Think Zinc: Decorating with Spelter

Zinc. We use it to relieve colds. We include it in our multi-vitamins. And some of us even decorate our homes with it.

And now, I’m going to show you how to make a mosaic out of zinc tablets...

Kidding, kidding. Zinc tablets dissolve too easily for effective mosaic-ing.

So instead I guess we’ll have to talk about spelter. Spelter is the metal zinc, which is sometimes mixed with lead. And while spelter may not carry the innate value of gold, silver and bronze, the Victorians did use it to create beautiful statuary, tableware and personal care items. This allowed the growing middle classes to own status items similar to those of their wealthy counterparts, but at less expense.

And spelter is versatile; it can be coated in a patina to make it look like higher-end bronze or silver. For the Victorians, who loved to entertain, appearance was everything.

I suspect the little cherub above is a spelter piece coated to look like bronze. Why do I say that? Well, by scraping gently on an obscure area of the statue, say here under the base at the left, the mark appears more white in color than bronze. (So this is a good reason to make sure you know what you’re buying when someone tries to sell you a bronze piece!)

Here at right you’ll see spelter in its more natural state. Items like this bowl may have been silver-plated at one time, but while they now lack the brilliance of their silver sisters.

Yet notice the delicate art nouveau designs. You can tell the art nouveau style by the sinewy vines and mystical maidens that peer from the metal. They pretty much don’t make ‘em like that anymore! So spelter is an affordable piece of history.

And occasionally, it’s very affordable. Would you believe the hand mirror below came from a thrift store for under $6? I’ve found two that way. Spelter is quite a soft metal, so general use means spelter pieces may have dents, holes or dings. But considering the examples here are approximately 100 years old, this looking-glass lady is still a fair beauty.

My most recent spelter find was the two art nouveau busts in the photo at the top of the page. I stumbled on them two days before Christmas in a back booth of a flea market. The dealer, whose flea market specialty was in selling all-you-could-fit-in-a-box-for-$3, was genuinely certain they were bronze. The telltale white metal shining through the patina told a different story.

But quick negotiation and the nouveau ladies had found a happy new home. (And no, they weren’t $3-- let’s not get too over-confident. :-) ) Today they peer from my bookcase with all the dignity of their bronze sisters.