I have vivid childhood memories of looking through my mother’s jewelry box and being transfixed by her floating opal earrings. Time seemed to stand still as I turned them over and over to see their fascinating displays of color and motion. Recently, after purchasing an enchanting double floating opal necklace, I found myself transfixed once again. And I began to wonder: who had created such an intriguing and unusual form of jewelry, and when was it first made? Little did I know that finding the answers to those simple questions would take months of research, and would lead to the discovery of a quite remarkable and nearly forgotten story.
Appearing much like a miniature snow globe, the floating opal is essentially comprised of small chips of opal encased in a liquid-filled glass orb. Although floating opals are still manufactured today, the jewelry we recognize as vintage reached the peak of its demand in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Surprisingly though, it was decades earlier that the floating opal was first introduced. And remarkably, its inventor was not a jeweler, but a 50 year-old, Stanford educated, patent-holding mechanical engineer. Beginning in 1920, in a venture that would take him through the rest of his life, Horace H. Welch patented, perfected, manufactured, and marketed his invention transforming it, and himself, along the way.
HORACE H. WELCH: MECHANICAL ENGINEER/INVENTOR
Horace Herbert Welch was born in 1871, the second son of a country doctor, in La Cygne, Kansas. By 1900, much of his family had relocated to Los Angeles. Welch attended Harvard College for a year, but actually graduated from Leland Stanford Junior University in 1897 with an A.B. degree in physics. Little is known of his life from that time until August 1910, when at the age of 39 he filed the application for his first patent for a “Speed Indicator.” In the following years through 1920, Welch applied for no less than 13 mechanical and electrical patents from various locations including Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee.
Sometime in the year and a half between his patent application and that publication, Welch’s tinsel-filled novelty had made the leap toward becoming a floating opal. Just how he came to conclude that opal fragments should be the display elements is hard to guess. The opal, with its history of being both prized and shunned, was enjoying a new wave of popularity, and owing to its fragility, fragments were “common and of low cost.” Whatever it was that led Welch to the opal, his subsequent applications exhibit a definite shift in focus and a significant concentration on displaying the opal’s colors most advantageously.
However, there were apparently initial production problems related to the gem’s fragility and its tendency to break. In August and November of 1924, Welch filed his second and third patent applications, in which he detailed the necessary improvements and provided many specific enhancements. In contrast to the first, these applications were quite voluminous and present strong evidence that Welch had become concerned with protecting his invention. Although he offered a multitude of variables, several essential elements emerged that came to comprise the floating opal as we know it today.
Most importantly and in simple form, those elements were:
Welch’s second and third applications did not enjoy the same swift approval as his first. Apparently, at the request of the Patent Office, Welch filed yet another application in November of 1925. That fourth application was a division of his still pending second application. (A division is usually requested when an application contains too many ideas.) Other patent struggles were revealed in a 1929 U.S. Court of Claims ruling, which disclosed that the Patent Office had rejected some of Welch’s claims and denied his subsequent appeals. That 1929 ruling reversed the Patent Office’s denial and in the following three years, Welch’s pending applications were finally approved.
H. H. WELCH: JEWELER
Eight years after his first floating opal patent, 1930 census data showed Welch living in Manhattan. At age 59, his occupation was listed as “jeweler.” His transformation was complete. He had chucked his engineering career to embrace his jewel invention. Somehow, even with a deepening depression of the economy and several patents still pending, he had managed to successfully produce, promote and sell the floating opal.
By all accounts, the H. H. Welch Company was a modest operation, and it is likely that Welch produced many of the floating opals himself. Welch enjoyed success selling his invention to jewelry stores nationwide and he continued to promote it as a “new jewel” well into the 1930s. His final floating opal patents were issued in 1931 and 1932, and there was another big promotional push at that time. Probably as a result of the Great Depression, demand seems to have dampened by the late 1930s, and the ads and articles appeared less frequently.
CONFLICTS WITH CORO AND EXPIRING PATENTS
Welch continued to produce floating opals until his unexpected death in 1947. The early 1940s had not been without challenge for the inventor. As early as 1943, Coro began advertising a line of “genuine floating opals” and Welch sued for patent infringement. Sadly, the suit was not settled until 1951, and Welch did not live to see it. After his death, his brother and nephew spent months in New York working to settle the estate. They sold the business to Robert Rose and as late as 1966, H. H. Welch, Inc. was still listed in the Jewelers’ Circular Keystone as a supplier of floating opal jewelry.
Prior to that, in 1949, 27 years after the floating opal’s first appearance, Welch’s final patent expired. This left a door open to any and all manufacturers, and they did not hesitate to step through. Newer technology allowed faster production and floating opals soon inundated the market. No longer limited to jewelry stores, this type of jewelry was widely available in department stores across the U.S. Perhaps remembering their mothers’ floating opals, women embraced this “new” jewel with zeal. Floating opal jewelry became a popular bridal accessory, and many wedding announcements included statements like, “the bride’s only jewelry was a floating opal pendant,” or “the bride wore a pair of floating opal earrings, a gift from the groom.”
Although Welch had no way of knowing that his floating opal would continue to be appreciated, coveted and manufactured into the 21st century, it is evident that he knew it was something quite extraordinary. Using his scientific knowledge, keen mechanical mind and dogged persistence, he combined glass, glycerin, and some broken opals to construct an enchanting new jewel. The Floating Opal was his masterpiece and its creation showed that this eccentric engineer held the heart of an artist.
IDENTIFYING, DATING AND ASSESSING WELCH’S FLOATING OPALS
Welch’s floating opal pendants* can be identified and dated by the markings on their decorative caps. (Necklace chains should not be used for identification purposes as they were often supplied by the retailer.) All of Welch’s early pendants were set in fine gold and the gold content (14K or 18K) is marked on the cap. The early caps are also marked with patent information and that is how they can be dated.
The Cap Markings:
A Note About the Bubble
To many eyes, the bubble is a flaw and the truth is that Welch felt the same way. With his “double globular” design, Welch was able to hide the bubble under the pendant cap (he used another method for rings). In addition, he attempted to make the passage between the two chambers narrow enough to keep the bubble in the top chamber and thus prevent “the evil appearance of the otherwise useful air space.”
Current belief is that any bubble in a floating opal reflects damage and detracts from the value. While a very large bubble is an indication of leakage and should be avoided, I would argue that in these early pieces, the theory of trapping the bubble was probably much easier than the actual practice. As handmade jewelry, floating opals suffer the “human touch” and are all the sweeter for it. Although attempts were made to keep it from sight, many a bubble has escaped its chamber and can be seen when a pendant is lying prone or held inverted. It is important to remember that many pendants are close to 90 years old, and the fact that they survived at all should weigh heavily in their favor.
CARING FOR YOUR VINTAGE FLOATING OPALS
Although they are remarkably sturdy for glass, floating opals can suffer damage. Follow these hints for storage and care to keep floating opals in nice condition:
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