A grand chandelier can change the atmosphere and character of any room with the mere flick of a switch. For centuries, these dramatic light fixtures have served as the focal point of great halls and dining rooms, and even today, antique chandeliers are avidly sought out by collectors. Thanks to ever-changing fashions, one can find a suitable chandelier for nearly every taste and space. From early wooden creations to dazzling crystal designs, read on as we shed light on the various types of antique chandeliers.
How to Identify an Antique Chandelier
Because of the popularity of antique chandeliers, many modern reproductions of these styles exist on the market today. To earn the moniker "antique," a chandelier must be at least 100 years old. A true antique will command a premium on the market, so to ensure that you aren’t paying antique prices for a modern antique or vintage chandelier replica, here are a few qualities that designate a genuine antique.
First and foremost, if and how a chandelier has been wired for electricity is a fairly easy way to determine its age. Most antique chandeliers were created before the age of electricity. Thomas Edison brought electricity to New York City in 1882, but it is estimated that by the 1920s, only approximately 50% of American homes had power. Therefore, most antique chandeliers were converted for electricity in the mid-20th century. A chandelier with visible wiring likely indicates it is an antique.
Furthermore, evidence of other lighting techniques aside from electricity can give a clue to a chandelier's age. If it has hollow tubes, this likely indicates it was once powered by gas. However, the presence of bobeche — a collar to catch wax drippings — or candlestick holders likely cast its light using candles.
The glass or crystal itself can give a helpful clue about the age of a chandelier. If the design is not entirely symmetrical or uniform, this usually indicates it was hand cut, and can likely be classified as an antique. Also, most modern chandeliers are made with crystal beads created from molds–– If a mold line is present on the chandelier, this usually indicates a reproduction and not a true antique.
Lastly, don’t forget to search the light fixture for a maker’s mark. Learning the maker or manufacturer of a chandelier is a quick and relatively simple way to determine its age, but finding the maker’s mark can be a challenge. Be sure to examine all aspects of the fixture, from the glass or crystal to the canopy, arms and neck.
Not sure how to pick the perfect chandelier for your home? Read our guide to choosing the right antique style chandelier for your space.
Types of Antique Chandeliers
The earliest chandeliers were far more humble than the opulent light fixture one thinks of today. Up until the 14th century, chandeliers were usually crafted from two wooden panels that crossed in an X-form with spikes on each end upon which one could secure candles. Simple yet functional, these designs gradually lost favor as artisans began experimenting with more artistic forms crafted of metal.
Louis XIV-Period Doré Bronze Chandelier by André-Charles Boulle. Circa 1700 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
Metal and Metal Alloy Chandeliers
Beginning in the 15th century, more complex decorative fixtures became popular as focal points in palaces and upper-class homes. First, the iron and brass chandelier types were developed with crown rings and multiple tiers, allowing the maximum number of candles to illuminate a space. Later, these forms evolved to be even more decorative as more costly materials such as silver and bronze gained favor.
Metal craftsmen and gilders in France produced some of the most remarkable fixtures of the 17th and 18th centuries. Crafted in the Baroque and Rococo styles, these impeccably executed chandeliers featured voluminous curves, foliage and foliate motifs, garlands, cherubs and other ornamental details.
Rock Crystal Chandeliers
In the late 16th century, rock crystal began adorning chandeliers. A naturally occurring, transparent form of quartz, rock crystal was found to refract and diffuse light from candles, creating chandeliers that were not only more effective at illuminating a space, but were also spectacularly beautiful.
Because it is formed in nature, rock crystal is not an optically pure stone but is instead filled with veins and other natural inclusions. These qualities make the material both an attractive and interesting addition to fixtures. And because rock crystal tends to be thick and bulky, artisans were able to carve large orbs, teardrops, flowers and prisms suiting a number of diverse styles and designs. However, because all of these pieces were entirely hand-carved, they were incredibly time-consuming and expensive to produce. Thus, rock crystal chandeliers became a symbol of status and wealth, adorning the most important palaces, royal residences and upscale homes throughout Europe.
While rock crystal was, and remains, wildly popular in light fixtures, an alternative to the natural material was developed in 1676 by the Englishman George Ravenscroft. Known as lead crystal or flint glass, this material was produced with high levels of lead oxide that resulted in a crystal that was easily cut, highly refractive and more transparent that naturally occurring rock crystal. Its emergence revolutionized the chandelier market, and its ease of production led to the creation of spectacular and dazzling all-crystal chandeliers.
In the 19th century, Baccarat further innovated the industry after discovering the addition of nickel oxide created a product that was truly “crystal clear” and free of discoloration. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution and mechanization made crystal easier and cheaper to produce, opening a new market among a growing middle class who were eager to show off their rising socioeconomic status. To this day, crystal chandeliers are among the most valuable and iconic light fixtures, and they can be found in a variety of shapes and styles.
Venetian Murano Glass Chandelier. Circa 1880 (M.S. Rau, New Orleans)
The Blown Glass ChandelierApart from crystal, glass was also frequently used in chandeliers, and perhaps the most exquisite examples are those hailing from the Venetian island of Murano. Venice’s artistic traditions run deep in the centuries-old city, but perhaps none is more well known than Venetian glass, which boasts a remarkable 1500-year history. Following a devastating fire in the 13th century, the Glassmakers Guild moved all furnaces outside of the city to the island of Murano; not only did this prevent fires in the city, but it also helped ensure the secrets of the trade remained in Italy’s borders.
As a result, Murano glassmakers dominated the blown glass trade until the 18th century. Distinctively Venetian in style, the chandeliers that emerged from the island featured brilliantly hued molded glass flowers and leaves that could extend up to eight feet in width. Because they are entirely handcrafted, each of these glass masterpieces are one of a kind.
The Favrile Glass Chandelier
In the realm of light fixtures, one of the most well-known and sought-after fixtures has long been the Tiffany lamp. This revolutionary design studio led by Louis Comfort Tiffany produced some of the greatest masterpieces in American glass, and among them were not only lamps but also chandeliers. Crafted at the turn of the century, Tiffany chandeliers were distinctively Art Nouveau in taste and style and incorporated what was perhaps Tiffany’s most significant innovation — Favrile glass.
In his early experimentations, Tiffany discovered treating molten glass with metal oxides produced glass with dichroic properties, rivaling the luminosity of ancient Roman glass. The resulting glass, which he names Favrile, was particularly brilliant when viewed by transmitted light. Today, both their rarity and artistry make them some of the most desired antiques, so much so that innumerable mass-market reproductions exist today. Authentic Tiffany fixtures will always bear the “Tiffany Studios New York” stamp on their shades and canopy.
Ready to transform your space? Shop available antique chandeliers for sale at M.S. Rau today!!
Or if you’re looking to add other grand masterpieces to your collection, learn more about unique clocks and how they can make your home feel timeless.
Lighting in the Domestic Interior: Renaissance to Art Nouveau, 1991, Jonathan Bourne and Vanessa Brett
The Lamps of Tiffany Studios: Nature Illuminated, 2016, Margaret K. Hofer
“Why is Murano Glass Special?“ www.invaluable.com. Accessed 15 Jully 2022. https://www.invaluable.com/blog/murano-glass/