Sunday, December 12, 2010

The 1800s Aluminum Story

Although aluminum is viewed as a cheap metal today, one that is virtually tossed away with the garbage, this hasn't always been the case. Collectors of antiques have some appreciation for the change in this metal's status over the centuries. Despite this, there is little market for aluminum objects, even those of superior workmanship and beauty.

If you read The Lost Symbol, you may have noticed the rather odd references to the high value of aluminum in the 1800s. This honestly was the case. Aluminum was a new and unique metal, durable, lightweight, and resistant to tarnishing. At the time, it was considered quite rare and valuable. The very top of the Washington Monument is overlaid in aluminum; it catches the sunlight and shines like silver. Although it is the most common element in the rocks of the earth, efficiently extracting it from the ore was puzzling and expensive, prohibiting its mining and use. Unlike silver and gold that occur in veins, aluminum is bonded to other elements in the rock, making extraction difficult.

For rosaries and religious medals, aluminum was highly prized during the late 1800s. Medals were lightweight and could be made with details not possible with other materials. Centers and crucifixes were made of aluminum in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today they aren't appreciated, but at the time, their intricate details were considered the latest technology and were quite desirable. Many antique rosaries have aluminum medals attached; they were prized for their beauty.

Collectors of religious medals can get fantastic bargains if they branch into antique aluminum medals. Owners and collectors of antique rosaries can gain a new appreciation for the metal when they consider how impressive it was at the time the rosary was created.

I rarely have aluminum medals or rosaries on my website; I am aware of the prejudice against the metal and how it affects the choices collectors make. I'd like to see the day when it is recognized for its historic value and appreciated for the role it played in advancing the technology of 19th century religious artifacts.

 Sweet little French rosary with coral red glass beads. Below is a Pocket Saint with brass case, the statue of Mary and Child is aluminum. These were treasured by soldiers and travelers as they could be kept safely in a pocket.

The two medals attached to this lovely old Irish Horn rosary are both aluminum. Note the crisp detail on the medals. Available on The Sacred Bead.
 This is a lovely example of an antique French rosary with aluminum crucifix and art glass beads. It is quite a bargain on The Sacred Bead!