Sunday, March 09, 2008

The dating game

Now that my name has been out on the Internet for awhile, I occasionally get questions about rosaries that people have found or inherited. I'm happy to answer them when I can, though I know much less about beads from more recent times (anything later than about 1600).

One type of question that makes me a little nervous, though, is when I'm asked about the date of someone's rosary. Sometimes this is an inherited rosary, but most often, it's a question from someone who has a rosary they would like to sell on eBay. Almost inevitably, they would like me to tell them it's very old and valuable. Unfortunately, it's usually not.

I do run across a very few rosaries with at least some real documentation of their dates. There's one currently for sale by "Church-woman Antiques", for instance (they always have delightful things) that is known to be at least 95 years old because the current owner (who is 95) remembers being told by her mother that she'd had it since before the owner was born. But such family stories are seldom written down, and memories do change and become less reliable with time, or when the story is transmitted from one person to another.

Part of the reason most of the rosaries I'm asked about turn out to be modern is pure statistics. There are a lot of perfectly nice old rosaries out there in the world, but as any archaeologist will tell you, even very common artifacts that were manufactured in large quantities have very low survival rates over the long term. I am guessing here, but I'd say that probably 99% of all the rosaries in existence right now date from sometime after 1900. Of the remaining 1%, I'd guess that at least 90% of those date from sometime in the mid to late 1800s. That means that perhaps one out of every thousand rosaries is older than 1800 -- and I suspect I'm being generous here.

Rosaries older than that certainly exist, but in much smaller numbers. I've seen a fair number of filigree rosaries from Europe, a few of which may very well be 18th century (the 1700s) -- but I'm basing that on other people's reports that that is when the style became popular, and I don't know what the evidence is. Certainly most of the "filigree" rosaries I see are made (like the one shown here) from machine-stamped components, which would put them firmly in the 19th century and the days of mass production. True filigree is hand-made from curled and soldered wire and is much rarer (and more expensive because of all the hand labor).


By the time we get back into the 1600s and 1500s, there are literally perhaps a couple of hundred surviving rosaries in museums, total -- most of them in Europe. I have no idea how many may be in private collections, but I would be surprised if the grand total in existence were more than four or five times that number -- out of all the many millions of rosaries and paternosters that must have been made in the last five or six centuries.

Another reason dating rosaries is difficult is that in some ways, styles have changed very little. Rosaries from the 1600s may have the exact same construction, number of beads, and arrangement as rosaries 400 years later. Of course wishful thinkers are going to hope that since the style dates back to the 1600s, their rosary might be that old too. A hopeful seller contacted me about a rosary he found while snorkeling in Grand Turk and Caicos(!), for instance, but I had to point out that it seemed to be made of wood and string, neither of which lasts very long in the sea.

There are a few key characteristics that at least enable us to say a rosary must date from after a certain time. Chain construction with wire links (as opposed to stringing beads on thread) can occur anytime from the early 17th century onward. I'm still not sure when the addition of the short string of five extra beads ending in a cross to the rosary dates to, but I certainly don't see it in the pre-1600 rosaries I look at, and its introduction may date from as late as the 1800s. Faceted beads, especially large numbers of faceted Ave beads, mostly became popular only after the invention of facet-cutting machinery made them easily affordable.

I've also seen several "old" rosaries (like the one below) that incorporate not just beads strung on wire links, but actual lengths of pre-made, flattened chain between the decades (called "curb chain" by jewelers) and so far all the ones I've seen like this seem to date from the 1940s or later. (Thanks to Catherine for the photo.)


Sometimes the size and shape of the beads, or the type of material they are made of, will give some clues -- glass bead aficionados can recognize "carnival" glass from the 1910s and 1920s, for instance. But most rosaries are made using crosses, beads, medals and other findings that were quite common types, and nothing is really added in the process of rosary-making (with a few exceptions) that provides any further information.

The most useful parts of a rosary for dating purposes are generally the medals or crosses. Very plain or simple ones don't change much, but often the more elaborate ones are styled like the jewelry of the same time period. Here, for instance, is a rosary with metal parts that practically shout "1960s" to the knowledgeable eye.

Blue beads closeup

Medals and occasionally crosses may have engraved dates, though all the date means is that the rosary was made sometime after that date, and not necessarily very soon after. Many rosaries have the "Miraculous Medal," for instance, which has the date 1830 on it because that's the date of the vision on which the medal is based. But rosaries with that "1830" medal are still being made today.

So anyone hoping to obtain fabulous riches from old rosaries is likely to be quite disappointed. But rosaries from the 20th and late 19th centuries are often interesting for reasons of their own, and many collectors are quite happy to find a nice one, especially one that has been well loved or has a story attached.