Personal Affects: All about prisms

Published 5:38 pm Friday, October 25, 2019


Question: Hi J. I wanted to ask you about prisms. The type of prisms on lamps and candlesticks. I’ve got several some are on lamps and some are on those mantle lusters. I’ve broken several of them over the years. They clink and clack together but I can’t find them in stores like yours anymore. The ones that I have broken are the ones with the arrow head on the end. I did find some but they wanted $5 each for the big ones that I needed. Would it be horrible if I took them off? Are they just there for decoration they are aren’t they? I mean, they look pretty but they are a hassle. Thank you for taking the time to talk about this to an old lady.

Answer: Well, you can certainly take them off, they belong to you. However, if they were made to have prisms on them, there will be holes that you can see. People get upset over prisms but I don’t know why. They worry about them being broken and about the hassle they can create, but I think many times they really make a piece stand out. 

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You see, what many people don’t realize is that prisms do, or once did, serve a purpose. Many think that they were there to be fancy, in reality, they were there to reflect precious light.

Remember, in the past, there was only candle light, oil or kerosene light or gas light, on the tail end of the lighting timeline. All of these methods are great compared to darkness, but they pale in comparison to our modern lights that cast out hundreds, if not thousands, of candle watts of light. 

All of these glittering surfaces reflected and refracted the light to push it out into the room. And that was what prism were all about.

Good prisms are hard to find. Let’s face it, they aren’t exactly needed, and we know about supply and demand. I can think of one company, Antique Lamp Supply in Tennessee. Google them and you’ll find them right off the bat. But I warn you, unless it was years and years ago, you’ll call the place back that offered you those prisms for $5 each. What you called an “arrowhead” prism, we in the trade call a “spearhead” prism. New spearheads on a retail level, will set you back about $20 each, and depending on the size, can go up to $34 EACH! Now, if you have something that is an odd or different cut or shape, that is truly antique, you may have to pay even more, unless you stumble on them like you did the last time. So take care of them.

Speaking of taking care of them. Swinging them together or mistreating them will gain you no favors. If you have to move them more than a few feet, you should try to wrap some soft paper around them as a barrier. If you plan on moving them across town, you’ll have to gently remove them, wrap them, label them and transport them, sans prisms. 

In regards to cleaning, don’t just slosh them around in some hot water still attached to their bases. You’ll have to remove them. Or do as I do and use a paper towel dampened with some window cleaner and just wipe them off. Try not to get the wires that hold the prisms together too wet either. The antique ones are made from a zinc-type material and they can become brittle with too much water on them over time.

You do what you want, but I’d take care of and enjoy your pieces with their prisms on them.