Subscribe Today
Give a Gift
Customer Service

Phoenix Home and Garden
Subscribe Today!
For the HomeFor the GardenFood & EntertainingResourcesArticle Archive
For The Home

Antique Chandeliers

Author: Roberta Landman
Issue: June, 2010, Page 24
Photography by David B. Moore

French crystal and brass chandelier, late 1800s, from Antiquities

Hollywood has long enchanted us with movie images of stunningly beautiful candle-lit crystal chandeliers twinkling in 18th- and early-19th-century ballrooms of European palaces.

But the history of the chandelier goes back more than those few centuries ago, and the lighting’s beginnings were not associated with romance or glamour.

Chandeliers date back to the Medieval period, according to Tanya Paradis, an interior designer with Antiquities. “Originally constructed of wood, with metal spikes to hold candles, their purpose was to illuminate churches and abbeys,” she says. It is thought that these rudimentary candle-powered light sources were hung from ceilings by chains or ropes, and hoisted up and down as candles needed replacing.

It was not until many years later that chandeliers began taking on a decorative aesthetic in addition to their lighting purpose in palaces and in homes of the well-to-do, Paradis reports.

What chandeliers were made of also changed dramatically over time, and in later years included metal, used to form graceful branch arms for holding candles, for example; and lead glass, developed in the late 17th century in England, “which gave old crystal its clarity and sparkle,” notes Paradis. Better ways to cut lead glass in the late 19th century, developed by Daniel Swarovski in what is now the Czech Republic, allowed crystal chandeliers to better refract light, whether that light came from candles or was generated by gas or electricity.

The evolution of this means of lighting has resulted in a variety of antique chandeliers available today, in wood, various metals, crystals and glass, and combinations thereof.

Over centuries, craftsmen added artistic elements to their chandeliers—the antiques of today. The chandelier below left has graceful arms and gilded wooden “tassels” in two designs. The example, lower left, below, is festooned with porcelain flowers.

Photos - Clockwise from top left: French painted gilt wood, 19th century, from European Home; French iron with crown motif, 19th century, from Trouvé; Italian Venetian glass chandelier, late 1800s, from Antiquities; French crystal and green-painted iron, early 20th century, from Trouvé.

French crystal and brass chandelier, early 1900s, from Antiquities
How old does a chandelier have to be for it to be considered an antique?

We spoke with the following experts to learn more about antique chandeliers: interior designer Tanya Paradis of Antiquities; Kay Massaro, owner of European Home; George Gronvold, owner of Phoenix Lamps & Silver Repair; Shellie Vance, manager of Relics Architectural Home & Garden; Kristen Brubaker, owner of Trouvé; and David Farias, owner of Willo Antiques.

A 1930 U.S. Customs act and a later tax ruling defined an antique as an object that was 100 years old or older. For many in the antiques trade, the 100-year definition—plus how well a piece originally was crafted—became standards for declaring things antiques, including chandeliers. Our experts indicate that the 100-year rule remains steadfast with several dealers, and for others it has become somewhat relaxed over time.

At Trouvé, European Home, and Relics Architectural Home & Garden—all of which carry European antique as well as finely crafted somewhat younger imported chandeliers—the 100-year description for antique chandeliers is the rule. It also is followed at Antiquities, which offers mostly antique lighting and a few fine reproductions.

Others—who see examples that are fast approaching a century old—such as chandeliers from the 1920s or ’30s—shave some time off the common 100-year antiques definition. That would make a piece from, say, 1925, an antique at 85 years old.

French bronze chandelier with crystal teardrops and orbs, 19th-century, from European Home
At Phoenix Lamps & Silver Repair, George Gronvold sells mostly American-made chandeliers and has his own antiques rule of thumb. He says, “All of our lighting must be at least vintage—I consider that to be from the 1940s through the 1970s. For me, it is an antique when it is anything before that.”

At Willo Antiques, David Farias also veers from the 100-year antique definition, saying, “that was for taxing purpose.” He states, “In our business, things from the 1940s and older are called antique. Most chandeliers in the market today are more the vintage period,” he comments. When searching for chandeliers for his shop, Farias says he looks for quality pieces with fine craftsmanship—ones with soul and a “wow factor.”

 How does one measure quality? “In general, the old ways of production were superior to the modern, mass-produced techniques used today,” says Trouvé’s Kristen Brubaker. “People built things by hand, to last, with a sense of pride and integrity in the work.”

With beauty being “in the eye of the beholder,” she suggests: “If you like the look, the feel, the light it gives off, these are the most important factors. Buy decorative pieces that speak to your emotions, and you will love them forever.”

French Murano glass and brass chandelier, late 18th to the mid-19th century, from Trouvé
If you are in the market for an antique chandelier, consider the following suggestions:

• Fixtures that are imported and already electrified likely will need to be rewired and have new sockets installed to fit standard American electricity, says George Gronvold of Phoenix Lamps & Silver Repair. The firm repairs, electrifies and finds parts for antique and vintage lighting.

• While artisans have become skilled in reproducing the look of age, “As with any antique, usually even an untrained eye can see evidence of age in the patina or construction of a piece,” says Trouvé’s Kristen Brubaker.

In a crystal chandelier, “Look for signs like rusty wire holding the crystals in place, tiny chips in some of the crystals, mismatched crystals where replacements have been added, even dust in tiny crevices.” In iron chandeliers, look for “the appearance of hand-forging, the lack of uniformity, the lack of new solder marks.”

Adds Relics’ Shellie Vance: “You also may be able to tell by the wiring. European antique chandeliers are what we call French-wired—you can see it on the arms and up into the chain.”

• Is any 100-year-old chandelier a valuable antique? “No,” says European Home’s Kay Massaro. “It depends on materials and craftsmanship.” She suggests choosing antique lighting according to one’s personal taste, and adds: “Not many people buy chandeliers as an investment. They buy them for beauty in their homes.”

In addition to purveyors noted in the story, antique chandeliers may be found at the following sources:
•  Showcase at the Peak, which carries mostly 19th-century chandeliers from France and England
•  Antiques malls and antiques shops
•  Estate sales
Subscribe Today!