History of Jewelry: Victorian

History of Jewelry | The Georgian, Victorian & Edwardian Eras

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Great Britain in the 18th & 19th Century

The more commonly known 'Victorian era' was bookended by two other significant periods in British history, the Georgian and Edwardian eras. All three were named after the British monarchs who oversaw the period. As far as fashion, social attitudes, and aesthetic taste is concerned, there is little disagreement that the royal families had an indelible influence on the period's fashion and design motifs, as well as national the mood.

Georgian Era Jewellery (1714 to 1830)

Starting at roughly the same time as the Industrial Revolution, the Georgian period was defined by the rule of the English kings George I through George IV, as well as the American and French revolutions. This period was distinguished by its air of opulence, self indulgence and quirkiness, with George III (aka the porphyria stricken "Mad King George") setting the tone. Starting with the the ornate Rococo style of the early Georgian period, motifs transitioned from Gothic Revival during the mid-Georgian era, to Neoclassical during the transitional 'Regent period' of George IV.

Popular jewelry styles of the 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 Georgian Era. Gemstones were used in ornate repoussé settings, forming a raised metal pattern by working from the back side of the piece.

Other complex Georgian accessories were the cannetille, chatelaine, and stomacher. The stomacher was an elaborately decorated triangular pane, filling in the front opening of a woman's bodice. Cannetille work was another popular Georgian style of metalsmithing, being made up of a lacy, open filigree consisting of tightly wound twisted gold wires, forming a coiled spiral that resembles spun gold. A chatelaine is a decorative clasp worn at the waist, with a series of suspended chains.

Victorian Era Jewellery (1837 to 1901)

The "Victorian era" as it has come to be known, started on June 20th 1837 with the crowning of Queen Victoria as the United Kingdom's longest ruling monarch. The Reform Act of 1832, and changing social mores are also credited with the ending of both the Georgian era, and transitional Regency era (1800-1830), bringing about a new, 'romantic' period.

Victorian era fashion and design blended an eclectic array of stylistic motifs such as Elizabethan, Classical and Gothic revival, Greco-Roman, Neoclassical, Orientalism, Rococo and Romanticism, all tailored to fit the new vision of an "ideal woman" as pure, unadulterated, and subservient.

Romantic Period

The 'Early Victorian' years from 1837 to around 1860 were referred to as the "Romantic Period," marked by the Queen's marriage to Prince Albert in 1840. Romanticism was a social shift away from the aristocratic, social, and political norms of the Enlightenment period, stressing the importance of dreams, emotions and sentimentality as inspirational source material for artistic expression. The Romantic era also brought about a new fascination with nature, adding Eden-like symbols such as the serpent, grapes, flowers, and birds to the 'romantic' motif.

After Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had purchased Balmoral Castle in the Caledonian woodlands of Scotland in 1848, Celtic motifs began to permeate English culture. By the end of the Romantic Period, brooches and pendants containing polished agate gemstones called "Scottish pebble jewelry" had become very popular.

Hair Jewelry (left)

So called "hair jewelry" or "memorial mourning brooches" became a staple of the period, with Queen Victoria giving gifts of jewelry made from her hair (above, left). Mourning brooches were made by weaving small locks of a loved one's hair into detailed "hair art." The locks were mounted on an agate or mother-of-pearl backing, then covered with domed glass. Human hair was also woven into elaborate designs and patterns used on pins, brooches, and bracelets.

Mid-Victorian Period

After a twenty year run, the Romantic era ended suddenly with the death of Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert in 1860. A new period of mourning known as the Mid-Victorian or "Grand" Period, lasted from 1860 to 1885. Darker stones such as jet and black onyx began to appear in jewelry, symbolic of the national mood.

Another offshoot of the Queen's fascination with the Scottish countryside was the popularity of the Celtic Revival Cross, worn as a pendant or pin. Due to a scarcity of raw materials during this period, open-work techniques such as cannetille, filigree, and repoussé were employed so as to exaggerate the quantity of precious metals, and size of the jewelry piece.

Typical jewelry items of the 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.'

Brooches were also decorated with miniature Limoges painted enamel portraits (above, center), surrounded by Etruscan style granulation, filigree and fleur d'lis. Small enamel portraits were painted by artisans called "limners," who would travel the countryside creating these wearable likenesses.

The Mid-Victorian Period saw the rise of a new urban middle class [5]. A fashionable pastime for the well-heeled Englishman was to embark on "The Grand Tour" of Europe, visiting classical Baroque, Greco-Roman and Italian Renaissance monuments while collecting mementos from each location. Collectors brought back Pietra Dura (stone inlay) mosaics and mico-mosaics (tessarae) which local artisans would craft to emulate the architectural motifs of famous Etruscan and Greco-Roman sites.

After Queen Victoria was crowned as the Empress of India in 1876, 'Orientalism' brought about a newfound fascination with the Far East, as Eastern and Indian motifs worked their way into European art and jewelry design.

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