If you’re on the hunt for an antique mirror, you’ve got at least one thing going for you: options. Looking glass has a come a long way since Narcissus was admiring his reflection in a river and since the Turks were making mirrors out of polished stone 6,000 years ago. Today mirrors are made and available in all shapes, sizes, and styles, but some of the most sought-after designs are antique mirrors, which have intricate, luxurious details and create a sense of glamour. Just like they were in the 17th century when the Palace of Versailles’ famed Hall of Mirrors was built, antique mirrors today remain a beautiful and sometimes rare commodity.
Depending on the origin of a particular antique mirror, you’ll notice distinctly different design elements, including everything from gilded carvings to mahogany flowers to Gothic-inspired forms. Though mirrors have been produced all over the map, Europe is really the mecca for antique mirrors—and France, Italy, and England in particular have a reputation for producing the world’s most beautiful mirrors.
So how did antique mirrors as we know them develop? Let’s start at the beginning: in Murano, Italy. This little island of Venice, known as the Glass Island, had become the foothold of the glassblowing industry by the 1400s, housing the most talented glassmakers and the most over-the-top glass creations. Hand-mirrors and pocket mirrors produced there were originally made of small blown-glass bulbs, but by the 16th century, Venetian glassmakers had invented a technique to make mirrors out of plate glass, backed with mercury. This advance in technology catapulted the art of the mirror tenfold.
In Venice, the mirror craft became a serious business. Decorative Venetian mirrors were expensive and admired, and used as a status symbol in the most lavish homes of nobility throughout Italy and Europe. A council was created to ensure trade secrets and techniques weren’t shared with the rest of the world, and anyone who shared the city’s methods would risk imprisonment. However, by the 17th century, after a few master glassmakers were successfully relocated to France, so too was their knowledge, skill, and mercury technique. Soon enough, London and Paris also established themselves major producers of mirror. French workshops later succeeded in large-scale industrialization of the mercury process, which not only allowed the French to produce much larger sheets of glass, but also bring the once-exclusive decorative mirrors to the masses.
So what distinguishes an antique mirror made in France from one handcrafted in England?
Antique Venetian Mirrors
Because Venice was the hub of the mirror craft, antique Venetian mirrors run the style gamut. In the 17th century, most Venetian mirrors were designed like picture frames, with a simple rectangular or octagonal shape which glorified with exquisite workmanship. Details like copper hand etching, intricate floral accents, and colored glass trims in gold, blues, and pinks were common.
In the 18th century, Venetian glass craftsmen began to play with more scrolls, swags, and bolder design elements extending out from the tops, bottoms, of borders of their geometric mirrors. Hand etching and hand beveling were the techniques du jour.
When Rococo, an artistic movement and style, emerged in the 18th century as a reaction against grandeur and symmetry, a Rococo style of mirror developed throughout Italy, France, and England. Magnificent gilt carvings distinguish these antique Venetian mirrors. This style of carving, called “gardooning,” often features nature-inspired elements like leaves, branches, flowers, and vines. Common as well during this era was a small Rococo mirror sconce with one or two candle arms; the mirror’s reflection of the candlelight created double the impact.
French Antique Mirrors
In addition to Rococo mirrors, which were also seen in France, antique French mirrors fall into a few different styles. One such style was very much driven by the introduction of grand, statement chimneys by French architect Robert de Cotte. Replacing the paintings and carved reliefs were large and spectacular mirrors designed to make a statement. Another more subdued yet elegant style, trumeau mirrors, also emerged; These tall, narrow mirrors were designed to frame windows and often featured wood panels decorated with carved elements in relief.
French antique mirrors are also often marked by an arrangement of separate mirrored panels, called parecloses, which were decorated with further ornamentation like filigree treatments, gilded medallions, and carved sections. In the 18th century, a large cartouche centered on a grand scallop shell was a favorite motif on pareclose mirrors.
In France, mirrors were not only hung on the wall, but under the reign of Louis XV and Louis XVI, mirrored furniture also became popular. Tall floor mirrors with a single drawer at the base, mirrored desks, and mirrored dressing tables became popular as makeup and beauty regimes became more important in royal etiquette.
Antique English Mirrors
In England, decorative design in the 17th and 18th centuries was (and perhaps remains) a little less ostentatious than in Italy and France, so English antique mirrors tend to be a bit more restrained. Mirror craftsmen in England did also produce the popular carved, gilded Rococo mirrors of Italy and France—in England known as the Thomas Chippendale mirror—but one of the country’s most iconic mirror styles is more subdued with a walnut frame and scrolled edges and lacier details. Developed in George England, these antique mirrors were often influenced by architectural design details.
The Victorian era in England saw more simplistic mirror silhouettes gain in popularity, as well as an influx of mahogany and ebonized woods. Another popular genre is Adam-style mirrors, or that of important British architect Robert Adam, who gave rise to an affinity for neoclassical design. Adam-style antique mirrors are often marked by delicate, precious ornamentation and swags that seem to drape from the mirror frame.
When shopping for your dream mirror, remember that most antique mirrors were backed with mercury (unlike mirrors today, which are most often coated with silver). Mercury oxidizes over time, which gives it that “antiqued” look. This is part of its charm and authenticity, however it does introduce the risk of mercury toxicity.