The Victorian Era

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Today we will talk about the Victorian era and its jewellery. We will analyze the three periods of this era as well as the jewels that were prominent in each period.


The Victorian era and its jewellery

As the long reign of the four Georges came to an end, the young Princess Alexandrina Victoria was crowned Queen Victoria of England. The 63 years and 7 months of her reign became known as the Victorian era, and throughout its duration, Queen Victoria’s influence was total, from everyday people and politics to fashion, decoration and manners. Queen Victoria becomes the model for every woman, and it is a fact that up to that time, no other person had been so strongly imitated as she was. It was a time of great change in the world and with major inventions such as the automobile and electricity, advances in industry and technology and important scientific discoveries. Also during the Victorian era women surpassed men in the use of jewellery and became the main audience for buying jewellery.

Jewellery was extremely important in the queen’s life and often had great sentimental value. Crown jewels were fashioned to suit the Queen’s style who often wore them in her own distinct way. She also often used her jewellery as symbols to convey indirect messages at important political meetings. In addition to the extravagant jewelry she wore, her personal favorites were a heart-shaped pendant containing a lock of Prince Albert’s hair, a miniature portrait of Albert, and a sapphire and diamond brooch that he had given her before their marriage.

The Victorian era is long and is divided into three periods: the Early or Romantic, the Middle or Great, and the Late or Aesthetic.

Victorian era – Romantic period (1837-1860)

The early years of the Victorian era reflect the Queen’s youth but also the era of romantic sentimentality and her marriage. The style and designs in the jewellery were often inspired by the Renaissance and the dominant motifs were flowers, leaves and branches with small fruits such as grapes and berries. Also a strong symbol of the time was the snake and in particular the ouroboros serpent (the snake at the moment when it coils around itself and bites its tail off removing its old skin) which symbolises eternity.

The colours chosen during this holiday were pastel so the preferred gemstones were pearls, diamonds, moonstones, amethysts and citrines. In 1830 France conquered Algeria so design elements from the local culture such as tassels, cords, knots and lotus flowers were seen in European jewellery. In 1842 the Queen travelled to Scotland, bought the Balmoral Estate and adopted many of the local elements in her appearance. The Royal Stuart plaid became a favourite and she enriched her jewellery collection with jewellery made from agate and quartz mined in the area. Scottish style designs such as swords, leaves, thorns and fruit were translated into gold and silver and became a fashion that was spread by the Queen and imitated by the crowds.

Queen Victoria loved cameos, so cameos carved in shell as well as onyx, agate, coral, amethyst and other gemstones became the most fashionable accessory of the time. This classic piece of jewellery underwent an impressive revival, gaining larger dimensions and further embellished with gold, Italian pietre dure inlays and sparkling gemstones. Coral was another favorite material of the time and was worn in every way, in its natural branch-like form-a fashion adopted from Italy where it was used against bascania-as beads in long necklaces and multiple rows, especially in dark red and pink, and also carved in the shape of flowers, hands, and crosses.

Pearls and mother-of-pearl were also favourite materials of the early Victorian period and we see them in stunning creations of intricate jewellery. The so-called seed pearls were often used,- very small natural pearls from China strung on white ponytail hairs, woven into torchons and used as necklaces or frames around gemstones and carved mother-of-pearl flowers. Often these creations were turned into sets and used as bridal jewellery. The wedding of the Queen’s eldest daughter in 1858 established pearls as bridal jewellery as the wedding gift received by the bride was a pearl necklace and also a gold bracelet with diamonds. Of course the bride also wore superb diamond jewellery from the Crown with the famous koh-i-noor diamond as the centrepiece.

The jewellery from the early days of this period was completely handmade. Prior to 1854 legislation only allowed 22 and 18 karat gold alloys to bear the Crown seal, so high karat gold and silver were the main metals in jewellery from this period. After 1854 lower karats were legalised so English jewellery became more competitive on the international market. Also the invention of plating gave new possibilities to the jewellers of the time.

Victorian era – Grand period (1861-1885)

In 1861 the death of Albert plunged the Queen and the whole country into grief. A long period of mourning begins, expressed by a change in the colours worn by the Queen and the jewellery she chooses. Mourning jewellery takes the place of romantic jewellery and commemorative pendants and brooches are given to relatives and friends. Jet, a type of black-coloured biogenic stone, is used to create chains, beads and carvings, but also onyx and black chalcedony combined with diamonds are often worn. Pendants with photo holders, locks, monograms and sentimental hair jewellery are key accessories of the period.

Mid-Victorian women compete for the first time with men for jobs such as clerks, teachers and inspectors, and their intense struggle for the right to vote begins. Women now have their own incomes and from 1870 new legislation allows them to keep what they earn. A radical renewal in women’s fashion begins and oversized crinolines and tight corsets give way to plunging necklines that require impressive necklaces. Hairstyles changed and ear lobes reappeared resulting in the heavy use of earrings.

In France, Eugenie’s love of emeralds influences the public and so emeralds become almost as desirable as diamonds. Diamond tiaras again become an essential accessory and the cameo reemerges as a favourite of Napoleon III. In 1860, work on the Suez Canal and the Egyptian excavations that unearthed the treasures of ancient Egypt influenced the style of jewellery. Egyptian motifs and colours rendered in enamel and gemstones were accompanied by a renaissance of other classical motifs of Greek and Etruscan styles, and in the jewellery of the period filigree and wirework in gold framed ancient Greek and Roman coins. The French mission to China introduced the use of jade in jewellery, and the opening of trade relations with Japan introduced Japanese metalwork and the naturalistic style to the jewellers of Europe, a style that would be celebrated a few years later with the Art Nouveau era.

The jewellers of the Victorian era were true artists and created works of art with elaborate constructions. The cameo habille’ was becoming increasingly complex and the craftsmen showed off their skills with the precious jewellery they made. Flowers, stars and insects with wonderful details adorned the precious jewellery and framed the gemstones. Bees, the emblem of Prince Victor Bonaparte, are becoming particularly fashionable in France. In 1870, the discovery of important sources of opal in Australia and its promotion by the Queen made opal popular. At the same time, the use of machines to make specific jewellery that combined gold with turtle shell fire undermined the noble art of handcrafting.

In 1867 diamonds were discovered in South Africa and imported to Europe, and in 1870 the advent of electric light skyrocketed the popularity of diamonds as they sparkled with the new conditions of indoor lighting.

Victorian era – Aesthetic period (1885-1901)

In 1890 the “Gibson Girl” defined the style of the modern, independent and conscious Victorian woman. The new hairstyle allowed the use of precious accessories such as combs decorated with precious stones, and now women were participating in sporting activities, so their wardrobe changed drastically. They join the business world, become educated and are described as ‘femmes fin-de-siècle’. Their hands are free and wallets and watches hang from chains. Also, an important jewel of the period is the gold bracelet with a pendant whistle for calling for help from afar for ladies taking long walks unaccompanied.

Diamonds are preferred for the evening and during the daytime the jewellery becomes more minimal and light. Small brooches are worn scattered on the bodice in combination with small stud earrings in the ears. Soft shapes are preferred in jewellery design and gemstones so cabochon cutting is often used for amethysts, topazes and emeralds. Diamonds remain a favourite choice and diamond bracelets adorn the hands of ladies. In addition to gold and silver, platinum is also used, which, with its special natural properties, allows jewellers to create delicate yet robust jewellery. The motifs chosen this season are stars, clovers, knots and hearts. The “honeymoon” brooch was particularly popular and depicted a bee sitting on a crescent moon.