Victorian jewelry was crafted during the Victorian era between 1837 and 1901. There are three periods within this scope of time.
- The Romantic Period (1837-1860)
- The Grand Period (1860–1880)
- The Late Victorian or Aesthetic Period (1880 -1901)
The Victorian era was noted for both fine jewelry and costume jewelry. With the introduction of the Industrial Revolution, jewelry no longer had to be made by hand. It therefore became more affordable for the ever-expanding middle class to purchase.
Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was an influencer of jewelry trends, with her vast collection of fine jewelry and even costume pieces. In 1848 , with the purchase of Balmoral Estate in Scotland, Queen Victoria became fascinated with costume jewelry made in Scottish designs, usually in silver, with semi precious stones.
The Victorian era was named after Great Britain’s Queen Victoria. A young Victoria took the throne in 1837, at the age of eighteen, after the sudden death of her father. Victoria ruled until 1901. This established the Queen as the second longest reigning ruler in Great Britain (only Queen Elizabeth II has ruled longer).
Victoria was already a lover of jewelry before she inherited a great deal of it. Later, her husband Albert continually gifted her with more of the fabulous gems, until she amassed an enormous collection. New pieces were commissioned and highly publicized, creating a yearning for similar styles, both at home and abroad.
The Georgian Influence
The Georgian period influence in jewelry design was still popular at the start of the Romantic Period. This included lockets, complex knots in all types of jewelry and miniatures. These tiny artworks are small portraits painted on metal or ivory. They could be carried as a singular object or crafted into jewelry. Queen Victoria carried a small miniature of Albert with her.
Cannetille, a goldsmithing technique, similar to filigree, used thin pieces of gold or wire, often embellished with tiny rounds of gold, known as granulation. Used for sculpting scrolls, tendrils, and rosettes, it was requested as decorative technique, until the mid 1880s.
Mourning jewelry made a comeback during the Grand Period, but with a new twist.
The Romantic Period (1837-1860)
Sentiment and romance were two feelings evoked by the trend setting jewelry that Queen Victoria treasured and wore. Her mother gave her a locket of her father Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent’s hair, after he died. Prince Albert gave Victoria a lock of his hair soon after they were engaged, which she placed inside a heart shaped locket.
During the Romantic Period Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were blissfully in love. He designed a unique engagement ring for the young monarch. The ring featured a golden serpent that wrapped around her finger, with an emerald head, the birthstone for her May 24th birthday. The ring’s shape signified eternal love.
Queen Victoria inherited a number of family heirlooms during her accession to the throne, such as the three sets of gold and diamond Wheat Ear broaches, with she used to embellish the necklines of gowns. Then, there was Queen Adelaide’s Fringe necklace, described in the book The Queen’s Diamonds, as “sixty brilliant-set graduated bars, the central bars in cushion-cut and pear-shaped stones, divided by 60 graduated brilliant-set spikes; an extra six small, graduated bars and five spikes detached; tiara fittings removed”.
Colored Stones In the Evening
Queen Victoria made it fashionable to wear colored stones not just in the daytime, but for elegant and royal events, where diamonds once ruled. One of her most prized possessions was the diamond and sapphire brooch Albert gave to her on her wedding day. The piece has a large sapphire in the middle, with twelve diamonds around it.
In 1840, Albert designed a stunning sapphire and diamond coronet for Victoria, made by Joseph Kitching, partner at Kitching and Abud. The coronet , while slightly pulled open was used as a tiara. Pulled wider still, it formed a stylish hairband. Donning it often, she was wearing it in a famous portrait of her, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Today the coronet is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In 1845, Albert presented his Queen with a tiara of diamonds, with nineteen graduated pear-shaped emeralds, which was the crowning glory to the parure he had given her earlier, comprised of a large neckpiece of emeralds and diamonds, along with matching earrings and a brooch.
Motifs: Symbols of Love and Nature
This was not only the Romantic Period in jewelry, but also the romantic poetry of Wordsworth. Jewelry crafted with hearts, hands, eyes, anchors, arrows, and love knots were fashionable.
Elements from nature were incorporated including flowers, vines, leaves, insects, and animals. Of course, the snake, based on Queen Victoria’s engagement ring was a style in demand!
International Influence on Design
The archeological digs of Egypt, Rome, and Greece fascinated the public. The Rosetta Stone was translated in 1822, which finally helped to crack the code for reading Egyptian hieroglyphics. Then, the Suez canal was built between 1859-1869.
