes occasionally seen for sale that are all blue, or have the flowers and leaves painted colors, with the rest displayed as white background. If a jewelry box is considered an antique, and if your expectation is that the value will appreciate, then you don’t want to invest in the arts and crafts expression so lovingly assassinated for the ages – unless you feel sorry for the piece and want to attempt a restoration!
Many prior owners have, however, gotten carried away in another direction, and I’ve seen painting done in about every wrong way possible. …The chief crime is not color, but overpainting thickly. Many are the beautiful jewelry boxes with grossly obscured detail, with even the manufacturer’s mark underneath and whole leaves and flowers totally obliterated. If this wasn’t done the first time, then by the twelth layer the box is as good as done in, with only major flowers dimly discernible. Personally, one of my favorite moments is removing thick paint and discovering design devices that were previously totally hidden. It’s like finding a missing cherub in a Michelangelo after many centuries.
Removal, rather than the application of paint is covered under the paragraphs for the cleaning of the box. If you’ve seen your own bad examples then you know first-hand why minimal is best. Also, know your undersurface before starting, usually by examination of the inside lip. This structural section is a continuation of the more prominent outer surface, and a good indicator of base structure.
For potential coating applications, let me clarify that when I say “paint” in any recommendation, I mean gold paint in all its various gloriously available options, …and white paint. I have yet to see a silver-colored paint that didn’t remind me of either aluminum, or chrome highlighted aluminum. Silver paint is the color of pure, new silver. Unfortunately, we are dealing with mismatching times and elements. For one thing, silver antiques over time mostly tarnish to a thousand potential streaky shades and cannot be matched, even after using tarnish remover. For another thing, if the silver surface happens to be pristine and shiny, no silver paint outside of chrome will be able to match the reflective qualities of shining silver, and your item will look spotty with off-color dull marks. Exceptions are the silver-wash German souvenir boxes, which always have a silver look like shiny paint instead of shiny plate.
Existing copper, brass or bronze paints and finishes need mixing to get a believable and agreeable shade. This is somewhat difficult, but possible with practice and a good eye for hue.
Regarding gold paint, it is well to remember the ultimate property of gold: It is so stable an element that it can retain its wonderful shiny-yellow tarnish-proof finish when in a layer only a few molecules thick. Therefore, when applying gold paint, do so thinly. Paint some on and then spread it out and out. In this way there is both uniform color, and much surviving original detail.
There are two types of hobby paint available; the familiar liquid paint (water or oil based), and paint paste (wax based in tubes). Both have their uses and can be spread without streaking and clumping. Paste paint is quite amenable to application with the finger, and if very fresh may also be applied with a small brush, pointy tool or Q-Tip. I use paste almost exclusively. It can be evenly and very quickly applied, and with practice can be done without fingerprinting your treasure.
The leading liquid hobby paints for me are “Brush ‘n Leaf”® whose “Antique Gold” and “Gold Leaf” are both superb. Also available is “Silver Leaf”, which, alas, looks less than appropriate on an antique. For the paste variety, which can come in very handy, I recommend “Rub ‘n Buff”, which I possess in “Grecian Gold”, “Gold Leaf”, “Antique Gold”, “European Gold”, “Antique White”, Copper, Silver, and Black. Gold leaf and antique gold are useful for 99% of American gold boxes. Both types of paint (as the structure of the names imply) are produced by American Art Clay Co., Inc., 4717 West Sixteenth Street, Indianapolis, IN 46222. Both type paints have the advantages of quick and smooth application, and a fast drying time.
I suppose if you can airbrush a detailed plastic model, you may also do so on intricate metalware. If you are the speed-demon type, remember: Protect the fabric, and apply the paint as thinly and evenly as possible.
If you are a newcomer and decide to take the plunge and paint, practice on something you don’t care much about. Painting will not only restore the box to some measure of its’ original greatness, but will also serve to cover the other necessary repairs and sealed cracks that would otherwise detract from the visual unblemished splendor of all your hard work. As stated before, it all depends on the final desired goal – a restored / preserved piece of interesting history, a pleasing real-use jewelry box, or beautiful art. The goals aren’t always at odds.
