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Ask a Worthologist: The Mystery of the Vintage Brooch

by Mike Wilcox (04/14/12).

This brooch is called a tussle-mussie. Dating to the late 19th century, they were fashionable accessories and sometimes conveyed secret messages.

While clearing out a box of old costume jewelry, Worthpoint reader Christina H. found a piece that intrigued her. It’s unmarked, so she was unsure as to how to find any information about it. Christina contacted us via Worthpoint’s “Ask a Worthologist” service, and her inquiry was forwarded to me:

I came a cross a box of stuff I inherited from my grandma years ago that I’d just stashed in the spare-bedroom closet. Inside I found her costume jewelry—mostly stuff that looks like it dates from the 1940s or 1950s. But this one piece stood out. It was shiny gold and untarnished. It looks a bit like a broach to hold flowers, with what looks to be an ivory or bone handle. There are no markings on it, but it sure looks like gold. Knowing how much gold goes for now, I didn’t want to sell it unless I knew for sure what I had and if it is gold.

For the first part of your question, what you have a “tussie-mussie” posy holder. The term goes back to the 1400s, “tussie” originating from an old English word for a nosegay. As with yours, the majority of tussie-mussies we see today date from the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), a period when these small posy holders became a fashion accessory.

Tussie-mussies weren’t just decorative; they could also be used to send a secret message to the recipient by filing them with different flowers to indicate your intentions. Most of these posy holders date from the second to third quarter of the 19th century. The handles of them can be a variety of materials like ivory or mother-of-pearl. In your piece, the handle is mother-of-pearl.

For the second part of your question, of one thing you can be pretty sure: if an item is silver or gold it nearly always will have some sort of marking to indicate the precious-metal content. Nearly every country in the world uses hallmarks to identify items made of silver and gold, which can also indicate a date of production, the maker and where it was made.

As this one has no such markings—but is untarnished—it is likely gold gilt, meaning it has a thin layer of gold over a base metal such as bronze. Very few these gold-gilt varieties have any markings to indicate a maker, and values depend on their design, material used in their construction and current condition.

These are quite collectible, however, even though it’s not gold. At auction, a comparable tussie-mussie today would sell in the $250 to $450 range.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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