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The magic of a jewel: the Victorian jewelry

Updated on July 31, 2010

A brief introduction

To the casual observer, a chronological array of the jewelry of Victorian England would probably seem a bewildering melange. The large amount of this jewelry which has survived into our times provide concreete evidence of many stylistic changes; the Victorian era covers such a long period of time that many styles are covered in the one name, "Victorian". Transitions were not usually abrupt and a piece can show several influences at once. This can create some confusion in dating a piece. The Art Nouveau era, for example, overlaps the time period for Victorian jewelry but has a unique and very recognizable style.
All this leads to a needed rebuttal of the long-held notion that all Victorians were only puritanical and anti-materialistic. If anything, their jewelry suggests that they were rather lovers of beautiful and charming things, obsessed by gracefulness, and insatiably hungry for the beautiful and the different. To the nobles of those times, the appearance and beauty of a jewel was its most important feature: it might have been made of pinchbeck rather than gold, and its gems could have been crystal or glass, but the workmanship was often as fine as that lavished on more precious metals. Thus, the effect was considered to be of far greater importance than the cost of materials. Most of this charming old jewelry is painstakingly made and carefully finished: jewelry was made to last, people owned less and their few good things longer. This high level of workmanship is found only in top-quality jewelry today, if at all; but to the people of earlier times, it was the expected standard. It was only toward the latter part of the nineteenth century, when machine work replaced much of the hand labor, that the quality of workmanship went down. And even then, there were plenty of jewelry makers (most notably the devotees of Art Nouveau) who insisted that hand-crafting was an essential part of the "magic" of a jewel.
Popular jewelry styles of that period were both elaborate and intricate, forming ornate arrangements such as chandelier style earrings, rivière necklaces with their 'flowing river' of diamonds, and multi-strand festoons or three-strand en esclavage necklaces forming swagged concentric rings. In keeping with the 'excesses' of the times, diamonds were a favorite gemstone of the early period. Gemstones were used in ornate repoussé settings, forming a raised metal pattern by working from the back side of the piece. Typical jewelry items of the Romantic period were mosaic jewelry, the cameo brooch and the stick pin, with cameos of carved conch shell, hardstone agate, carnelian, and sardonyx, or Wedgwood ceramic, depicting mythological Greco-Roman imagery. Glass or paste gemstone simulations were also used extensively during the Victorian Period, and jewelers would add a foil backing to reflect more light through the 'stone.' Jewelry from the Victorian period used also small, inexpensive colored stones and seed pearls; designs consisted of scrollwork, floral spray patterns, and multicolored gold. After, in the mid-1850s we find much greater use of gemstones in all sizes, shapes, and colors; we find massive suites of jewelry with colored gemstones in heavy gold, and diamonds were worn in abundance. Gold necklaces and brooches with festoons and fringe also became popular, with and without gemstones.

Sources of ispiration for the jewelers

Queen Victoria came to the throne during the full flowering of the Romantic movement; the interest in the past has found its culmination in that period.  The jewellers drew the inspiration for their pieces chiefly from the Renaissance, the ancient Greece and Rome and the natural world, and they adapted these themes to suit their fancy.
Gold, ivory and tortoiseshell were carved into twisting branches, forming bracelets; ring and brooches were composed of ivy leaves and tendrils or of bunches of grapes among their leaves; earrings were made of tiny gold leaves and curling stems encircling a bud or berry which was a precious stone. Another motif from the natural world which was extremely popular with the Romantics was the serpent. Queen Victoria wore a serpent bracelet at her first coucil meeting, and her betrothal ring was a serpent studded with emeralds. So she, by reason of her position, became a fashion catalyst: necklaces, bracelets, and any other jewel with a snake motif were then very popular. Studded or 'pavè' with turquoise, enameled or gem set, rigid or flexible, coiled or extended, serpent jewelry abounded. Though serpents have been used for rings and bracelets since the days of the Romans- you will see them in Greek gold, Egyptian adornments, Indian jewels and so on- and continued to be used throughout the nineteenth century, these Victorian serpents are particularly charming. They are plump, graceful, and often smiling- theri dolphin-like heads sparkling with diamond or ruby or garnet eyes, their mouths sometimes open to show small sharp teeth.

