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Victorian Jewellery

30 November 2015 15:41


In 1837, almost at the midpoint of the 19 century, Victoria, a descendant of the three Kings George and also of German Sax Coberg descent through her Mother became Queen of England at the age of eighteen.  This ushered in a new and very different period, now called the Victorian era.  When she ascended the throne there was hope that a young Queen would revitalise the fashion world. Despite a sheltered childhood Victoria loved jewellery and her influence greatly influenced the many developing styles during her reign.

The Victorian era similar to the preceding Georgian era spanned a long period of time and it therefore divided into three major periods. They are called the Romantic the Grand and the Ascetic many styles came in and out and they all aspired to be Victorian. The later Art Nouveau era as an example overlaps the Victorian jewellery periods but has a unique and very distinguishable style.  Like a dress made by a woman who was moving into the larger skirts but nevertheless kept the high full sleeves of the previous ten years on the same dress, some pieces of jewellery illustrate two styles sometimes causing confusion in placing a date on this creation. Family suites (Parures) from previous generations would be broken up and joined as new creations melding the styles of both periods.

Styles heavily influenced by the French Revolutions and Napoleonic Court caused fashions to change from the Georgian period.  Styles became anti-aristocratic and some thought immoral as clothing changed from heavily decorated dresses to simpler dresses that hugged the body jewellery having almost disappeared returned with the new clothing styles.  Jewellery designs became appropriate and proportional to the new style.  Jewellery was worn in abundance by all but there were changes.  As opposed to creations crafted of sheet and wire, items would be stamped out and moulded and so led to an increase in the number of the same items.  Now it was less expensive to manufacture and more designs could be easily set with differing gem stones.  No longer did quality depend on an individual goldsmith, but rather quality jewellery could be created to a repeatable standard.  Meaning jewellery in quantity for the first time became available to the middle class consumer, an explosion and demand for personal adornment.

Fine jewellery in the Victorian era denoted social standing, status, an element of wealth and conveyed a message of the wearer’s dignity and refinement.




The early years of the era were Romantic and sentimental reflecting the courtship love and marriage of a young Queen.  This was a period of marital bliss and a happy family life for Victoria jewels reflected feelings of confident tranquillity, gold ornaments were decorated with seed pearls turquoise beads, pink coral and decorated with enamel engraving and serpentine designs.  The favourite items of jewellery spoke of love, mementos or souvenirs of travel.

In 1848 Victorian and Albert obtained Balmoral in Scotland and therefore Scottish influenced jewellery appeared and stayed popular until after Albert’s passing. The Queens love of all things Scottish made Scottish jewellery a fashionable accessory.  The romantic period preceded the huge gold strikes of California, Australia and South Africa; therefore, gold was in short supply the jewellers of day fashioned the precious metal into thin sheets and wires from which large impressive jewels were made but were light in weight, the aim being to get the best look from the least amount of gold.  Early Victorian jewellery was all of 18 or 22 carat, but the stamp act of 1854 allowed gold to be standardised at 9, 12, 15, 18 and 22 carats, and were required to be hallmarked as such.  Pinchbeck appeared at this time which looked like gold felt like gold could be fashioned as gold but wasn’t gold.


The designs of the period included floral and naturalistic motifs leaves, insects, flowers, vines, birds and their feathers were stamped into mountings or carved into jewels.

Religious symbols were the main stays of the era that signified Christianity such as crossed doves and cupids but also included design items such as ivy, dragons, figures and letters from Greek mythology.  Snakes in their coils were symbolic of eternity and commitment and were fashioned as rings bracelets and necklaces.  In fact Queen Victoria’s engagement ring was in serpent form intimate messages were spelt out which could be read like a book if one knew the vocabulary which told of the givers hopes and feelings for example, the following symbolic vocabulary shows those feelings and hopes.

Ivy = friendship, fidelity and marriage

Fern= fascination

Bluebells = constancy

Forget-me-nots = remembrance

Lizard = passionate love (the animals could survive fire)

Arrows = love (cupids arrows)

Crowned heart = triumphant love

Dogs = fidelity

Butterfly = soul

Doves = domesticity

Daisy = innocence

A harp = constant love

Lilac = loves first feelings

Mistletoe = kiss

Clasped hands = friendship and lasting love

Musical instruments = harmony

Flaming heart = passionate love

Fly = humility

A wishbone = wish and hope

Roses = could mean as many as 35 different meanings depending on the type and colour


Pearls = tears

Amethyst = devotion

Diamond = constantsy

Emerald = hope

Ruby = passion

Precious stones were used as a code to spell out words for example the first letter of a gems name would stand for the letters of the word therefore a ring set with a diamond emerald amethyst and ruby in that order spells “Dear” other spelling examples of this code are regards, fidelity, gratitude, baby, and individual names.  This practise was common in various countries making it difficult to decipher the code of a specific piece because of the various languages.

Victoria loved opals and frequently gave them as presents, it was not until the 1880’s that opals were able to overcome their reputation for bad luck.  Two theories explain this acquired reputation.

1, the French jewellery industry spread the rumour to damage the opal trade as most opals came from English territory – Australia and therefore they were a threat to gems from French territory.


Early Victorian jewellery was delicate and light in design with fine elaborate engraving, this evolved into the heavier designs synomamous with Victorian jewellery.  The grand period displayed bold bright jewellery for both day and evening wear.  Daytime consisted of motifs mosaics, seashells, agate, jasper, and amethyst, diamonds and sparkling gems were very much the rage for the evening.  The Etruscan, canatile, and repousse designs came into being.  Canatile used strands of gold wire wound into designs which were then attached to stamped gold designs.  Repousse, was identifiable with fluted edges and solid form giving the piece a massive quality.

Cameos of shell and stone became popular and were influenced by sponsors such as the Pope and Napoleon Cameos were carved depicting heads or scenes.

Following the death of her beloved Prince Albert in 1861, sparkling jewellery for daytime wear went out of fashion, and mourning jewellery became increasingly in demand.  The Queen wore mourning attire until her death in 1901.

Other tremendous influences on Victorian jewellery came with English trade relationships with Japan in 1853.  New discoveries   from herculanian, Abyssinia, Greece, Pompeii, and Egypt became popular.  Scarabs, Sphinx’s, micro- mosaics and Petra durra mosaics became fashionable as a result of frescos in Ancient Rome.


Darwin’s theory of evolution and Britannical discoveries ensured a desire for items to resemble most animals and insects.  Sapphires, peridots, spinals and diamonds became ever popular.

The discovery of new silver deposits in Nevada in 1859 severally reduced the cost of silver jewellery and jewellery in this metal became plentiful and affordable.