Victorian Jewellery

Early Victorian, 1837-1860

With the new found prosperity of the middle classes and the abundance of precious metals and gold from new discoveries in Australia and America the jewellery industry flourished. During this Victorian period jewellery was worn unsparingly and heavily influenced by the tastes and ideals of Queen Victoria who reigned from 1837-1901.

One of the most popular icons of the natural world during the 1840ʼs was the serpent which in mythology represented the link between wisdom and eternity. These designs were often applied with enamel and set with turquoise cabochons and carbuncle garnets which were, amongst others, the favoured gemstones of the period. Organic gems such as coral, pearl and mother-of-pearl were also used at this time to create pieces that were delicate in design.

The fashion of the mid 19th century changed between 1840 and 1850 to very slender waists, fuller skirts and tight bodices which encouraged more imposing corsage ornaments and large brooches. At this time the fashionable hair styles tended to cover the ears which resulted in earrings rarely being worn. Towards the end of this period diamond stars appeared for the first time in the form of tiaras and hair combs.

The attitudes of society had adapted from mourning the dead to sentiments of life and love, friendship and affection. Naturalism flourished in jewellery which took the form of realistic bunches of grapes, bouquets of flowers, leaves and fauna. En tremblant settings were typical of this period as well as diamond spray brooches and hair ornaments that were designed as cascades of precious stones to reflect the naturalism of the pieces.

Importantly two very influential Fine Jewellery houses were founded in the 1850ʼs; Charles Lewis Tiffany (1812-1902) established Tiffany and Co in 1853, followed by Boucheron of Paris in 1858.

Mid 19th Century, 1860-1880

In contrast to the two previous decades hair ornaments and earrings were back in fashion as hair styles changed. Rather than the hair covering the ears, necklines were now exposed and hair tended to be gathered at the back of the head in elaborate styles of sophisticated elegance and femininity.

The jewellery trade was booming in both England and on the continent. France saw the inauguration of the new emperor Napolean III, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, under the second empire. His wife EugĂ©nie based her style and tastes on those of Marie Antoinette who stood for the decadence and opulence of times gone by. Eugénieʼs favoured stones were emeralds which became second only to diamonds as the most desired gemstone for the French aristocracy. Trends in the first quarter of the century saw a revival of designs and motifs in the form of elaborate tiaras, carved gemstones and cameos as well as exotic jewellery made from tigerʼs claws.

During the early 1860ʼs Greek and Roman styles were given a new lease of life, pioneered by the Castellani family of master jewellers. They re-discovered difficult techniques used by the Etruscans to apply a very delicate granulation of gold beads covering the surface of gold jewellery. This gave the pieces a very delicate and ornate appearance. In addition to these techniques, jewellers often applied matt finishes which contrasted with that of bloomed and polished surfaces on a piece. At this time when ´The Grand Tour´ was taking place Castellani and classic design became very popular. Carlo Giulianoʼs (1831-1895) name also became synonymous with archaeological and renaissance-revival design.

The mid Victorian era was also known for the use of gemstones such as garnets which were inlaid with diamonds and pearls, sometimes to look like small insects. Often gemstones were carved and polished to fit the settings with bright enamel decoration and star-shaped motifs also popular.

Late 19th Century, 1880-1900

During the late Victorian period the use of jewellery became more conservative and it was worn less during the day, saved for formal occasions and evening gatherings. As was the case with previous decades, in the late 19th century the emphasis was on owning one or two higher quality pieces, rather than quantity.

As a result of the discovery of diamonds in South Africa, circa 1870, diamonds were in abundance and most certainly in vogue during the last two decades of the 19th century. In addition to these discoveries, Kashmir sapphire deposits were also found in the foothills of the Himalayas but only mined during a limited period of the late 19th century. Kashmir sapphires are deemed to be the Rolls Royce of sapphires with a velvety, mid-cornflower blue hue being the most rare and desired.

In contrast to the expense of diamonds and coloured gemstones, pearls and split pearls were also used generously to make necklaces and tiaras. Running in parallel, the introduction of machine produced jewellery resulted in poorer quality, mass produced pieces such as charm bracelets and pendants as well as machine carved shell cameos in low carat gold and base metal.

The late 19th century is well known for jewellery in the form of crescents, quatrefoil motifs, stars and hearts often in openwork form and set with silver and gold. Naturalism was still an important part of the period, taking the form of insects such as dragonflies, bees, butterflies and spiders as well as exotic flowers such as orchids and fruiting vines set with enamel, diamonds and coloured stones.

With times about to change, the last two decades of the century saw creative thinking move away from realistic depictions of nature to a more idealistic, original and evocative approach to nature; the birth of Art Nouveau.

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