Why We Blummin’ Love ‘Em

Since the beginning Emma has referred to intaglios as the ‘emojis of yesteryear’. Here’s why.

It is worth noting intaglios have been around for eons. They existed in Roman times, in ancient Greece and ancient Egypt. At Bauble Magpie we focus on intaglios dating between 1700-1910, because they’re the most fun! Each piece in our expansive library is selected by Emma, who sources globally.

As a rough rule of thumb, intaglios are likely to be Georgian or older, whereas Tassies / pastes are likely to be Victorian.

As the name cunningly suggests, a seal was used to seal a letter – we’re talking pre-envelope times here folks! Let’s say Lord Poncenby-Smythe of Hereford wants to send important, private correspondence to Duke Farquhar of Forfarshire. He would whip out his intaglio fob, featuring his familial coat of arms or crest and / or his monogram, and press it into a globule of hot wax, securing the contents. He would then hand it to the poor sods on horseback tasked with relay riding by way of delivery.

Thus the seal’s dual purpose was confidentiality and the assured veracity of the sender’s identity.

Emojis Of Yesteryear

Fast forward to Queen Victoria’s reign and those works of great literature by Austen, Bronte and their ilk. Formal correspondence still went on as before, but a new fashion was en vogue – gossip!

Betsy would scribe a quick two liner: My Dearest Fanny, do say you will come to tea today, we simply must discuss that rogue Captain Blytheheart’s despicable show at the debutante ball last night. Naturally she needed to keep her titbit-laden missive private, but instead of the boring family seal, she wanted something fun and whimsical. Enter Tassies: comparatively inexpensive, available in full desk sets and seal wheels, and interchangeable dependent on mood or message. Imbued with meaning, wit, wisdom and sentiment. In our opinion the Victorian equivalent of using a smiley face, eyeroll, crying or facepalm. Hence Emma’s emojis of yesteryear.

As for Betsy, all that remained was to summon Benedict the butler and have him walk 10m across Berkeley Square to deliver the missive on his silver tray, before popping below stairs for a cuppa to await Fanny’s reply. Because heaven forfend either Betsy or Fanny get horse dung on their silken petticoats!

A Note On Terminology

Ok fact fans, let’s talk intaglios. For ease (and because it sounds dead sexy) we use the term ‘intaglio’ throughout the website. However, for the enquiring and interested, here are some specifics.

To the best of Emma’s knowledge and belief, having immersed herself in the subject for many, many (MANY) hours:

Seals is the collective noun for intaglios, Tassies and other paste seals.

Intaglios are unique, hand carved, semi-precious and occasionally precious gemstones and hardstones.

Tassies are technically only seals designed by James Tassie. (There’s a whole book that lists and numbers his designs. Emma has a copy. It is not very user-friendly!)

Makes sense, right? Except this is where it gets complicated…

The Glasgow Gem Engraver

James Tassie (1735-1799), pictured on the right, was a Glaswegian gem engraver who popularised paste seals. He developed a special compound of lead potash glass to allow him to produce a greater quantity. Tassie’s type of special glass is what we refer to as paste. The seal was moulded with an image or motif when the paste was molten.

As the popularity of Tassies rocketed, others also began to produce these paste seals, which is where it gets tricky. Today all paste seals are referred to as Tassies, likely borne out of a wish to honour James Tassie, but not strictly accurate. Emma always explains it by saying that it’s exactly like how we all used to call vacuum cleaners ‘Hoovers’ in the 1980s!

Paste seals are therefore less likely to be unique. However, over the centuries vast quantities of seals have perished and though we do see some motifs more commonly than others, many are rare and may well be the last of their kind.

Our collection includes a number of exceptional paste seals from other acclaimed gem engravers, including Marchant, Burch and Brown. These tend to feature in our Pica Pica section owing to their scarcity and quality.

Antique paste has been used in jewellery for centuries. We generally advise those who are active or clumsy to have a paste seal set as a pendant*. That said, we set many paste seals as rings and are happy to do so, with the caveat that we estimate a paste to be less fractious than an opal or an emerald but not as robust as a sapphire or a ruby.

*It’s worth noting Emma has many paste rings and has never broken one, despite being a clumsy mare.