Like any work of art or piece of fashion, jewelry is not immune to trends. In fact, the history of jewelry is closely linked to the history of the place it was created, making it an accurate reflection of cultural and aesthetic patterns over time. In order to truly appreciate a piece of historic, antique and estate jewelry, it is therefore important to understand the context in which it was created. This understanding makes our experience of these pieces that much richer.
The list below details five of the most significant periods of Western design, exploring the ways in which these movements were directly linked to the jewelry of each period. Read on to learn more about the rich (and dazzling!) history of jewelry design.
The Victorian style of jewelry emerged in England during the 63-year reign (1837-1901) of Queen Victoria, after whom it was named. This long and diverse age saw numerous scientific advances, geographical expansion, and a prolonged period of invention. In fact, the era is characterized by such a long period of peace and prosperity that history refers to it as the Pax Britannica (Latin for “British Peace”).
The jewelry crafted during this time period reflects the unprecedented prosperity of the time. A rising wealthy middle class ensured there was an active base of clientele for jewelry creations, while advances in machinery made jewelry easier to create and less expensive than ever before. Thus, Victorian jewelry often had a “stamped,” machine-made look, bringing consistency to the large, ornate designs that dominated the period.
Because the Victorian age spanned over six decades, naturally fashions also changed within that period. Therefore, Victorian jewelry is often divided into three distinct periods: the Romantic, the High Victorian, and the Late Victorian.
The Romantic Period is so named because the jewelry from this period reflects the affection between the Queen and her husband, Prince Albert. Whether it’s an antique necklace or antique brooches from this period, the jewelry tends to be ornate, romantic and playful, incorporating flowers, hearts, animals and bows. Seed pearls, turquoise and coral were often utilized as accents, along with rubies, emeralds, amethysts and garnets.
The High Victorian Period was shaped by a tremendous loss to both Queen and country - the death of Prince Albert. Queen Victoria's jewelry and wardrobe came to reflect her deep sorrow, and mourning jewelry became the most fashionable style of the day. Dark jewels such as jet, onyx and garnets proliferated, set into romantic designs formed from a variety of dark metals, including silver and steel. Large suites and massive jewelry designs reflected the continued opulence of the period.
The jewelry of the Late Victorian Period reflects a new optimism for the future. Also known as the Aesthetic Period, jewelry styles of this era became simpler and smaller in scale thanks to the influence of Japanese design. Diamonds became fashionable, along with gemstones such as amethysts and opals. Lighter and daintier than its predecessors, Late Victorian jewelry presaged the Art Nouveau movement to come, as evidenced in some of the antique opal rings from this time period.
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Art Nouveau (1890-1914)
Art Nouveau was the first major art and design movement of the 20th century. Developing in response to the Industrial Revolution and the machine age, the period favored highly original, one-of-a-kind, and hand-crafted designs, emphasizing the organic over the machine made. The style was ultimately the amalgamation of a number of different influences, from the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to the ideas of William Morris and, perhaps most significantly, the popularity of Japanese decorative arts.
While the Art Nouveau style permeated all areas of fashion and the decorative arts, perhaps its most stunning application was in the realm of jewelry. Nature was the most popular muse for late 19th- and early 20th-century designers, and Art Nouveau jewelry incorporated all manner of flowers, animals and sensuous nudes.
Not only where themes and motifs derived from nature, but jewelers also used every material imaginable to bring their creations to life. Multi-colored gems and enamel were often preferred over diamonds, which contributed little to colorful Art Nouveau creations. Plique-à-jour enamel was particularly favored - this backless enameling technique allowed light to shine through, creating a stunning stained glass effect. Opals and pearls were also popular, particularly baroque pearls with an interesting, one-of-a-kind shape. As for metal, jewelry during this period was often crafted of yellow gold.
As a whole, the Art Nouveau style was unlike anything the world had seen before. More than merely wearable pieces of jewelry, Art Nouveau creations were also stunning objets d'art that remain highly collectible.
