The Victorian era spanned from 1837 to 1901, making the history of Victorian jewellery an expansive topic.
The popular styles of jewellery in the Victorian period were intimately connected with different stages of Queen Victoria's life. The Queen's famed devotion to her husband, Prince Albert, directly correlated with the most prominent trends in jewellery and fashion at the time.
The early Victorian era is seen as the ‘Romantic’ period. During this time, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were courting, marrying in 1840. The jewellery of this period reflected very romantic motifs such as hands, hearts, crosses, and knots. All of these themes were common in engagement rings and other romantic jewellery of the time, as they symbolised the eternal bond between two people.
Lots of themes popular in Victorian jewellery were romanticised reactions against the Age of Reason, with the movement truly beginning well before 1800. The romantic revolution and the industrial revolution were both enormous influences on what styles rose to prominence during the Victorian era.
Industrial revolution meant that jewellery was cheaper to make, and so pieces were mass produced by the thousands, and the jobs created by the industrial revolution gave growth to a new social class: the lower middle class. Out of this growth, consumerism began to take root, as the people of the Victorian public were able to spend money on trinkets like jewellery.
The romantic revolution was a return to nature for inspiration, with floral motifs being especially popular. Perfection was prominent in romantic jewellery, with every leaf and petal being symmetrical, rigid, and as idealistic as possible. Settings of mounts were widely varied during this period; engraving, chasing, and carving all increased in popularity, with coloured gold being a popular choice of inlay metal.
Other common romantic, nature-related themes during this period were birds, flowers, and snakes. During the Victorian period, snakes were viewed very differently to the duplicitous and deceptive creatures they are seen as in modern-day society. Instead, they were considered a symbol of eternity, and jewellery prominently featuring snakes represented a promise to be in love forever.
Romantic revolution jewellery shared a lot of aesthetic similarities with popular themes and styles of the past, such as Medieval, Ancient Greek, and Ancient Egyptian jewellery. Elements of these cultures were being studied for the first time during this period, and the Victorian jewellery of the time displayed a desire to romanticise the past as well as taking influence from ‘exotic’ cultures’ styles and motifs.
Coral was immensely popular for cameo jewellery during this period; harvested in the Mediterranean, carved and mass produced in Maples, and then shipped to England to be set by English jewellers. Although this generated prosperous trade relations between Italy and England, the mass production of cameos meant that overall they were of a fairly low quality. Surviving examples of good quality are difficult to procure.
Victorian jewellery during this era– often referred to as the ‘Grand’ period – is sometimes considered an extension of the romantic period. Many of the themes found emerging in the romantic period bloomed during the grand period. Jewellery featuring lockets rose to prominence, with places to store pictures of loved ones. Rope designs also became more popular, possibly due to their intertwined patterns, suggesting a strong bond between two individuals.
The discovery of opals in Australia in the earlier half of the 19th century generated intense interest in opal jewellery, particularly in black opals. The most common cut style for opals was the cabochon cut. This cut gained increased popularity through the Victorian period, and cabochon cuts of every size were found across a variety of stones and in a variety of items.
The invention of the diamond saw transformed the entire cutting industry, making it more mechanised, and revolutionising the way in which diamonds in particular were cut. The marquise cut was first introduced during this period also. As well as new discoveries and inventions, Middle-Aged enamelling and painting techniques were revived, such as cloisonné, champlevé and encrusted enamelling. Another form of enamelling that became popular is basse-taille, wherein translucent enamel is placed over a relief design; plique-à-jour was another common method of enamelling at this time, where the backing from behind the enamel was removed, allowing the light to shine through it, creating a stained glass effect.
It was during this period also that Queen Victoria discovered a love for the Scottish Highlands. Her enthusiasm for it increased the general popularity of Celtic designs, silver jewellery, and unique touches such as mounted grouse claws. Another element of the wilderness that Queen Victoria brought to massive popularity was pearls, found in the rivers of the North of England, Scotland, and Wales.
The royal couple were – as they always are – hugely influential. Even Prince Albert left his mark in the jewellery world, famously wearing a heavy gold watch chain, which led to the chain being called an ‘Albert’ watch chain – a name that persists even today.
Change occurred in 1861 when Prince Albert died. Having been so devoted to her husband, Queen Victoria entered a deep phase of mourning. Donning black, her jewellery tastes took a dramatic turn. The Victorian public was deeply invested in their monarch, and so the trend of mourning jewellery soared. Popular gemstones during this time were agate, onyx, jet, and other black gemstones; enamel also increased in popularity as a cheaper alternative to black gemstones.
The demand for jet specifically during the mourning period was so great that deposits around the Whitby area that had originally been worked in Neolithic times were nearly entirely depleted by the end of the 19th Century.
The late Victorian era, referred to as the ‘Aesthetic’ period, reflects the beginnings of Queen Victoria’s shift away from the mourning period. The aesthetic period is considered to be an era of ‘art for art’s sake’, meaning that a variety of art forms featured intricate details and finery that held no great significance, and was purely for aesthetic purposes. Jewellery from this period became daintier, smaller, and lighter.
Turquoise became an incredibly popular gemstone in this time, often as an alternative to pearls, used mostly to create circular frames to border other, larger gemstones, enamel, and a variety of cameos. Gold jewellery was often substituted for rolled gold, as the demand generated through the success of the industrial revolution meant that cheaper alternatives needed to be found in order to make as much jewellery as possible in as cost-effective a way as possible. Following this effort, paste jewellery was also incredibly common, providing a far more affordable substitute to a variety of otherwise costly gemstones.
With larger, heavier items becoming less popular, smaller items covered in beautiful stones such as diamonds, opals, and amethysts found new life. Due to the aesthetic movement, the gems used in jewellery were chosen more for their beauty than their monetary value, which resulted in many unique items that are now considerably valuable and highly collectable. Multi-strand pearl chokers also found popularity during this period; largely due to the fact that Queen Victoria’s daughter-in-law was known to wear one in order to conceal a scar.
The Victorian period saw several shifts and changes in jewellery trends and styles. The combination of the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the British Empire, and the evolution of the middle class meant that more people in Britain could afford to spend money on luxuries like jewellery, as well as leisure activities that made them more active and less restrained. Jewellery changed to accommodate these lifestyle changes, becoming smaller and more practical. Women in particular were becoming more socially, politically, and physically active, as they were no longer confided to their homes through social etiquette. They had new levels of independence as the nation grew in strength and wealth, and the rise of both the suffragist and suffragette movements was beginning; their accessories reflected this through the finer, intricate fashions of the Edwardian era. New discoveries in ancient civilisations generated increased interest in imitation jewellery, influenced in no small part by Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and the Etruscans. The drama of Early Victorian pieces remains a celebrated feature of antique jewellery today, as well as the intricacy of later items from Queen Victoria’s reign. Today, Victorian jewellery is treasured for its vibrancy, romanticism, and fine detail, and many people seek to amass collections of well-kept items.
Andrew Campbell started trading in antiques during the 1970s. Initially, Andrew lived in the South of England, travelling the country, searching for items of silver to buy. Andrew sold these items at various London markets and antique fairs. Over time, and through selling at a range of venues, Andrew built up a large and diverse customer base from private buyers to national and international trade customers.