I began my trek back through jewelry time in July, when I published the article What is Georgian Jewelry? This was the first in a series exploring the different eras of antique jewelry, including Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco. It’s now time to delve into the fascinating genre of Victorian jewelry, which hails from 1837-1901. Some major historical events occurred during this time, including the conclusion of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of the middle class, the American Civil War, and gold being discovered in a few countries, including right here in California. You may ask, “Why is it even called Victorian?” Well, it’s all from the time period when Queen Victoria sat on the throne of Britain. Pretty amazing to think that this one woman had such a profound influence on jewelry during her reign!!
Personally, every single item of antique jewelry I’ve purchased has been from the Victorian period — how strange is that?! It’s simply what I’m drawn to, before even knowing much about it. Here’s three examples of Victorian turquoise from Erica Weiner, Studio Collections and Metier. (It also doesn’t hurt that Victorian jewelry is generally much more affordable than Georgian jewelry!)
The Victorian era can be separated into three different segments. The first, called the Romantic period, was from 1837-1860. Queen Victoria was young and in love, and her jewelry reflected this. Sentimental motifs of flowers, clasped hands, and hearts (to name a few) were all the rage. Even snakes were extremely popular, as they represent wisdom and eternal love. In fact, Victoria’s engagement ring was a snake with emeralds, rubies and diamonds. (photo from aboutgemstonejewelry.com)
When Queen Victoria’s husband died in 1860, everything changed. Gone were the whimsical and light-hearted themes. In its place was dark jewlery, both in feel and color. This time is called the Grand period, and lasted for the next 25 years. Mourning and memorial jewelry were abundant, and stones such as onyx, Whitby jet, and garnets were very en vogue.
Things began to lighten up in later Victorian times — this third part is called the Aesthetic period, and took place during the last 15 or so years of Victoria’s reign. There was a return to more delicate designs, with more of a feeling of prosperity and optimism. This period also overlaps some other jewelry movements, such as Arts & Crafts.
Not only did styles of jewelry change during the Victorian era, but so did production methods. During the Industrial Revolution, both stamping and electroplating were invented. So while in the first part of the Victorian period all jewlery was handmade, in the second half it was often machine-made. In addition, in 1854 Britain made it legal to use lower karats of gold in jewelry, thereby really opening up the world of jewelry to the growing middle class, where once it had been reserved for only the very wealthy. Silver also became available in the mass market, making jewelry much more accessible.
I want to share some of the popular styles for this time period. With some, you’ll see some overlap with that of the Georgian period, such as in mourning jewlery and hair jewlery.
Brooches: These were especially popular when the fashion was wearing high necklines. It was much easier to don a brooch instead of figuring out how to have a necklace lay properly over a high collar. Not only is the bow a key motif of the period, but the engraving and the cabochon turquoise were very on trend as well. (brooch via antique jewellery company)
Cameos: They were most popular during the Grand period, and often were in onyx, coral and amethyst. These cameo earrings feature Roman centurions, and the agate is surrounded by seed pearls, another popular Victorian design detail. (earrings via Lang Antiques.)
Hair Jewelry: As you saw in the Georgian period, using a loved ones hair in jewelry was all the rage. It could be simply to honor a living person in your life, or it could be in memorial of someone who had passed. (brooch via The Rusted Anchor)
Mourning Jewelry: This piece of hair jewelry is clearly also mourning jewelry. The initials RC are on the outside, and “mama” is engraved on the $1 gold coin hanging from the ring. (ring via Gold and Silver Brokers)
Portrait Jewelry: In my mind, this is sort of an expansion of the Lover’s Eye lockets from Georgian times, which just showed a painting of the eye of one’s lover. In Victorian times, it was popular to wear small portraits of loved ones. In this example, you’ll once again see pearls being used as an edging. (brooch via Doyle & Doyle)
Posy Rings: I find these to be so charming. Posy comes from the French word “poesie,” meaning poetry. In posy rings, you’ll find short inscriptions. This particular posy ring was a wedding ring, inscribed with “A hope fulfilled. 18th March circa 1880.” (ring via Lucy Bedeman)
Acrostic Rings: These are pretty darn cool, I have to say. Basically, stones are chosen for the ring in which the first letter of each stone spells out a secret word. This one secretly says “dearest” with diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire, and topaz. Pretty awesome, right?! (ring via Erica Weiner)
Mizpah jewelry: Though I’ve seen mizpah jewelry here and there, I honestly had no clue what it was until I did research for this article. Mizpah signifies an emotional bond and means “watchtower” in Hebrew. It’s given to a loved one when separated by distance. How romantic! This mizpah ring is extra-special, as the word is hidden behind a hinged buckle. (ring via Erica Weiner)
Bracelets: Braclets, from bold to matching bangles to stacks, were very stylish in the Victorian period. Here’s a couple examples of popular styles. First is a snake (there’s that theme again!) with rubies. (bracelet via Lang Antiques) The second is a wide silver and gold overlay bangle with sunflowers. (bangle via the Antique Jewellery Company)
Lockets: With photos, hair, and sometimes even teeth inside, lockets were key in this period. This one also has enameling, which was also very of-the-day. (locket via Metier)
Etruscan Revial: More and more people started traveling during this time, so it makes sense that fascination with ancient time periods rose. You’ll find evidence of Egyptian and Greek motifs, as well as the granulation seen in the Etruscan Revival pieces. (earrings via Butterlane Antiques)
Out of all these different styles, which would be your first pick? I think if I were living back in Victorian times, I’d definitely be wanting an acrostic ring from my lover. And I’m definitely warming up to the idea of snake jewelry…sorry, mom!