California Jewelry Company, manufacturer; William Cummings, patentee
Gold, champlevé enamel
Overall 2 1/4 x 1 1/2 in. (5.7 x 3.8 cm)
Purchase, Susan and Jon Rotenstreich Gift, 2000 (2000.571)
A watershed for the history of jewelry in America occurred in 1849 when gold was discovered in California. By the early 1850s, "Gold Rush" rings, brooches, hair combs, and belt buckles were becoming popular jewelry items. Some, such as digger's brooches ornamented with shovels, picks, pans, and nuggets, were made especially for the tourist trade. This gold and enameled belt buckle is decorated with a figure of Minerva with a bear, taken from the state seal of California. The enamel is applied in a technique called champlevé, which involves cutting a design into the metal, then fusing enamel into the hollow reserves. Once polished, the enamel becomes flush with the metal surface. Manufactured by the California Jewelry Company around 1868, the buckle has a securing mechanism patented in 1868 by William Cummings. Cummings' invention involved three small rings soldered onto the back of the buckle, which kept the prongs from slipping out of place. His name and the patent date of August 1868, as well as the manufacturer's name, are marked on the back of the chape.