Part 2: The Definition of “Victorian” Jewellery

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Part 1: Victorian What Does That Mean?

Part 3: Late Victorian Jewellery circa 1880-1901

The Victorian period spanned the 19 th century from 1837, when Victoria inherited the throne of Great Britain, until 1901 when she died. As we have discussed previously it was an amazing and exciting period in history that brought about great changes in Britain and North America socially, politically and economically. The materialistic Victorians were able to decorate their homes and themselves with a wide range of items and styles as a direct result of the inventions and discoveries of the machine age. Although her name became symbolic of the time Victoria herself was not an arbiter of fashion although she was a great romantic, as indeed was her husband Prince Albert.  

The Romantic Period, 1837-1861

The first early Victorian period from 1837 to 1861 was known as the romantic period, although unlike the prevailing fashion trends which had a definite time span, jewellery styles could not be defined in the same way. Fashion in clothes changed fairly rapidly but due to the intrinsic values involved jewellery styles changed more slowly and tended to overlap from one period to the next although fashion always was, and still is, a major influence on jewellery style. The dresses of the time had very full skirts with layers of petticoats and long sleeves for day time wear. Bonnets were worn during the day and hair styles covered the ears for evening wear, a consequence of which was the demise of the earring. In contrast bracelets were very popular and were worn on both arms and usually several at a time. The invention of elastic 1830 gave rise to the ubiquitous stretch bracelet, very few of which have survived today as they were subject to much more wear and tear than brooches or necklaces. Low cut, wide necklines were popular with younger women and large gem set bodice brooches for evening wear were “de rigeur”. Early Victorian brooches can be identified by the extra- long pin stem which kept the brooch in place when pushed back into the fabric, the C clasp and tube hinge.

Industrial Revolution Influenced Jewellery Design

There were many aspects of the industrial revolution that influenced jewellery design, travel and communication expanded the horizons of the early Victorians with the growth of railway links and later the development of steam powered boats. This enabled Europeans to explore new cultures and tourism itself boosted the trade in jewellery indigenous to the countries that were visited. Mosaics, pietra dura, coral and cameos were purchased as souvenirs from Italy, pebble jewellery was brought back from Scotland and amazing carvings from Germany all contributed to and influenced prevailing styles back home. New techniques and materials were paramount to the growth and development within the jewellery trade and soon the prospering craftsmen in Great Britain began to utilise the skills of foreign employees who were only too willing to resettle their families in such a rapidly growing and affluent country.

Victorian Mosaic, Cameo and Petra Dura Brooches

Victorian Mosaic, Victorian Cameo and Victorian Pietra Dura Brooches

Symbol of Eternal Love

Prince Albert, who became a great patron of the arts, enjoyed designing pieces of jewellery for his wife with a great deal of romantic and sentimental flair as was the trend of the time. Victoria’s betrothal ring was a symbol of eternal love in the form of a snake with its tail in its mouth, a symbol that recurs throughout the 19th century and was especially popular in the 1840s. Necklaces, rings and bracelets of gold set with gemstones, especially small cabochon pave set turquoise, or partly enamelled were very much in vogue with the gemstones often continuing down the articulated body forming “scales”. Serpent bracelets were also designed to encircle the wrist several times and towards the end of the century could be found entwined around elegant gloved arms up to nine times.

Victorian 15ct Yellow Gold Snake Design Split Ring

Victorian 15ct Yellow Gold Snake Design Split Ring

Cameos were very popular throughout the 19th century, having been greatly favoured by the Empress Eugenie who set the fashion at court to wear them around the waist, large numbers set into a necklace, on bracelets for each wrist and even set in the tiara for evening wear. However this trend did not prevail for most women for whom a necklace, or a brooch or earrings were quite sufficient. Cameos, as with other types of brooches, were often worn on a velvet ribbon encircling the throat or pinned to lace collars, again at the throat. The quality of the cameo itself varied greatly, particularly as demand increased and mass production expanded, from expertly carved precious and semi- precious stones to cheaper imitations in shell, glass and other materials.

Read More about Cameos in Our Blog

Coral jewellery was popular throughout the 19th century with beautiful carved cameos and beads being the most spectacular, but natural branches were also popular when made into jewellery. The Victorians believed that coral had protective and healing powers and it was often worn by children as a necklace to ward off disease and evil spirits.

Gold was not readily available before the discovery of deposits in California in 1849, Australia in 1851, the Black hills of Dakota in 1874, South Africa in 1886 and Alaska in 1898 and this had a huge effect on the way that jewellery was made. Seed pearl jewellery was made with very little, if any, gold at all. The pieces were made from mother of pearl onto which the tiny seed pearls were precariously sewn with horse hair, often in a floral design. The delicate and fragile nature of the pieces has meant that very little of this vulnerable jewellery, so favoured by brides, has survived to this day.

Hair Jewellery

Hair was another material used for making jewellery that did not require a great deal of gold work and in fact almost became a home hobby, made for and worn by both men and women using their own or a loved one’s hair. Victoria herself would give gifts as mementos or love tokens made from, or including, some of her own hair. Hair work dates from the late 18th century and reached its peak of popularity during the mid 19thcentury but had waned considerably by the 1890’s. All forms of jewellery were made from hair and finished with gold or gold filled fittings and clasps including watch chains, wide plaited bracelets, coiled necklaces and delicate earrings with gold tipped spheres involving the most intricate patterns. The value of the pieces lies in the quality of the craftsmanship rather than the materials and gems used for the fittings, and the hair is extremely difficult to repair if damaged.

