The Charm of Victorian Jewelry

From draping necklaces of glittering garnets, to sweet, sentimental seed pearl lockets, Victorian jewelry continues to charm collectors and jewelry buyers with a sentimental streak. Named after England’s Queen Victoria and reaching across nearly 65 years, the Victorian period (1837-1901) encompasses a time of sweeping social and cultural change. The jewelry of this time is romantic, sentimental and often steeped in symbolism, with fashions evolving rapidly as industrialization simultaneously influenced both the manufacture of jewelry and the societal roles of men and women. The Victorian era is typically further divided into three distinct periods – the Romantic Period, the Grand Period, and the Late Victorian Period – each of which embodies distinct social and aesthetic thrusts.

The Romantic Period 1837-1860

Sentiment and nature reigned supreme during the early Victorian era. England had a lovely, young queen recently married, and the jewelry of the day reflected her courtship and marriage. Jewelry fashioned as an enameled serpent with diamond or garnet eyes became quite fashionable in the 1840s after Prince Albert presented his bride Victoria with a ring fashioned as a snake with its tail in its mouth, which was considered a symbol of eternal love and wisdom.

The clothing fashion of the day had women covered from head to toe with high necklines and bonnets, so necklaces, with the exception of lockets, and earrings of the time are few and far between. But when it came to brooches, rings and bracelets, all bets were off, and they were often bold and large to emphasize ladies’ delicate hands and features.

Most early Victorian jewelry pieces were gold, often 18K, and delicately etched. Unfortunately, before 1854 Britain did not require hallmarks to indicate the quality of the metal, or makers’ marks on jewelry, so earlier pieces can be unmarked and overlooked by inexperienced buyers. Collectors and dealers alike should be prepared to test the metal, as rolled gold and electroplating were also used in the early years and pieces can be misidentified. After 1854, lower karats of 9k, 12k and 15k were legalized in order to compete with international markets – so keep this in mind when you are dating an antique piece.

In keeping with the sentiment and natural motifs of the day, Victorian jewels were often set with gems that were attributed with ‘magical’ properties and special meaning, such as:

  • Pink coral, said to protect the wearer from evil and disease
  • Rubies to symbolize passion
  • Seed pearls to depict tears
  • Amethysts to express devotion
  • Diamonds to symbolize constancy
  • An emerald to symbolize hope

Not only did the gems and motifs have meaning, but there were also hidden messages as well. For example, bracelets with gems in which the first letter of each stone spelled out a message were popular, such as a bracelet with a diamond, emerald, amethyst and ruby in that order would spell ‘dear’ to the wearer and offer a secret message of friendship or love.

The florals found so often in Victorian period also had symbolic meanings, for example:

  • Ivy for fidelity
  • Forget-Me-Nots symbolizing true love
  • Lily-of-the-Valleys representing sweetness
  • Acorns for life and immortality
  • Pansies representing thought
  • Petunias for anger
  • Yellow poppies for wealth and success
  • Violets signifying modesty

The quality of these early Victorian examples is often reflected in their prices, and pieces from this period are normally more expensive and more difficult to find than later Victorian pieces. Some of the more affordable and collected pieces of the Romantic Victorian era were the late 1850s Scottish motif pieces that became popular when Queen Victoria purchased the royal Balmoral in Scotland. Pieces such as a 15K gold and coral kilt pin for $200-$300 or a sterling silver agate and amethyst brooch for $500-$600 are still fairly accessible in today’s market.

A few other examples of Early Victorian Romantic period jewelry pieces and their values include:

  • A late 1850s hallmarked 15K rose gold seed pearl and ruby ring for $500-$600
  • A Victorian Mizpah (Hebrew for watchtower - popular for loved ones parting often due to a catastrophe such as a war) ring in 15K gold for $1,200
  • A 15K gold locket ring from the 1840s with a glass covered compartment hiding a lock of a loved one’s hair surrounded by 15 half pearls for $2,600

The Grand Period 1861-1880

The Romantic Victorian period came to an abrupt end with the death of Queen Victoria’s mother followed by her husband, Albert. Adding to the somber tone of this period was the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States and the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865. The sentimental nature of the Romantic period remained, but took a much darker turn with the Victorian mourning jewelry taking front and center stage.

