There is a short introduction to this subject further down this page. The subject is dealt with more fully in the pages which are linked below; each page also has buttons at the foot, so that the pages may be read sequentially.
"Toys" in the early sense of the word, are any small items, usually for personal use. They are not children's playthings. Under the description of "toys" you might find fobs, seals, chatelaines, scissors, dress combs, pendants, brooches, ear rings, purse mounts, watch keys, watch chains, buttons, buckles and a myriad of other things. Indeed John Holland and Robert Hunt, in their "Treatise on the Progressive Improvement and Present State of the Manufactures in Metal (new edition, London, 1853) divide "toys" into "heavy toys" - which are "miscellaneous cheap and useful wares, from a joiner's hammer to a shoemaker's tack"; and "light steel toys" - which are "an endless variety of steel trinkets", presumably those of a more decorative, rather than smaller, type. Luckily, perhaps, this distinction does not seem to have been widely taken and Holland and Hunt, at a later point in their book, observe that "it would be useless, not to say impossible, to enumerate all the articles of a useful or ornamental nature which are composed of polished steel, from ... buckles ... to small beads".
"Toys" might be made out of any material but mostly, especially in Wolverhampton (as well as Birmingham and many Black Country towns), they were made out of steel. Steel toy making seems to have been well established in Wolverhampton when Dr. Plot wrote in 1686. He says that the town was famous for ornamental buckles, sword hilts, seals and steel jewellery.
The skills need to make toys can readily be adapted to making jewellery. And "jewellery" may be taken to mean items of personal adornment, such as rings and necklaces, and to include things of practical use, such as shoe buckles and watches, where they are ornamental in design. Steel can be used for jewellery making in the same ways in which other metals such as gold and silver are used. There can be steel chains, items made by shaping sheet metal, steel sequins - anything you like really. And the steel can, of course, be used to mount or display other materials, such as Wedgwood cameos, or enamels from Bilston and Wednesbury.
The characteristic of items now known as "cut steel jewellery" is the use of steel studs set into a backing plate (by screws or rivets). Most commonly the studs are facetted but other shapes, such as crescents, vesica and frustra are also used. Perhaps the items now most commonly found, and originally produced in the greatest numbers, are shoe buckles. Steel jewellery was not a cheap substitute for precious stones and certainly not for the paste imitations which were widely used. It is sometimes said that you used steel shoe buckles to walk the muddy streets and then took them off and replaced them with something more valuable when your carpeted destination was reached. This is not really the case. Although steel jewellery doubtless came in all price brackets it was fashionable and prized in its own right - and it could be very expensive.
Perhaps the height of the cut steel trade was in the 18th and early 19th century, for as long as shoe buckles (a staple of the trade) remained fashionable. But after shoe buckles practically disappeared (as a result of a change in fashion) cut steel continued in use in jewellery and even in shoe ornaments.
Most books on jewellery mention steel jewellery but they, and many articles on the subject, tend to be somewhat airy fairy. The complete exception, and undoubtedly the leading work on the subject, is:
Shirley Bury, Jewellery: the International Era 1789-1910, Antique Collectors Club, 1991
These pages, other than those on buckles, rely on that work but also other sources, especially Angerstein (see below) whose work was not practically available to Shirley Bury. Readers should note that the pages on this web site, whilst covering the topic generally, are written from a Wolverhampton perspective and with a Wolverhampton emphasis. Shirley Bury's work does not, of course, have that limitation.
Anne Clifford, Cut-Steel and Berlin Iron Jewellery,
Adams and Dart, 1971
The Curator is grateful to the Trustees of the Wedgwood Museum and to Gaye Blake-Roberts and Lynn Miller, for providing pictures and captions for items in their Museum. The Wedgwood Museum has now (2008) re-opened after a complete reconstruction and is wonderful. On display are many first rate pieces of cut steel incorporating Wedgwood cameos. Their web site is here.
The curator also wishes to thank Helen Steatham of Bantock House Museum for her assistance with locating the literature; and to Kate Jarvis and the National Art Library for assistance with further references. Needless to say neither they, nor anyone else acknowledged here, bears any responsibility for what is said here.
Thanks also to Angeline Johnson for drawing my attention to many examples.
Wolverhampton City Council, in their Art Gallery, has a largeish collection of cut steel but currently (2008/9) none of it is on display. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has a very large collection but none of it is on display. Woodstock Museum has a small but very good display.