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Scotland’s Hidden Gems

A look at the obvious and not-so-obvious gems of Scotland

The Stone of Destiny, which lies alongside Scotland’s Crown Jewels in Edinburgh Castle, assumes even greater importance for the national psyche with the advent of the Scottish Parliament. But in addition to this largest and arguable greatest ‘hidden gem’ it’s interesting to look at some of Scotland’s other gems which were produced mainly as souvenirs for the burgeoning tourist market during the 19th century.

Although the history of jewellery in Scotland dates back over 500 years, pieces from pre 1800 are quite rare. One of the rarest items is gold jewellery, made from Scottish mined gold. Still found in very small quantities, its manufacture is limited to rare and expensive wedding bands for a lucky few.

During the 19th century, tourist souvenirs were manufactured in great quantities, and were also in fashion, especially during Queen Victoria’s reign. The development of the tourist trade prompted manufacturers to use indigenous materials, and many Scottish silversmiths made Scottish ‘pebble’ jewellery – which is the term given to jewellery fashioned form gems found inside rocks. Pieces were generally mounted in silver but also in gold, and lapidaries, or stone cutters, were kept busy polishing, cutting and mounting the stones. The technical skills they displayed are rarely found in modern jewellery.

A wide variety of stones were used – Aberdeen grey and pink granites, onyxses, grey and white agates, black and white agates, moss agate in all its various forms, cornelians and green Islay marble. The stones were displayed to their best advantage in brooches, often in the form of dirks, anchors, or the circular Celtic ring design. Necklaces and bracelets were also made, but in lesser quantities.

The humble citrine, also known in Scotland as the Cairngorm after the mountain range of the same name, is widely available in a variety of styles in colours ranging from smoky grey through yellow to bright orange. Cairngorms are often found mounted in the top of dirks.

Amethysts are rarely found in Scotland. However, their purple colour looks well mounted in silver, especially cut in the shape of the thistle flowerhead. Sometimes they are used as terminals (the point at the end) for spoons. For a wider insight into Scottish jewellery, visit the Gem Museum in the small Wigtonshire town of Creetown, situated between Dumfries and Stranraer.

The production of souvenirs for the 19th century tourist trade was not limited to precious metals. Mauchline Ware was made in Ayrshire and Laurencekirk, Angus up until the beginning of the Second World War. Finley engraved transfer prints of views of towns and popular tourist attractions etc were applied to objects made from sycamore wood, or occasionally from oak or elm, and other trees which had associations with famous people or buildings – for example from the beam of an old kirk or timbers from a wrecked ship. A great variety of objects was made ranging from snuff boxes to spherical string cases, bodkin boxes, spectacle cases, napkin rings etc. Average prices range from £15 - £75 a piece. Look out also for Fern Ware – similar pieces decorated with designs taken from fresh ferns.

Tartan Ware, its brightly coloured cousin, is currently extremely valuable. While the shapes remain the same, sometimes you can find smaller items, eg stamp boxes – occasionally with 1844 penny reds applied to the tops. The range of tartans that was used was wide and varied - and quite often named – but beware of large pieces in Royal Stuart or Black Watch which have been recently produced and are nearly always fakes. Prices range from £50 - £500.

I have purposely avoided highlighting the small armorial china pieces, so popular as souvenirs in the late 19th century, as well as the continental wall plates with named scenes, as these pieces were manufactured well away from Scotland.

The fields for collecting 19th century Scottish gems or tourist souvenirs are wide. Other interesting ‘gems’ to watch out for include old tourist guides and topographical prints, both of which can easily be found in antiquarian and second-hand bookshops.

When the Scottish Parliament takes its places alongside the Stone of Destiny, a new era will begin in the history of Scotland, Collectors and antique hunters will, however, continue to find much of interest to enjoy in Scotland’s past.

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