Hair jewelry became popular, and it was used as both a memorial to mourn the loss of a loved one, and for sentiment for the love of living friends and family. There were rules of etiquette to follow. It was verboten for an unmarried girl to receive a gift from an unmarried man if they were not engaged. It was acceptable, however, for the infatuated to either give or receive a lock of hair, provided the hair was not set in jewelry. A folk art known as hairwork emerged to capture and preserve these locks of hair.

Victorian mourning jewelry remains popular with both Victoriana and jewelry collectors alike. Although pieces are not extremely plentiful on the market because of their delicacy, they can still be found from simply woven hair under glass in a 9K gold setting for $150 to more intricate and rare blond hair worked into a mourning cameo in an elaborate 18k gold setting of a brooch for $1,200.

In keeping with the tone of the time, black jewelry became fashionable, often made with jet, onyx or gutta percha, and gemstones with deeper tones, such as garnets and amethysts. Lockets were extremely popular as well. But other events during the Grand Period influenced jewelry styles. The construction of the Suez Canal popularized Egyptian and Etruscan Revival themes that featured lotus flowers, scarabs and palmettes using gemstone inlays, elaborate enamels and fancy, twisted borders. Victorian Egyptian Revival pieces can command high prices, such as a silver and plique a jour Egyptian Revival brooch set with a turquoise scarab in the form of Isis for $2,200.

Cameos, a portrait or a scene carved in relief with a contrasting background, rose in popularity in the Grand Period – perhaps due to the fashionable European Grand Tours where Italian makers popularized the shell carvings so often seen today. A prized souvenir for a Victorian lady was a cameo with her likeness by an Italian carver. While gemstones were the material of early cameos, it was the Mid Victorian period that saw carvers using a variety of less expensive materials such as stone, shell, lava and coral. The more intricate and elaborate the carving, the more desirable the cameo – and Victorian cameos have become a popular collectible in their own right. Examples of cameo prices in today’s antique jewelry market include:

  • An silver necklace and bracelet with carved Carnelian shell, set in ornate silver settings, with large, emerald-cut, aqua colored glass stones for $250
  • A pendant of a high relief Conch carved Cameo of a couple set in jet with a silver mount for $625
  • A hand carved intricately carved shell cameo 14k gold pendant & brooch pin of a well-defined profile of a lady with a necklace featuring a real diamond accent for $725

Late Victorian 1881-1901

As the world steamrolled toward the 20th Century, a middle class began to emerge that craved the finer things in life, but on a more affordable scale. This coincided with the industrialization of both Europe and the United States.

The jewelry of the day became lighter and smaller scaled than earlier Victorian pieces, and the clothing became lighter as well. Bold and heavy Victorian brooches were replaced by smaller ‘scatter’ pins on the bodice of a dress. Smaller stud earrings were in vogue as Victorian hairstyles now allowed a lady’s ears to be exposed.

The manufacturing of Victorian jewelry was shifting from an expensive hand-crafted process to mass production by machinery. This trend suited the growing demand of the emerging middle class.

The Aesthetic Movement of the 1880s was heavily influencing jewelry – and the artistic merit of the piece was prized above the value of the piece itself. The quality of craftsmanship and stones replaced the more ostentatious pieces of the early Victorian periods. Simple, naturalistic themes and asymmetrical motifs with birds, leaves and Japanese elements such as bamboo were fashionable. A typical Aesthetic / late Victorian piece of jewelry might be a sterling silver hinged cuff bracelet, hand engraved with bamboo and birds, with an intricately applied geometric border. Examples such as these can often be found for well under $1,000.

Other favorite motifs and styles of the late Victorian period include:

  • Crescents and stars
  • Hat pins to adorn the newly fashionable larger, more ostentatious hat
  • Curb link bracelets with padlock fasteners
  • Buckles of sterling silver, particularly with Persian turquoise accents
  • Chatelaines to emphasize those teeny tiny waists

Jewelry with sports motifs also came into vogue as women left the home to become more physically active.

These later Victorian pieces are much more plentiful and affordable in today’s market, with many examples found for prices under $100, such as a simple sterling silver scatter pin or small engraved locket in rolled gold. Since there are many findings from the late Victorian period, collectors and dealers alike tend to focus on a more specialized area within the timeframe - such as Aesthetic pieces or the popular Chatelaines which served as both an adornment and necessity to make up for the lack of pockets in Victorian dress.

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