An another influence on the jewellery of this period may be mentioned: Assyrian. Layard's 'Nineveh and its remains' appeared in 1848, with reproductions of the treasures found in excavating that ancient city. Jewellers lost no time in making bracelets and earrings based on Assyrian patterns. The lotus flower, as a popular motif, had arrived, and was to stay for about forty years. This enthusiasm for Assyrian ornaments foreshadowed the passion for achaeological jewellery which was to come some ten or fifteen years later. All this took the form of heightened interest in the past. This was not exclusively an English phenomenon; it had been in the air of Europe since the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the previous century. Yet by the 1860s, these and subsequent archaeological discoveries had begun to influence jewelry design. In Italy, as for example, the Roman jeweler Castellani had at last achieved success in his attempts to rediscover the lost gold-working techniques of the ancient Etruscans. Many examples of their extraordinary jewelry had been unearthed in the course of tomb excavations, but all early attempts to reproduce their characteristic technique of granulation (the fusing of infinitesimal gold spheres to a gold background) had been unsuccesful. Thus, by the 1860s, the Castellani workshops were famous, and their jewelry, initially literal copies of the Etruscan examples, soon adapted the ancient motivs with imagination and freedom, creating wondrous jewels. In Italy, naturally enough, there was a host of jewelers, some well known and others virtually anonymous, who produced much superb archaeologically inspired jewelry for the turists and lovers of the ancient styles. Although Etruscan revival jewelry was by far the most favored, there were many other archaeologically influenced jewels on the market: Assyrian-inspired jewels and Roman mosaics, with scarab, pharaonic and other Egyptian motifs, were being made in quantity. Also popular were brooches in the Viking and Celtic styles, based on authentic examples which had recently being excavated.
We can also observe many pieces of Mediterranean origin: travel was becoming very much easier, and increased number of families took holiday trips aabroad, bringing back a great deal of jewellery from the continent. These early tourists returned with souvenirs, carved ivory from Dieppe- which was the centre of that trade- and mosaics, lava or cameos from Italy. The mosaics usuallt showed temples, fountains and other pieces of classical architecture, but sometimes birds or classical portraits. The lave, or Pompeiian jewellery, was carved 'en cameo', usually with classical heads. Cameos are of two kinds; the first being the gem cameos, in which a design is cut in relief on a stone, and the second being their imitations, carved on shells, or cut or moulded in glass or paste. They have had three periods of great popularity- in classical times, in the Renaissance, and in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The onyx, sardonyx and agate, with their layers of different colours, have always been the stones most favoured for cameos, but also cameos carved in coral and in black onyx were considered extremely fine.

Hidden meanings

Looking at Antique Victorian Jewellery we often see something from quite a different perspective from that of its original owner. We see a pretty little piece , quaint, decorative , interesting or valuable. A hundred and fifty years ago the original owner may have seen these things, but the jewellery may have had a deeper meaning. Messages were contained in jewellery, sometimes these messages were hidden and other times they were messages that the wearer wanted to convey to the world. How did the Victorians put meanings in their jewellery ? They used symbols which were commonly understood at that time but which are largely forgotten now. It is interesting to take a look at pieces and to uncover their deeper meanings today.
The Victorians were full of "magic", and so their jewelry abounds in symbols, lucky charms, and "talisman" words or ideas. Take the "Regard" ring, a Victorian fancy, for example. The gemstones in the ring spell out the word 'Regard': Ruby, Emerald, Garnet, Amethyst, Rose quartz, and Diamond, or perhaps the word "Dearest" or a beloved's name. This rings are most usually hoop rings set with different colored stones; only if you know their secret can you read the words suggested by the gemstones.
Part of the pleasing quality of Victorian jewelry is this very "magic", this sentiment. Hearts and flowers and lovebirds abound- and ivy too ("I cling for life" in the language of the flowers): all symbols of binding love (the knot, buckle, bow, rope and so on) and innocence (babies, pure white coral or ivory or enamel) were very popular. Both sentimentality and symbolism were important elements of Victorian design. Jewelry could be thus read like books, the design telling of the giver's feelings or hopes. Stones were valued for their meaning and even endowed with magical properties. Coral for instance was considered to be protective against evil and disease and children wore necklaces and bracelets of the pinkish red material.


Submit a Comment

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Thank you uzair, I appreciate greatly your kind comment!

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    the information was great and i really thankfull of it

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Thank you, dear Darlene, very kind as usual! The pictures are really beautiful (I selected them carefully to illustrate the writing), they are all wonderful artworks from the nineteenth century- some of them are really incredible for their delicacy!

  • Varenya profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Thank you Deborah! Really glad that you liked it!!! It is my aesthetic taste, the love for the beautiful that has lead me to write about this subject!

  • Darlene Sabella profile image

    Darlene Sabella 

    8 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

    Very interesting and fun hub, great subject matter as well as awesome writing and photos, I have never seen these pictures, thank youu for sharing this...

  • Deborah Demander profile image

    Deborah Demander 

    8 years ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

    Lovely pictures. This hub is well written, and thoroughly researched. Thanks.



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