The next subject, that of plating, is one of heavy cost in money and radical box enhancement. Both expensive, and the preserve of specialists, I have never resorted to this method — mostly through fear of placing a contemporary surface over an original antique. However, I have some outstanding jewelry boxes that might benefit from eventual treatment. Presently my only real experience of leafing and plating is being at the receiving end of something deteriorating. Original plating and leaf can become so fragile that it can come off with the price tags so thoughtfully adhered to the surface by the last dealer. Old plate and leaf can, in other words, sometimes flake or strip off at the slightest provocation. A philosophical choice again: Super-glue curling plate and leaf down (if it is all present) for an original surface, or re-plate / re-leaf to try for a uniform-surface look, and possibly to use the item as a contemporary and functioning box for your own jewelry. With protection, your jewelry box may last forever, so maintaining utilitarian functionality is no crime and, in fact, is how the item was marketed and intended – to be useful and pretty always.
In the 1910 W. L. Gilbert Clock Company catalog may be found some original nomenclature for the common plating available during the era. A perusal of the era descriptions shows that much of the “gold” was possibly something else entirely. The catalog uses the term “rich ormolu gold plate” to describe most of the golden-surface wares that they offered for sale. Now, “ormolu” is a marriage of French words meaning ground or powdered gold, which certainly points to a use of that magnificent metal. Yet the New Century Dictionary, ©1927, states this of ormolu: “Originally gold prepared for use in gilding; hence, gilded metal; now, an alloy of copper and zinc, used to imitate gold”. So are you looking at gold leaf or plate? Unless it is a major work, obviously expensive even by 1910 standards, I would say probably not. Gold paint, of course is something different, and may certainly (as today) have particles of gold dust within its mix. A little gold goes a long way in paint.
A few of the items listed in the catalog offer “Rose Burnished Gold”. Anyone familiar with turn-of-the-century gold (my grandmother’s wedding ring is a good example) knows this pinkish color which was then so popular. I have a few box examples of these, but again, real gold or not? Only your goldsmith knows for sure. If you pay for a new plating / leaf restoration, you may have a choice of material other than high-content gold or silver, but in any case, this is a job for professionals in the jewelry or metallurgical trades, and employing a craftsman will cost (much).
Be careful with ordinary repair work on plate or leaf. Pulling at a loose edge could be a traumatic experience when the entire bottom or side surface decides that it prefers holding onto the pinched piece in your fingers rather than the rest of the box. Touch lightly, unless you immediately intend to prepare the surface for the intrusion of an expert’s costly hand. My sole current recommendations for personally restoring damaged plate, if a plated edge is prominently peeling off of the box surface, is to either push it back down and ignore it, or reach for that super-glue dispenser and insert a very tiny dab. The best use of super-glue on ANJBs, and it works surprisingly well and quickly.
And finally, the last aesthetic exterior enhancement of your Art Nouveau treasure is simple, straight-forward surface abrasion – the polishing of a box surface with a polishing cloth. Polishing should generally be done as a final step before display. For some painted boxes, too much enthusiasm upon the surface gold might bring out darker areas underneath, as the paint is being polished off and the spelter layer is starting to come out. As mentioned before however, copper-plate often lies underneath, and the effect, usually revealed by friction over time (as intended) is much more agreeable. Sometimes, to get out all the detailing in a uniformly polished luster, a tiny amount of wear can’t be helped, and you’ll have to decide later if you want to re-paint.
A chamois cloth will often restore much of the original metal luster on a truly clean box. Reverse the grubbiness of time, take out your own personal museum-quality restoration fingerprints, …and let your treasure shine!
