Part 3: Late Victorian Jewellery Circa 1880-1901

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Part 1: Victorian What Does That Mean?

Part 2: The Definition of “Victorian” Jewellery

Queen Victorian 1887

The final two decades of Queen Victoria’s reign saw the beginning of great changes within the very fabric of Victorian society. Celebrations for her 50 years on the throne in 1887 saw, at long last, a relaxation of the strict rules of mourning that she had imposed not only on herself but also the royal court and many of her subjects.

Princess Alexandra, circa 1889

Princess Alexandra, the future King Edward’s beautiful trendsetting wife, had become a major influence on fashion and jewellery. Sometimes referred to as the “Aesthetic Period”, lines became simpler with smooth curves and an emphasis on light, lacy fabrics prevailed. As women became more independent, active and sporty the bustle slowly diminished in size as the tailored look came into vogue giving women a previously unheard of freedom of movement. In contrast however hats became large with excessive decoration of flowers, ribbons and bows, extravagant feathers and lace which led to the development of very long and bejewelled hat pins to keep the hats in position.

Jewellery design underwent an enormous change as women began to see themselves as a worthy and useful member of society rather than a purely decorative possession. They turned from the large ornate jewels of the 1860’s and 70’s to a much smaller, delicate style often using colourless stones such as pearls, moonstones, opals, colourless pastes and of course diamonds which were now more readily available and less expensive since the discovery of vast deposits of the gem in South Africa in 1867. Electric lighting was introduced in the 1880’s which greatly enhanced the sparkling diamond jewels worn by the wealthy who enjoyed displaying their status at gala events such as the opera, theatres and restaurants of London and New York. Fabulous tiaras, rivieres, bracelets, rings and brooches, the latter “en tremblant” , dazzled their way around town but still only worn at night and only by married women, although some of these rules of etiquette were gradually being relaxed as the 1890’s approached. Some early feminists ceased to wear any jewels at all during the daytime in protest at the general perception of women as being purely decorative.

Sporting jewellery became very fashionable as women ventured into outdoor sporting pursuits such as fox hunting, golf, croquet, tennis and items depicting these activities were worn on suitable tailored clothing. Small brooches, stick pins and cufflinks were skilfully decorated with reverse-painted intaglios which resulted in extremely life like images of game birds, fox and hounds and horses

Small brooches depicting jewelled birds, butterflies, beetles and all kinds of small animals were worn in multiples in the folds of lace, around the neckline and on bonnets and veils. Colourful jewellery was considered garish and the only suggestion of colour would be garnets for the eyes and maybe a delicate sprinkling of sapphires or emeralds on the bodies and wings. 

Earrings had also become much smaller as the fashion for high upswept hair styles became popular and often a small gold stud or a single gemstone was all that was worn during the day. Earrings for pierced ears were made until the 1890’s by which time the practice was considered barbaric and resulted in the development of the screw back fitting in 1894 which gradually replaced wires and posts by the 1920’s.

A real boost was given to the purchase of single diamonds when Tiffany and Co introduced their new “Tiffany Setting” for solitaire diamond rings in which the diamond was prong set and raised up to display it’s beauty, which became the foremost setting for the engagement ring that still endures to this day.

Antique Garnet and Pearl NecklaceGarnet jewellery had been popular throughout the Victorian period but in the 1880’s the trend moved from the large cabochon cut almandine garnets (known as a carbuncle which was often foil backed to enhance the colour) to small clusters of brilliant or rose cut pyrope garnets (also known as Bohemian cut garnets), which were pave set in almost invisible silver or low carat gold settings that remind one of good rich red wine. Beautiful brooches and pendants were made by building up circular rows of garnets into a gentle dome shape that also intensified the rich colour of the readily available gemstone. In 1853 green demantoid garnets were discovered in the Ural Mountains of Russia and were used to set into late 19 th and early 20th century salamander and lizard brooches that were so popular at the time. The brilliant, bright green colour and lustre of these gems was highly prized, but they became far more rare and costly compared to other garnets, especially when the Russian revolution interrupted mining production.

