Button of the Month – Cut Steel

09/19/17

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We begin our series of blogs on types of antique buttons with our absolute favorite: cut steel, which we affectionately refer to as “button bling.” Originating in Elizabethan times, cut steel refers to buttons (and jewelry) made with tiny, individual pieces of faceted steel, which are riveted to a larger steel or brass base. The resulting sparkle was meant to imitate buttons made with diamonds or marcasites (faceted pyrite).

Cut steel reached its zenith of popularity in the late 18th century, when French sumptuary laws prohibited the wearing of jeweled buttons by any but royalty. Consequently, lesser noblemen and merchants had buttons made of cut steel, in an effort to mimic the radiance of diamond buttons worn at court. Matthew Bolton of Birmingham, England, perfected the method for creating cut steel buttons of great brilliance.

CutSteelCartoon_boardL) Two 18th century buttons from our museum R) A cartoon from a 1777 French newspaper, satirizing the fashion for large and sparkling buttons on gentlemen’s coats, which supposedly blinded ladies with their brilliant reflection of sunlight.

After 1800, the fashion for large and fanciful buttons on men’s coats gave way to more modest sets of chased and gilded brass, and cut steel was not seen for about 50 years. It returned in the 1870s, though, as women’s buttons became large and decorative, and many types used in the 18th century for men (cut steel and enamel especially) were created again for women’s gowns. These are the cut steel buttons you will find in our jewelry.

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The most basic cut steel buttons are like the ones on the top left and bottom right: a series of faceted mushroom-shaped steel pieces riveted into an unseen brass base. Others are called “steel cups” because of the large, faintly cup-shaped steel bases that hold both cut steel and brass ornaments.

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 Cut steel card from our museum. The button on the top left is faux cut steel—it is actually all stamped from one thin piece of steel, imitating the look of the real thing. Faux cut steel became more common in the early 20th century.

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If I had to live with just one type of button for the rest of my life, it would probably be brass and cut steel. There is just something fabulous about the rich golden color of patinated brass with the lustrous, silvery sparkle of faceted steel—mixed metal at its best. The ornate brass bases for these buttons were stamped with huge presses run by steam power, a product of the industrial revolution that brought beautiful buttons to the masses. The iron dies used in the presses were carved by hand—an art that has been mostly lost to time. The great majority of these beautiful buttons were made between 1870-1920.

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Card of large brass and cut steel buttons from our museum.

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Another favorite material for mixing with cut steel was carved ocean pearl, which resulted in buttons that contrasted the creamy, iridescent colors of shell with the crisp sparkle of the steel. We count these buttons among our greatest finds.

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If you have visited one of our stores, or seen us at a show, you’ll be familiar with the stunning, one-of-a-kind necklaces we create using cut steel sash buckles and shoe buckles. Popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these buckles were often sold in their own velvet-lined cases and are great treasures. You can see where the individual cut steels are riveted into the frame on the back side of the buckle shown above. It is hard for us today to imagine how labor-intensive these buttons and buckles were to create.

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L) French Victorian cut steel shoe buckles in their original presentation case, from our museum R) These buckles away from us on Etsy, but they are easily the most fanciful shoe buckles we’ve ever seen!

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Two outstanding figural cut steel buttons from our museum: The cat gazing into a cut steel mirror, and a “steel back” sea turtle!

Thank you for hanging out with us as we talk about our favorite buttons! Stay tuned next month for another Button of the Month!

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