C.G. sent me a pair of gorgeous tall (3 foot) candelabra, and wondered what they might be.
Of course, the answer is that they are wrought iron from the 1930s. She has had them for 30 years on her back porch on an old stone garden table in Santa Barbara, and they were in bad shape until I came to the house and said, “Restore those! They are period pieces with a heritage in Santa Barbara!”
But when I emailed her my response, she asked, “Well, how is wrought iron different from cast iron, and how do I tell, and is there a valuation difference?”
The answer is yes. There is a valuation difference, and later we will see that there are knockoffs of her candelabra in aluminum, and, of course, she wondered if she has “appropriate” garden furniture. She is also worried that her George Washington Smith home might be “sullied” by mid-20th-century aluminum garden furniture. So here I explain to C.G. the difference in cast, wrought and aluminum furniture.
Read on if you want to know the difference between cast and wrought iron, and aluminum, and how these three mediums figure in the antique world — as far as your lawn furniture, antique bed frames and even stair railings. And Santa Barbara is the center-most mecca for Spanish Colonial in the 1920-1940s, so this question matters to us.
The photos C.G. sent do not include the wonderful vision of a 1930s railing that is the handrail and balustrades of her 1930s-era grand and elegant Santa Barbara stairway.
Did I say she had a wrought iron balustrade creating her stairway? There is a reason for this: Wrought iron is VERY strong, and stronger than cast iron. Wrought iron means the iron was wrought. Each time it was worked, it was heated and pounded into shape; it became stronger.
Iron indeed is the most common element on this planet, consisting of 35% of the Earth’s total mass, only followed in prevalence by oxygen at 30% and silicon at 15%. Iron is found in the earth’s inner and outer cores.
As I suggested, in antique furniture there are two main forms of iron used: cast and wrought. They are not the same. Cast iron includes an alloy which is 2-4% carbon, with silicon and manganese.
And cast iron is made through casting, meaning it is poured into molds; wrought iron, as these gorgeous candelabra, is made of iron, which is mixed with the by-product of the smelting (read that as “pig iron”). Then those experienced metalworkers bend it and hammer it and heat it about six times.
Wrought iron is the medium of choice when something needs to be flexible and strong — like C.G.’s candelabras — at the same time. Such is the stair balustrade.
The period when we see wrought iron in its heyday was the early 20th century because that era was the era of Revivalism with a capital “R”: Spanish Revival for example, and people, especially us here in Santa Barbara, know wrought iron in our vintage homes in terms of lighting fixtures, stair railings, outdoor furniture, which is always a bestseller here in our town, as well as period stairs and architectural salvage.
When you are looking for wrought iron, which is generally considered more valuable that cast, look to see mold lines, because that will tell you the piece is cast. Wrought iron, because it is hammered repeatedly, will not have mold lines
And C.G. asks if any pieces of wrought iron are signed or labeled, and the answer is generally they are not. We must rely on the style to tell us the maker and the era.
Knockoffs of wrought iron antiques are often made of aluminum in the later 20th century, and all you need to distinguish wrought iron from aluminum is to pick it up. Wrought will be so much heavier.
Also, aluminum will not rust, and wrought iron will, so test it with a magnet and if your magnet adheres, it is iron and not aluminum.
The Art Deco period was the era of wrought iron, which is the 1920-1930s, and that is the era where you find great wrought iron like C.G.’s candelabra. The value of the pair? $1,200, and the interesting thing is that many places in the U.S. will not value 1930s wrought iron the way we do here in the mecca of Spanish Colonial Revival homes.
And so, your market, C.G., if you sell, is here: Santa Barbara.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.