The house of Catellani, in Rome, crafted fine, hand made jewelry inspired by ancient art and architecture, starting in 1841. Pieces were heavily adorned with mythological creatures and symbols. The family loved to visit ancient digs to see archeologists working and view their latest finds.
By the mid 1850s Catellani’s jewelry was legendary. Stores were opened in both London and Paris. The London location was managed by Carlo Giuliano, who loved all things from the Renaissance. He particularly liked working with delicate enamels. Later, he would open his own store which flourished.
Popular Romantic Period Jewelry and Accessories
With the resurgence of Renaissance jewelry, cameos were back in fashion. Historically from Roman times, cameos incorporated mythological figures and scenes, or when custom made, profiles of loved ones. Queen Victoria further pushed the trends for cameos, which were worn on chokers made of velvet.
Pendants were often crosses to illustrate faith. Slide chains were extremely long chains, which were sometimes more than 60 inches in length. A decorative element on the chain helped to adjust the length.
Cluster rings were popular, characterized by a large stone in the center, encircled by smaller ones. There were also bands with matching stones, worn stacked.
Acrostic rings used precious and semi precious gems and their first letters to spell out a meaning from the gift giver. The two most popular words were DEAREST (with a diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald and topaz) and REGARDS (with a ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby, diamond, and sapphire).
Hair combs and pins were ornamented with gold, gemstones, and enamel. Women wore chatelaines, a French word meaning “lady of the castle” named in medieval times, when women wore keys suspended by hooks at their waist. In Victorian times, these evolved into a form of jewelry from which items such as timepieces, eyeglasses, and scissors hung.
Metals Used in Victorian Jewelry
Yellow gold was the material of choice for fine jewelry made during the Romantic Period. This included 18k and 22k for those who could afford it. Gold was in short supply until the California Gold Rush between 1848-1855, so many pieces contain a lessor carat of gold.
Platinum did not become popular until after 1895. White gold was not available until 1900.
In costume jewelry, rolled gold or gold electroplate was used, as well as aluminum and steel.
Other Materials Used
- Seed pearls
- Cultured pearls
- Mother of pearl
The Grand Period (1860-80)
This was a period of great mourning for Queen Victoria, with the passing of her mother and the unfortunate early and sudden death of her husband Albert, when he was just forty-two years old.
The Queen would where black for the rest of her life. She also took to wearing mourning jewelry using dark stones, which included jet, onyx, dark red garnets, and black enamel.
Although mourning jewelry was worn in the Georgian era, during the Grand Period, it generally had a more romantic tone of remembrance, than a somber one. Cameos took on special meaning of remembering a loved one.
Death was also a symbol of mortality, which extended to jewelry creation. The words Remember you will die, or Memento Mori were inscribed into pieces made to look like coffins and skulls. Human hair from the deceased was also used in mourning jewelry design.
Great Britain’s presence in Egypt started a craze for what would become a subsection of design at the end of the Grand Period, called Victorian Egyptian jewelry. The most recognizable motif is the scarab beetle.
The Late Victorian or Aesthetic Period (1880 -1901)
During this period, jewelry pieces became smaller, lighter, and more delicate. Women now wore less jewelry during the daytime. Small scatter pins sold in sets were worn on outfits anywhere a lady pleased.
Rings no longer included the words REGARDS or DEAREST, but instead contained the words the Lord watches over me.
Heart motifs, insects, animals, and flowers remained strong. Sporting motifs were introduced, as more women participated in leisure sports. Symbols of good fortune such as horseshoes, clovers and intertwined hearts were present in design.
Diamonds gained popularity again, and opals were everywhere. Pearls achieved a new status in jewelry boxes, as Queen Victoria’s daughter-in-law Alexandra wore a pearl, multi-strand collier de chien, or dog collar to hide a scar on her throat. Solitaire diamond engagement rings set in six prongs, were sold at Tiffany’s, in New York.
Identifying Victorian Jewelry
Gold Assaying laws were not enforced until the 1900s, so much of the Victorian jewelry on the market was not fully hallmarked. It was however often marked to show the carat, such as 18ct.
One way to identify real Victorian jewelry is by observing the fastening. The modern-day lobster claw was not invented until later. Instead, you will find C shaped clasps, safety pins, barrel fastenings, dog clips, and bolt rings.
Looking for Victorian era jewelry? Have a look at Etsy and eBay. Make sure to look for reputable sellers with lots of positive reviews and sales. If you want some suggestions, check out The Best Shops on Etsy for Buying Vintage Jewelry.