Many of the materials used to manufacture antique buttons remain familiar today. Most of us are acquainted with brass, glass, pewter, fabric, mother-of-pearl and enamel. However, cut steel rarely makes an appearance in our modern lives and so these dazzling buttons remain shrouded in mystery.
In our studio, we fondly refer to cut steels as “button bling” because of their intricate designs and special sparkle. We love how the golden brass bases complement the icy sparkle of the faceted steel. In an untenable world where we had to choose only one type of button to collect, Victorian brass and cut steel would be hands down the winner.
The most fabulous cut steel picture buttons from our founder's personal collection. On the cat and dragon buttons the cut steel not only adds sparkle, it makes up part of the picture itself.
Cut steel buttons were invented by Matthew Bolton of Birmingham, England in the 1770s. At the time, French sumptuary laws (laws that regulate consumption) mandated that only members of the royal court could wear diamond or marcasite jeweled buttons. Bolton aptly perceived a potential market for legal imitations of these sparkling royal fashion icons.
Cut steel buttons were manufactured by attaching tiny, individual pieces of faceted steel onto very short pins and then riveting them onto a larger steel or brass base. Even the process by which they were manufactured is a study in contrasts. Their ornate brass bases were stamped with industrial steam presses from hand carved molds, while the faceted steel was painstakingly applied and polished by hand. The more facets that were attached to the base, the more valuable the button or buckle was.
A variety of Victorian buttons from our collection which are enhanced with cut steel, including French emaux peints enamels, glass jewel cloak buttons, and hand-carved ocean pearls.
Bolton’s invention was a hit and cut steel buttons and buckles rose to stardom in the late eighteenth century, adorning the coats and shoes of lesser noblemen and merchants bent on imitating courtly fashions. It was a trend that quickly spread to Europe. In 1810, the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, gave a complete suite of cut steel jewelry to his second wife as a wedding gift.
L) A cartoon from a 1777 French newspaper, satirizing the fashion for large cut steel buttons on gentlemen’s coats, which supposedly blinded ladies with their brilliant reflection of sunlight. R) Two eighteenth century cut steel buttons from our museum.
Some of our most popular limited edition jewelry pieces flaunt cut steel buckles and buttons that, even in their day, were precious. Most were made in France and sold individually in velvet-lined cases in the finest haberdasheries.
Cut steel fell from favor as men came to prefer more modest buttons only to return with a vengeance between1880 and 1920 in women’s fashions. In the Victorian era, cut steel buttons were a popular accessory for ball gowns. Sparkling cut steel in a candlelit ballroom must have been something to behold. Most of the cut steel buttons in our collection herald from this era.
Victorian button manufacturers used cut steel to decorate all manner of buttons including carved ocean pearls, French enamels, and even celluloid and glass. Our favorite combination is cut steel paired with carved pearls and we always count these buttons among our favorite finds. We adore how the creamy, iridescent colors of the pearl contrasts with the crisp sparkle of the steel.
How to distinguish real from faux cut steel buttons: turn them over! With real cut steel, you’ll be able to see the steel pins riveted into the brass base. Faux cut steel displays a similar sparkle, but is stamped out of just one piece of metal.
Making cut steel buttons was unimaginably labor intensive with each tiny steel being hand riveted to the button’s frame making them unsuitable for mass production and laundry machines. So, not surprisingly they fell out of favor in the early twentieth century. Of course this is another reason we absolutely adore them.