In the early 1890’s the long gold chain or sautoir re-appeared on the fashion scene but worn a little differently from the French style a century earlier. Instead of being slung over one shoulder to fall diagonally across the body from shoulder to hip, the late Victorians wore the chain around the neck enabling it to fall well below the waist so that it could be tucked into the waist or be caught up with a brooch onto the bodice. Sometimes small diamonds or pearls were set between the links of the chain creating a light lace effect and some were enhanced with gem set slides, tassels or drops. Some sautoirs were made completely from pearls and worn together with the highly fashionable jewelled multi strand dog collar so favoured by the elegant and beautiful Princess Alexandra.

Bracelets were still worn in fashionable circles and had become narrower with several being worn on each arm together with curb link designs often fastened with a heart shaped padlock clasp. The tiny waist that was crucial for elegant ladies of the 1890’s became the focal point of the body, accentuated by wide belts and beautiful decorative buckles. Chatelaines again became fashionable and were usually made from silver which held aesthetic appeal and once Princess Alexandra was spotted wearing one they quickly became extremely popular. Most were decorated with repousse work, stamping or engraving and carried various household items such as a note book and pencil, scissors and a needle case, coin purse and spectacle case and many other small useful gadgets, of which the Victorians were particularly fond.

History and politics again played an influential part in every day Victorian life and Japanese design and symbolism became popular after trade relations resumed with Europe in the mid 19 th century. In 1876 Japan banned the wearing of swords, ending the feudal system and the samurai warrior, which resulted in the highly skilled sword makers turning their hand to making jewellery. Skilled craftsmen with expertise in unusual (to European eyes) metal working techniques started to make exquisite jewellery for the western taste with raised designs inlaid with gold and silver into an oxidised metal background, known as damascene work. Motifs such as cranes, orange blossom, bamboo and bulrushes and marine animals were engraved onto fan shaped brooches, earrings and bracelets which again appealed to the followers of the Aesthetic movement with the quality and beauty of the work.

By the 1880’s with Queen Victoria now Empress of India interest in India surged and people began to seek out fine examples of Indian jewellery to wear as they became dissatisfied with the predictability of jewels made at home. The exotic appeal of the hand-made irregular settings found in Indian jewellery was galvanised in 1886 at the Arts of India Exhibition held in London which show-cased all aspects of India’s rich decorative style. The exhibition also influenced the work of many French and English craftsmen as they tried to imitate the settings and enamel work of India. They even set lion claws into highly decorated gold necklaces and bracelets as hunting trophies!

Silver had been used to make jewellery over a long period of history but it became really popular at the end of the Victorian period when again fashion, historical events and discoveries and the Aesthetic Movement itself all played a role to focus the spotlight on the now readily available and inexpensive metal. Initially silver had been used as the metal into which diamonds and pastes were set in order to show off their “whiteness”. Silver was then backed with gold in order to make the item of jewellery but by the end of the 19 th century platinum had become far more widely used and replaced silver as the metal of choice for setting diamonds, it was also much harder wearing than gold.

Items of jewellery could now be made inexpensively yet still with the same design style as the more costly gold pieces. With increased mechanisation they could be produced in their thousands to satisfy the demand of the working class who wished to emulate the jewellery and style of their wealthy employers. Lockets had long been a favourite item for the sentimental Victorians who could keep a portrait or lock of hair of a loved one close to them inside a locket and these proved to be very successful when made in silver. Touches of rose or yellow gold were applied onto the silver with wonderful effect on many items including brooches, chains, bracelets and bangles. Love and message brooches were especially popular and the language of flowers was also used to convey special meaning, ivy for friendship, pansy for thoughts, to name a couple. Other symbols such as the heart for charity, anchor for hope, cross for faith and of course horseshoes for good luck, were also highly desirable.

Sadly although beautiful pieces were created, the vast majority of machine made silver jewellery was not well made in terms of craftsmanship and style, the effect of this was to inspire the formation of three separate movements that would rebel against the evils of mass production and strive to uphold and maintain the purity and quality of the master craftsman. Thus as the amazing and exciting Victorian period came to an end in 1901 there were incredible changes already taking place and still more waiting in the wings, but more about that in our next blog.

Part 1: Victorian What Does That Mean?

Part 2: The Definition of “Victorian” Jewellery