The Georgian Period
The Georgian Era (1714-1830) is a period of British history spanning the reigns of the first four Hanoverian kings of Great Britain, aptly named Kings George I, George II, George III and George IV. The period saw great innovation, marked most notably by the inception of the Industrial Revolution, the expansion of the British Empire, and the flowering of the literary, decorative and visual arts.
During the Georgian period, England’s population had exploded to nearly 4 million people thanks to a dramatic increase in the country’s wealth. Newly wealthy upper- and middle-class families sought ways to display their newfound riches, fueling the demand for high jewelry and other fashionable accessories. Jewelry was no longer a luxury that was limited to royalty and nobility.
The Regency Era
From authors like Jane Austen and William Blake to famous royals like King George VI, the great minds of the Regency Era defined the period's rich history and cultural shifts The Regency period in England was named for the Prince of Wales, the Prince Regent from 1811 to 1820, and later King George IV, whose patronage naturally informed the tastes and fashions of the age. While the prince’s regency technically only lasted for nine years, the Regency era more generally refers to the first few decades of the 19th century, beginning with the madness of King George III and ending with the death of George IV in 1830.
While previous periods of design also bear the names of their respective monarchs, the Regency period stands out because the true influence of the prince as a tastemaker was unparalleled in recent history in England. Not only did his influence extend to decorative objects, furniture, architecture and fine jewelry, but he also influenced new social innovations that changed the day-to-day lives of the English nobility. Overall, the Regency era was one of the most creative, inventive and expensive periods of English design, fueled and paid for by the rapid growth of industrialization in Western Europe. Wealthy patrons in England delighted in following the Prince Regent’s eclectic taste for neoclassical design and a range of revival styles, including Gothic and Indian, during the Regency period. Naturally, Regency-era jewelry evolved from the previous decades to reflect these trends.
What is Georgian Jewelry?
To learn how to identify Georgian jewelry among other types of antique jewelry, one must become familiar with some of its key characteristics in terms of materials, constructions and popular forms.
Metalwork and Forms
Georgian-period jewelry, because it was hand-crafted and because the tastes of the day were so opulent, represents some of the finest metalsmithing in history. Are you curious about filigree history in the world of jewelry? Filigree work was common, as was repoussé, the practice of hand-hammering metals into elaborate designs. In the Regency period, an intricate metalworking technique called cannetille emerged that consisted of wire work resembling embroidered fabric.
It was agreed that white metal suited diamonds best, but technical innovations needed to work with platinum successfully were still far off, so silver was favored. Gold was often applied over the silver on the backings of items like brooches and pendants to prevent tarnishing.
Women’s clothing styles evolved in the Georgian era along with jewelry styles, and one important and fairly ubiquitous element was a more revealing neckline. With these new plunging styles placing an emphasis on the décolletage, necklaces became an essential element of any fashionable wardrobe. Hair ornaments were also common, including tiaras, hair combs and pins. Matching jewelry suites called parures became popular for their versatility of styling. They occasionally included up to sixteen items and often incorporated convertible options such as brooches that could double as necklace pendants. Hair clips and brooches, in particular, often incorporated an element of movement called “en tremblant,” a French term meaning “to tremble.”
Other specialized forms of jewelry essentials, such as the chatelaine, increased in popularity in the Georgian era. The word comes from the French for “lady of the castle,” and they were originally chains attached to the waistband or belt from which one would carry each household key in the 16th and 17th centuries. In the 18th century, they became fashionable among women of the upper classes as a means to carry items needed during their daily routines, such as watches, sewing tools or vinaigrettes.
Colored gemstones were quite fashionable during the period, especially for daytime wear. Richly-hued semi-precious gems like garnets, peridots, amethysts and topaz were popular, and natural elements like coral, agate, pearls and shells also appeared frequently.
White diamonds were the choice for nighttime, usually appearing in a handcrafted rose cut or old mine cut with facets well suited for reflecting candlelight. Gemstones set in jewelry pieces were often foil-backed to enhance their shine and brilliance in low lighting.
Highlighting the social shift that allowed individuals outside of the aristocracy to own and enjoy jewelry was the emergence of “paste jewelry” in the late 18th century. Paste jewelry is hand-cut, colored and polished glass meant to emulate faceted gemstones. Although labor-intensive in its own right, paste jewelry was a more affordable alternative to natural gemstones that helped make fashionable jewelry creations accessible to the middle class.
Styles and Motifs
Natural Motifs were abundant in Georgian jewelry, including images of leaves, crescent moons, feathers and cornucopia. Feminine elements like ribbons, bows and flowers were also quite popular.
Georgian jewelry often had a decidedly neoclassical flair, largely due to the excavations of ancient sites like Pompeii (1748) and Herculaneum (1738) and the intense public interest that accompanied these digs. Foliage swags, Greek keys, bacchanalian motifs, cameos and other classical elements were highly desirable. Similarly, in the late eighteenth century, Napoléon’s Egyptian campaign stirred up demand for Egyptian Revival styles in jewelry in the Regency period.
A dramatic fervor for portraiture in England arose at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and this extended into jewelry as well with the portrait miniature. In jewelry, the portrait miniature served as a sentimental object that commemorated a loved one. After Queen Charlotte married George III in 1761, she often wore a miniature of the king somewhere close to her body, either around her neck or wrist. Naturally, the act of such a high-profile figure only increased the demand for this art form, and the lover’s portrait in miniature became immensely fashionable. The portrait miniature also served another function as an object of mourning. Images of loved ones who had passed were often set into a locket or the reverse of a brooch, sometimes even incorporating a piece of hair or clothing.
To learn more about the Georgian era, including information about Georgian-era furniture and Regency-era furniture, you can explore M.S. Rau’s website and collection. There you can also learn best practices on how to store fine jewelry and how to clean antique jewelry.