What is Steampunk?

Steampunk is an imaginary alternate-reality that borrows elements of the Victorian Era, Wild West, Edwardian Era, WWI and other historical periods. There are related classifications such as deiselpunk, clockpunk, circuspunk, steamfunk, and gaslight/gaslamp.

First applied to a sub-genre of fiction in the 1980s, the term “steampunk” now encompasses fashion, housewares, music, movies and a mashup of fiction genres including sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, supernatural and horror. The term is also applied to earlier works, such as the Disney movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the 1960s TV show The Wild, Wild West, and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

The “steam” in the term denotes an earlier stage of human innovation and technology. The “punk” is for the spirit of rebellion — whether it’s fictional characters rebelling against a tyrannical overlord, or real-life individuals rebelling against the boring, mass-produced clothing and merchandise of modern life.

View my GALLERY of past work

I have decades of jewelry-making experience and a lifelong love of Art Nouveau and the Victorian, Edwardian and Wild West periods. I spent much of my youth reading Michael Moorcock, grandfather of steampunk, and visiting places like the Main Street of Disneyland with its penny arcade or Calico Ghost Town in the Mojave Desert. By the age of 10, I’d built my own fortune teller and mechanical horse race contraptions out of cardboard, creating gears from toilet paper tubes. I loved the movies Time Machine (1960), Something Wicked This Way Comes, Time After Time and Return to Oz.

I’ve been designing Victorian-inspired, Art Nouveau and found art jewelry for a long time but didn’t hear the term “steampunk” until 2007. Sitting with a friend in an Irish pub, under a painting of W.B. Yeats, we discussed my interest in what I called the “brass-and-copper, psuedo-Victorian, mechanistic, retro-sci-fi motifs.” I lamented that all my life I’d searched for some word to describe it. My friend said, “I know the word. It’s steampunk.”

At that time, a Google search of “steampunk jewelry” turned up Datamancer‘s work and not much else. I found nothing on Etsy. I’m not claiming to be the first person to make and sell steampunk jewelry. But I must have been one of the first people to sell steampunk jewelry online, based on my Internet searches at the time, the incredible response I received from buyers and potential buyers who demanded more, and the many makers who emailed me questions about how I created the jewelry and where I found the parts.

The Clockwork Queen is not amused.

In 2008, Jean Campbell invited me to work on her book Steampunk Style Jewelry (released in December 2009 with my projects on pages 50, 90 and 96). I’m also featured in 1000 Steampunk Creations, a 2011 book that showcases the growing community of steampunk artists.

I’ve started calling my pieces “Neo-Victorian” or using other terms, because the word “steampunk” has taken on a life of it’s own. I love steampunk, but I’ve always been more interested in the art, history and literature of the actual Victorian, Civil War, Industrial Era, Art Nouveau, Belle Epoque and Wild West periods, rather than modern anime and the recent trend of fiction, costuming, music and lifestyle accessories.

I also create what I call “spacepunk” jewelry inspired by science fiction, “screampunk” jewelry with macabre elements, and “circuspunk” jewelry with carnival themes. My work is infused with both modern and vintage motifs, nature and machine, past and future.


Each piece is an individual, serendipitous work of art. I am not making them from ceramic or art clay. I assemble actual watch parts, ephemera, found objects, new and old broken jewelry into wearable adornment. I am not a watchmaker and I do not make working watches or mini-machines (as much as I wish I could), though some of my pieces do have movable parts. See pics of my studio here.

Here’s a tutorial I made for a really easy steampunk ring project. My original designs take a lot longer to make, and incorporate several more antique and found items, but this gives you a little idea of what it’s like when I make jewelry.

I recommend following me on Twitter, Patreon and deviantART to find out more about me, or check out my author website at JLHilton.com.


Some watch faces and hands were painted with radium in the early 1900’s, to make them glow in the dark. According to a thread I found at the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, another on eBay, and an Australian government website, the radium is not a problem so long as it’s not ingested. The Radium Girls, who suffered radiation poisoning while painting watches in the early 1900s, handled thousands of watch parts, licked their brushes to keep them in shape, and painted their teeth, nails and faces with radium paint, for fun.

In my Steampunk pieces, I rarely use watch faces or hands, and when I do, they are often coated with resin, which would keep the paint from flaking off and being accidentally ingested. Most of the time, I use gears, bridges and other internal parts, combined with new materials, and these parts have no known association with radioactivity. I have never noticed any of my materials glowing in the dark.

I do want to make it clear that, regardless of my precautions, I have no way to 100% guarantee the condition of any vintage, recycled or found parts, in regards to radioactivity, or to lead, nickel, aluminum or any other content. Steampunk, found art and jewelry items that contain vintage or recycled parts will be clearly described as such, in the item description.


While my steampunk creations are meant to be worn, keep in mind that they are also individual works of art and should be handled with care. Some pieces have gears and parts which might be sharp and pointy, might catch on clothing, or might break off. I try to make them as solid as possible, but just like any jewelry, it’s best not to wear it while working, sleeping, exercising, showering, swimming, or other similar activities.

~ Jen

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