Restoration, Part V: Other Physical Parts If needed, interior fabric repair is the final step towards restoration. Your jewelry box is now strong, with workable parts, and the paint is dry… So now, quite apart from the other sorts of repairs is the consideration of restorative work to the inner fabric. This is generally done as an expedient, either to make the jewelry box look more complete for a sale (i.e. the original material is now a lump of dirty lint), or for actual revival of the item as a bona fide jewelry box once again. I have seen some pretty work, but there has been little chance of mistaking new work for the original. For me, the interior is not a high priority for the replication of historical authenticity of turn-of-the-century craftsmanship, but I’ve often found that when I show someone even the most outrageous and beautiful design, …if it is in their hands they will give a quick perusal and then open the item to view the interior. Why? Not big on my list, but apparently a major item within the expectation of others.
In theory, the replication of new or artificially old conditions is not a terribly difficult task. For top and bottom work two pieces of cardboard are required: One piece, custom cut to fit on the top, and a circular piece for the body. Both are models of the application of simple geometry and physics to an everyday task.
The top piece, pushed upward and held by the up-curling edge of the lid employs a sufficient spring-like action to strongly hold in the top fabric, while being slightly too large to fall out flatly from the lid.
The circle of cardboard in the body uses the inherent spring strength of the circle to keep the fabric from collapsing inward and bunching up. Cotton is placed as padding above (lid) and below (body), and then fabric is either glued in place to the cardboard. According to Joanne Wiertella, overstuffing is a typical relining mistake to look out for. Remember, you are lining a container intended to actually hold and cushion something precious – so reline for a pretty, but also utilitarian effect.
The real call is what kind of look and purpose you are after. New silk or satin is often used, and the bright fresh color helps launch the jewelry box into a reprise of its intended career. For a jewelry box intended to at least give the impression of a showy and thoroughly original antique, only faded fabric will do. Old silk dresses or scarves still abound, and a far-gone example could certainly contribute a credible swatch.
An original restoration should also include the border cording, top and bottom. This may still be found in fabric stores. I have never found the hallowed ancients (American or European) to have performed any more complicated attachment of the fabric to the cardboard or the cording to the silk border than the application of some simple Elmer’s-like glue, so I suppose we could do the same and still hold our heads high.
The celluloid circlet covering a souvenir photo that occasionally adorns era-tourist boxes may be somewhat cleaned with the light circular motion of a cloth or cotton ball made damp with a little water. Do not apply too wet, as damage to the item underneath may occur.
Quick Conclusion. And there, in sum, are the critical, necessary and optional facets of jewelry restoration, addressing all levels of damage through time, usage and foul fate. I have one rare item, turned into an accordion shape by a USPS forklift, for which I have yet to attempt a restoration, but someday soon, given enough time, I will attempt the radical effort necessary. It is good to retain a challenge in life to look forward to…
LACQUER FINISHES: Lacquer basically melts under paint remover. Some things, like 18th century wood furniture should never have their surface restored or even touched by restoration. More modern items like early 20th Century Art Nouveau metal is another matter, and it is a question of biting the bullet in one of several ways.
One may gamble with paint remover, but a faux bronze finish and lead-based paint aren’t the same thing. Everything might come off down to the dull spelter finish. This might not be a bad thing for some who, with a good deal of polishing are very happy with a gray-silver surface. Another possibility, and this is the same gamble/problem with boxes, – only the new paint might be removed (yay!), but there is no guarantee that all the natural discoloration, chips and nicks of time are going to leave you with something nearly as attractive as you might want (boo!). In this scenario, the surface is closer and approximates the original, except that all the wear, tear and bangs of time are painfully evident, possibly detracting and/or distracting from the aesthetic flow of nouveau design. Suggestion: If you want to know the chemical reaction, perhaps the not normally visible bottomside has some finish to it, and you can try a little removal here as an example to see what might happen.
Or, again, as has been seen in the case of many of the boxes surviving over the years, many have taken the option of overpainting everything. Very often this is done thickly and unattractively. But if handled properly, such a step would yield a uniform glowing gold or bronze color and give back an approximation of the original intent of the artist.
Or, a combination, — strip down what may be taken off to give the smoothest surface, and then re-paint, re-bronze or re-faux bronze.The above article is provided by an expert, but is NOT a guarantee of positive outcome. Neither he nor I are responsible for results (positive or negative) obtained by following these recommendations.