Victorian Hair Jewellery

Victorian Hair Jewellery

Scottish Jewellery

Scottish jewellery was extremely fashionable during the early part of Victoria’s reign right through to Albert's death in 1861. The Queen loved Scotland and was extremely proud of her own Stuart ancestry and when the royal couple purchased Balmoral Castle as a summer holiday home in 1848 the passion for all things Scottish quickly spread through the nation. The fascination with the tartan designs and colours was reflected in the mainly silver jewellery produced which incorporated local stones such as moss agate, carnelian, malachite, bloodstone, amethyst, and the smokey yellow Cairngorm, named after the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland where it was found. Traditional designs prevailed initially with items such as circular plaid pins, dirks and claymores (knives and swords) thistles and St Andrew’s crosses, but by the mid Victorian period anchors, hearts, arrows, serpents and other non-Scottish forms began to appear. By 1860 the production of silver and Scottish pebble jewellery had developed into a major industry that required mechanisation in order to keep up with demand. Thus later jewellery was mass produced in Birmingham with poorly cut stones and the noticeable absence of ornate engraving on the mounts. Scottish or pebble jewellery is still very wearable with today’s fashions and early quality pieces are very collectable. Brooches are the most readily available items today followed by bracelets but necklaces, earrings and buckles are now quite scarce.

Gold was the favoured material for early Victorian goldsmiths and they were able to introduce two new techniques to enhance the beauty and appeal of the finished article. The first was to treat the metal with an acid solution to vary the texture of the surface giving it a soft, delicate finish known as blooming or frosting. The second was to alter the colour of the gold by alloying it with other metals such as copper and silver enabling them to create five different, subtle colours, red, green, blue, white and yellow.

The gold curb link bracelet was perhaps one of the most popular jewellery items of the Victorian period. As fashions changed it was reinvented by merely changing its size and altering the type and number of attachments to suit the current trend. 1850 would have seen a heavy tight link version with possibly a jewelled heart or padlock suspended or even a collection of small coins added to the links. Bracelets were much in vogue at this time and several may have been worn on each arm and the curb chain would have been one of them. By 1890 the taste for small, delicate jewellery prevailed and the links would have become much finer and looser with tiny gold charms attached.

Victorians became pre-occupied with naturalism which involved the close study of all aspects of natural life and phenomena and one of their most symbolic motifs, the human hand, found its way as a symbol of love and friendship into items of jewellery during the early Romantic period. Clasped hands as a symbol of love and friendship date from Roman times and reappear throughout history as the medieval fede ring and later the Irish gimmel ring, one of which was given to Queen Victoria on her visit to Ireland. The hand motif also appeared as brooches, as links in a chain, a clasp on a purse and a catch for a neck chain or string of pearls, making it useful as well as decorative and symbolic.

The gift of flowers has had a romantic association for centuries and the incorporation into jewellery has a long history. The Victorians developed a passionate interest in the natural sciences and their increased knowledge enabled them to carefully catalogue and collect specimens of every known living species of plants and animals. This led to a more natural and realistic design of flowers within the jewellery industry of the Romantic Period. In addition the language of flowers influenced the choice of flower motifs in jewellery design to express a particular sentiment.

Sentimental Jewellery

Victorian Horse Horseshoe Pendant and Victorian Dagger Brooch

Victorian Horseshoe Pendant and Victorian Dagger Brooch

Early Victorian jewellery tended to be excessively sentimental and romantic and to this end various plant symbols were considered to be very lucky. Acorns, holly, ivy, four leaf clover, mistletoe, heather and the wheatsheaf were all made into gold and silver items often set with precious and semi-precious gemstones. These symbols brought good fortune to the wearer as did the horseshoe which when worn upside down was thought to shower the person with good luck. Key and heart lockets were obvious mementos between lovers, the key to unlock the heart, and were often engraved with a romantic message. Small lockets on fine chains were worn in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, but as the necklines of dresses rose they went out of fashion. They were a typical form of sentimental jewellery and while shapes and styles changed it was an item of adornment that had universal appeal and could be made from almost any type of material including gold, silver, pinchbeck, jet and vulcanite.

The Great Exhibition in London in 1851 was one of the most important events of the early Victorian period and although primarily an international industrial exhibition, the first of its kind in the world, it also showcased various aspects of the arts and décor. The top jewellers who exhibited were considered the trend setters of the time and the innovative styles that were seen at the exhibition were soon in great demand. The exhibition was a huge success and was designated by some as “the focal point for the Victorian culture of the Western world”. Prince Albert’s involvement with and confidence in, the staging of the Exhibition earned him great respect from a previously suspicious British nation, much to the pleasure of his wife.

Lithograph of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their Children at the Great Exhibition, 1851

Lithograph of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their Children at the Great Exhibition, 1851

A short ten years later the heady days of the early Victorian period came to an abrupt and tragic end with the sudden and untimely death of Prince Albert in 1861. Queen Victoria’s life was shattered, the Romantic Period was over and jewellery slipped into the Grand Period along with the expansion of the British Empire.

In our next blog on Victorian Jewellery we will talk about mourning jewellery. 

Read part one of our blog, Part 1: Victorian What Does That Mean?