Weird Heirloom Jewelry: The Medallion Pendant, Part III: The Ballerina Mysteries

Heirlooms Jewelry Design History Mysteries

variations on the motif
variations on the motif

In the two preceding articles, I discussed the origins of this pendant and the general history of medallions. Let's move on and take a look at this particular design. The subject of ballerina with pearl is not uncommon in vintage jewelry.

A quick google search of "ballerina with pearl jewelry" reveals it may indeed be impossible to trace the origins of this particular motif. Search results show an enormous range of iterations on this theme that appear to come from a wide variety of metalsmiths, each executing the design with a differing degrees of skill.

I am not a jewelry historian but I do have a few observations about how this execution of the ballerina and pearl motif compares with others on the internet. Let's examine the image below and discuss examples A - E.

This is the medallion I inherited from my grandmother.
More background info on that can be found here and here.

Let's just cut to the chase and gawk at example E for a second.
I was blown away when I found this on the internet!

Of the elements to analyze I will focus on detail, exaggeration of the figure, pearl setting and the metering of any gems on the skirt.

[A]. The amount of detail on the figure may correspond to the skill level of the sculptor or whether or not their mold was knocked-off from someone else's design. In example A, there is enough detail in the hair, bust and skirt to imagine it having been produced from an original mold. Though the torso and the skirt appear as if they were each sculpted by a different hand (as in multiple craftspeople on a production line), but this could merely be the results of aging.

The figure is not as exaggerated as it is in other examples. So I propose it's either an earlier version of the motif than the other examples shown here or somewhat more crude copy of an original. The figure looks like she has just caught the ball and appears quite grounded.

The pearl setting in example A is endearingly executed. While points must be docked for the visibility of the setting peg, there is a sense of gravity in the curving arm's embrace of the sphere. Another interesting thing to note is that the elbow crooks upwards in an awkward broken manner. This elbow idiosyncrasy is a bit more forgivable in example A, than in D or E, because the lines of the arm flow so nicely around the pearl. This spot on the elbow might have been where the jeweler adjusted the figure with pliers after setting the pearl. Since the pearl here is set from the upper arm, the lower arm's elbow is a natural area to make such an adjustment.

However, as in example E, where the pearl happens to be set on a peg from the lower arm, there may be cause to suspect the piece as a knock-off design.

The last thing I will note about the craftsmanship on example A is that the stones settings are crowded and not evenly metered.

[B]. and [C]. seem to be the most skillful executions of this motif. They are clearly each by different hands but could feasibly be from different periods under the same workshop. The detail is high in both of these examples so while the concept may have been copied, the sculpture for these molds must have been original. The figures are light, airy and exaggerated. This may implicate a culmination in the development of the concept over time. The pearl settings in these two are completely hidden and the trimming pearls and gems on the skirt are expertly spaced.

[C]. Example C has the most exaggerated figure. The skirt is kicked up high, the back is extremely arched and the the figure is long and lithe. This leads me to believe that this is a later, more enhanced version of the motif but perhaps it could even be an expertly executed original version.  It also has the most intricately set pearl trim on the skirt.

[D]. The amount of detail on the figure may correspond to the skill level of the sculptor or whether or not their mold was knocked-off from someone else's design. Lack of detail in the hair and skirt, makes me dubious that the manufacturer used an original mold for the designs creation. If original the mold must have been old and worn. But the settings here are done with skill. The turquoise and diamonds are well spaced. And the prong holding the pearl is well hidden.

[E]. I'll just say it. I was extremely shocked to come across Example E! The similarities! I've never seen another example of this motif set into a medallion - and a medallion stamped with striations and dots no less.

Example E appears to be the product of more contemporary machinery.

There are too many similarities between the two to be merely coincidental. However, I overlaid these pieces and found they are too divergent in proportionality for E to be a direct copy of A.

I've aligned the two medallions at the waist of the figure
and in accordance with the angle of the lower arm.

There is something about the inconsistency of the sharp edges yet blurred detail of example E, that is indicative of a mold tooled specifically for low cost mass production.

The figure here is the stiffest of the bunch and the exposed foot is especially clunky. Her positioning is more like a vollyball player than a ballerina. And as I mentioned earlier, there is something suspect about the pearl post stemming from the backwardly bent arm. The settings and their layout are not indicative of a highly skilled jeweler. Though the influence of this motif is undeniable, it's hard to nail down an exact timeline of it's evolution. I hope my guesses here have illuminated some possibilities of this heirloom.

There are uncanny similarities between all of the above examples. It makes me wonder whether pre-fab kits of this design were available to jewelers in the 50s and 60s.

Once again, here they are side by side for comparison.

variations on the motif
variations on the motif

If you are able to point to any resources which expound upon the history of this design, I would be delighted to hear your comments below!

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