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The last period of timeless design to be named for a monarch, the Edwardian period takes its name from King Edward VII, who reigned in England after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. The Edwardian period ran concurrent to the Art Nouveau period, starting just a bit later after the turn of the century. In many ways, it reflected the ideals of the Art Nouveau style, rejected ostentatious man-made creations in favor of daintier, more ethereal designs. Yet, rather than looking to nature for its inspiration, the Edwardian period looked back to the 18th century.
Jewelers who chose not to embrace the Art Nouveau style tended towards this Edwardian penchant for the traditional. Yet, while they rejected the aesthetics of the Art Nouveau movement, Edwardian jewelers still benefited from its techniques, borrowing the fluidity of lines and incorporating them into more traditional motifs. The Edwardian era style employed themes and designs from earlier periods, such as from the court jewelry of Versailles. Pieces were crafted with a delicate aesthetic that mimicked weaving, embroidery, lace, and latticework, while diamonds were the gemstones of choice.
One of the most important innovations of Edwardian jewelry was its use of platinum. Unlike Art Nouveau jewelry, which favored yellow gold, Edwardian jewelry became the first style to fully embrace this metal. Prior to 1903, the technology did not exist to easily heat platinum to the necessary temperature to make it workable. Thanks to the invention of the oxyacetylene torch, however, platinum was now easily accessible to jewelers, and Edwardian jewelers took full advantage of its strength and rigidity in their intricate designs.
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Art Deco (1920-1939)
The Art Deco period emerged as World War I was coming to an end. The first global conflict of its kind, the war inevitably led to massive cultural, political and economic change across the globe. The opulence and excesses of Edwardian design and frivolity of the Art Nouveau quickly fell out of fashion, and the Art Deco movement arose in this rapidly changing culture.
Western cultures, particularly in the United States, London and France, experienced a seismic shift into the modern era. As society shrugged off the final vestiges of Victorian era culture, modern women in the machine age traded in their old-fashioned corsets for the low waistlines and loose silhouettes that today epitomize the flapper style. The Art Deco style that emerged during this time reflected this shift into the modern era. Streamlined with an emphasis on structure, Art Deco design was a celebration of technology, modernity, and the return to normalcy after the chaos of war.
The Art Deco jewelry that emerged during this period was sleek and bold, with an emphasis on cleanness of line and sharp edges. Its regularity and symmetry was a far cry from the freeform, flowing designs of the Art Nouveau era; instead, Art Deco emphasized form and function over simple aesthetics. Jewelers also began to look to unorthodox stones to create their designs, utilizing materials such as onyx, jade, and rock crystal along with more traditional gems. Generally, large gemstones were set aside in favor of an array of smaller stones, particularly brilliant-cut diamonds.
The streamlined designs of Art Deco jewelry reflected similar changes in women's fashion, epitomized by the flapper with her short hair and cylindrical garb. Brooches and long-stranded necklaces became popular to suit the new style of dress, along with long earrings that perfectly balanced out the prevailing bob haircut.
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World War II brought another seismic cultural shift - following the devastating conflict, people were hungry not only for normalcy but for opulence. The Retro style evolved from this prevailing response to the war. Jewelry designs of the period were based on the Art Deco aesthetics of the preceding age, but where Art Deco lines were rigid and sleek, Retro lines were softened, curved and filled out. Still modern, jewelry suddenly also became more robust and much heavier, embracing the overt luxury that Art Deco had rejected.
While the war affected the availability of more obscure gemstones such as onyx and jade, other stones such as diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds were still available in abundance, and thus were the most common stones used in jewelry of the period. The war also made platinum scarce, as the majority of the metal was commandeered for wartime manufacturing; thus, most jewelry of the Retro period is set in gold.
Just as with jewelry of the Art Deco age, Retro jewelry design bent to greater changes in fashion. The loose and streamlined silhouette of the flapper dress was replaced by excessively tailored jackets over narrow skirts. Thus, the lapel pin became one of the single most important jewelry pieces in a woman's repertoire, worn to soften the severe lines of one's coat. Shortened necklaces also became popular, as well as button earrings and heavy gold bracelets.
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