Few periods of history embody as much importance as the Victorian Era, a time that witnessed and proposed exceedingly important and lasting exploration, expansion, and scientific invention. Without a doubt, one of the most important and everlasting products of the Victorian Period was jewelry that speaks to the cultural advances and sophistication of the time. From engagement rings to bracelets to earrings, the Victorian era showcased a number of unique jewelry styles and designs that are distinct to this period.
First, a little history. The Victorian era encompasses the 63-year reign (1837-1901) of Queen Victoria, Queen of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This vast period embodied a diverse age of progressive scientific advances, exploration, geographical expansion, and object invention. It was a time of profound change not only in London and its empire, but all abroad in terms of its influence in nearly every sphere: political, social, and cultural. Indeed, the Victorian Era is characterized by such a long period of peace that history refers to this period as the Pax Britannica.
Undoubtedly, Britain was considered the world's most powerful nation during this time. By the 18th century, Britain had managed to build what many consider to be one of the most vast modern empires that the world had ever seen. In fact, this expansion was so unprecedented that Queen Victoria adopted the additional title of Empress of India, due to England's massive geographical reach. The British Empire had extended over approximately 1/5” of the earth's surface. Because of this, experts estimate that almost a quarter of the entire world's population theoretically owed allegiance to the Queen.
While the Empire was far-reaching, the Industrial Revolution that began in the 1830's and spread throughout continental Europe, reaching its height during the Victorian era. Burgeoning at the beginning of Victoria's reign, the revolution brought with it entirely new markets, an enormous consumer boom, and greater prosperity throughout the nation. New railways were constructed for ease of travel and the locomotive steam engine was spurring industrial might - factories were opening up at an unprecedented speed.
Other factors pushed the United Kingdom to the forefront of the world's stage included the unquestionable supremacy of the Royal Navy, a significant life expectancy increase, and daily life that was now marked by a new onset ideal of leisurely activities.
The jewelry crafted during this period reflects the changing fortune and unprecedented prosperity of the time. Amid the innovation and change in England, there was developing a new and wealthy middle class whose new interests sparked a demand for jewelry in excellent condition in the mass market. Even the jewelry styles of antique necklaces, earrings, and bracelets evolved to capture the essence of this time period.
Victorian Period jewelry can be divided into three distinct categories. The particular characteristics in jewelry from these periods helps to classify a work as Victorian and approximate a circa date.
Romantic Period (1837-1860)
Victorian jewelry from this period was crafted while the Queen's husband, Prince Albert, was still alive. Often, these pieces mirrored the affection between the Queen and King. Pieces include flower motifs, metalwork folded into depictions of foliage, and en tremblant brooches.
Did you know? “En Tremblant” brooches are designed and crafted to move while worn.
Craftsman also utilized and improved upon the repoussé technique, a practice that involved metalworking and hammering malleable metal into intricate designs and patterns - to achieve a delicate look that would become a key indicator of period Victorian jewelry. Stones from this period were often cut in the rose cut, old mine cut, or cabochon. Other popular pieces include cameo and intaglio surrounded by small diamonds or seed pearls and jewelry pieces featured large gold ornaments intricately decorated with delicate enamel work. Importantly, the serpent motif was exceedingly popular and revered during this time as they were seen as a symbol of eternity. In fact, Prince Albert gifted Queen Victoria with a ring that featured the snake motif, undoubtedly popularizing the trend.
In all, the prevalent use of gold was one that dominated Victorian jewelry. In 1840, the Industrial Revolution allowed advances to electroplate and stamp gold pieces - allowing not only the material to be used more economically, but reducing prices to desiring customers and connoisseurs.
High Victorian Period (1860-1885)
Often referred to as the Grand Period, this era began with the death of Prince Albert, which caused Queen Victoria to wear mourning attire for the remainder of her life. Therefore, black mourning jewelry such as rings and lockets became in en vogue. The best black jewelry pieces were crafted from jet, a form of fossilized coal. This material became so popular and desirable that tourists would travel to Whitby, the source of this material, and take home a piece as a souvenir. Black onyx and enamel were also prolific materials used for jewelry during this period.
In addition to the prevalence of black-colored jewelry items, there was a renewed interest in antiquity. Looking towards the past, bench jewelers took inspiration from the Etruscan, Egyptian, and Classical periods and integrated their key motifs into their jewelry designs.
Late Victorian Period (1885-1901)
Also known as the Aesthetic period, this jewelry type can be characterized by simpler designs and a bit smaller in scale. In the rest of Western Europe, Japanese influences were ever prevalent on the Victorian style and designers looked towards this foreign culture's symbols to depict motifs of love and good fortune.
While each period displayed varying motifs, utilization of different metals, gemstones, and fabrication techniques, some elements endured and were adopted and some were transformed.
- Colored Gemstones
- Elaborate Metal Work and Detailing
- Colored Enameling
- Seed Pearls
- Dark Metals
Why were colored gemstones so prevalent at this time? Increasing global trade meant introduced a new wealth of colored gemstones that weren't readily available before: topaz, garnet, emerald, rubies sapphires & turquoise.
Reflective of this great period of change, Victorian jewelry is exceedingly important not only for the history of jewelry design, but as a display and documentation of cultural developments. In today's jewelry market, there exists a keen eye on period jewelry pieces as they remain all the more rare and difficult to acquire. Undeniably, it is those Victorian pieces that display remarkable speak to a heavily-colored palette, detailed metalwork, and a signature motif that are particularly exciting.