The Victorian period heralded in an age of enormous variety in jewellery design and fashion. The boom of the Industrial Revolution metamorphosed the manufacture of jewellery; but the wealth it created, also meant that more people than ever were able to accumulate a collection, even if it was just a small one.
The mass production of a particular piece or design where a single sheet of gold could be pressed out of a particular mould multiple times, meant that this was the first time that a prolific number of examples of jewellery, still last to this day. The discovery of new deposits in South Africa in 1867 made diamonds readily available and at prices that were more affordable. Advances in the railways meant that travel, not just throughout the UK but also across the Continent, was faster and less arduous, opening consumers up to a new wealth of experience, and popularising new fashions.
Over the course of the first half of the century, duties were gradually relaxed on newspapers, which caused a significant growth in their circulation and increased the public’s appetite for contemporary information, news. This hunger allowed trends to develop as individuals began to look to figures like the Queen for fashion whose dresses began to be described and sketched in the press. The 19th century, with some help from Beau Brummell, ushered in a new age for men’s fashion which was far more restrained and less ornate, and where men wore almost no jewellery. Women now became the sole canvas on which a man could display his wealth through jewels, portraiture also became increasingly popular for the new wealthy and not just the aristocracy.
The defeat of Napoleon in 1814 meant that travel throughout Europe became much easier, and the discerning English tourists relished the opportunity to once again travel throughout France, Switzerland and Italy where they would often pick up souvenirs including pieces of jewellery. The Neo-Classical era, a renewed interest in the classical empires, started by Napoleon for political reasons, now became even more popular for travellers in Italy; jewellers in cities such as Rome and Naples quickly realised that there was a market for pieces which typified the classical Roman, Greek or Etruscan styles. Leading producers of these pieces, such as Roman jeweller Castellani, became tourist destinations in themselves; they looked to recent archaeological discoveries and, inspired by ancient techniques, woven gold work and semi-precious gems such as coral and hardstones were used instead of diamonds, sapphire and rubies. This archaeological style was popular well into the second half of the century. Switzerland was also quick to capitalise on this steady stream of wealthy tourists, and became well known for its enamelled pieces of well-known views and figures in regional costume.
During the beginning of the 18th century the fashion for large parures had somewhat waned in France, but the demand for these high quality and elaborate pieces was still very much alive throughout wider Europe. The rise of the Romantic movement coincided with the development of techniques and abilities which craftsmen used in designing very naturalistic representations of floral sprigs or bouquets; owing to the continued fashion for botany, this was a style which lasted well into the latter years of the century. Often, to give an even more realistic appearance, flower heads would be set ‘en tremblant’, on a small spring, allowing them to tremble whenever the wearer moved, also to catch the candlelight and sparkle even more. The Victorians were great lovers of hidden meaning in imagery, and often certain flowers were representations of popular ideals; the forget-me-not signified true love, and the lily-of-the-valley represented happiness, while ivy might mean friendship and fidelity. Prince Albert was often said to gift Queen Victorian jewellery with these hidden meanings.
Little was known of Japanese art since they closed their ports in 1624, however when they were reopened in the 1850s, a whole new world of art and design was made available to Europe, particularly after being showcased at the London Exhibition of 1862. Distinct and brightly coloured enamel cloisonné work was taken up by jewellers such as Lucien Falize, who used traditional Japanese imagery in his pieces to capitalise on this new fascination. Japan has very little, if any, tradition in jewellery making but they did have a lot of very talented metalworkers, used to working on a small scale for other decorative objects. After the wearing of Samurai sword was banned in 1876 , craftsmen who had previous decorated the very elaborate sword fittings, turned to making jewellery for export. Using complex and contrasting alloys their mixed metalwork was a completely new and exciting aesthetic to the European market.
The Victorians weren’t without their sense of the whimsical either. It was during this period that the ‘bug’ brooch was popularised; starting with the humble house fly and moving on to other insects, these brooches were popular novelties which again grew out of the naturalism movement. However, this notion of novelty didn’t stop with insects; birds perched on their nests with pearl eggs, or enamelled pheasants were but a few other examples, but records of women wearing pendant earrings modelled as steam trains show that even the industrial advances of the day couldn’t be overlooked as possible inspiration.
Queen Victoria’s love affair with Balmoral, along with the continued enthusiasm for Romanticism sparked a demand for Scottish jewellery. Luckenbooth brooches, kilt pins, watch chains, bracelet and brooches all set with Aberdeen granite, Scottish agates and Cairngorms crystals were very popular, so much so that as demand grew, the case production had to be outsourced and by the late 1860s many of the Cairngorms were replaced with Brazilian citrines and the pieces themselves were manufactured in Birmingham. so it is always worth checking the history of each piece as it may not always be what it seems.
The Victorian’s perfected the idea of multi-functional jewellery. A tiara might be constructed so the diamond motif from the frame, can be detached and be worn as a necklace or brooch at less formal occasions; a pair of bracelets may be joined together to make a necklace. Pendants were often removable from their necklaces, and worn as brooches or on alternative chains. The new middle classes emerging from the Industrial Revolution may not have been able to make multiple purchases of expensive jewellery, so they wanted to get the most from those that they did buy. A typical example of this is the popular ‘star’ tiara where the stars could be detached from the mounts, and worn as brooches. Sadly, this has meant that over the years, as pieces were passed down through generations they were often split up amongst siblings and while we still regularly see the brooches, the complete tiara is more unusual.