The Victorian period is named for Queen Victoria of England, the monarch who presided over the British Empire for more than six decades between 1837 and 1901. Until Victoria’s reign, fine jewelry had been mostly the province of aristocrats. However, during these years, jewelry became more broadly accessible, as an emerging middle class in Europe and the United States began to wear jewelry that was luxurious enough to be fit for kings and queens.
The Queen’s Influence
Because jewelry happened to be one of Victoria’s favorite realms, her exquisite taste helped guide public preferences. Victorian jewelry styles mirror the phases of Victoria’s life, as she moved from joy, to despair, and then back to joy again. In the Romantic Period, from 1837 to 1861, Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, were deeply in love. Jewelry from these years expressed confidence, serenity, and romance. Hearts, bows, flowers, and birds were common motifs, as were enameled serpents and snakes.
Upon Albert’s death in 1861, Victoria entered a long period of mourning. During the Grand Period, from 1861 to 1880, jewelry became darker and more melancholy. Black jewelry made of jet, a fossilized coal, became popular, as did jewelry made of black onyx and black enamel. It was also during this period that revivalism became a trend; Victorian jewelers adopted designs inspired by ancient and Renaissance art. Eventually, Victoria emerged from her mourning. The Late Victorian period, from 1880 to 1901, was characterized by a return to more whimsical, buoyant designs. Stars, dragons, griffins, and crescent moons made their way into jewelry, and Japanese influences were notable.
A Golden Age
An important factor behind the evolution of Victorian jewelry was increased availability of gemstones and precious metals. By the mid-1800s, a series of gold discoveries had reduced the price of gold. Victorian jewelers were freed to try techniques, such as engraving and filigree, which enabled them to create splendid pieces of gold jewelry. Although silver was also becoming less expensive, it was gold that became the era’s preeminent metal. Diamonds, likewise, were becoming more abundant. The discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1867 permitted diamonds to become a favored gemstone in Late Victorian jewelry.
History & Style
Jewelry from the Georgian era, defined as the period between 1714 and 1837, has an opulent and regal flair. During the Georgian era, named for Kings George I, II, and III of England, fine jewelry was worn almost exclusively by the wealthy. These were the years of the American and French Revolutions, but the world of Georgian jewelry might best be imagined as the England of Jane Austen. As her heroines participated in the elaborate courtship rituals of the time, they adorned themselves with stately, hand-crafted Georgian jewelry.
The Georgian era spanned more than a century, and for this reason its jewelry is as varied as it is sumptuous. An ornate and playful style known as Rococo was favored in the early part of the era, while Gothic and Neoclassical designs took precedence later on. Diamonds initially were the gemstone of choice, with the most prevalent cuts being the rose cut and old mine. Colored gemstones such as emeralds, sapphires, and rubies became more common beginning in the mid-1700s. A distinctive feature of early Georgian jewelry is the use of closed back settings where gemstones were mounted in a way that enclosed their entire pavilion, or bottom half. To help reflect light and adjust a gemstone's coloring, foil was sometimes placed underneath the mounted stone.
Sadly, few pieces of Georgian jewelry have survived to the present. Never mass-produced and sometimes falling victim to jewelers who valued it mainly for its components, Georgian jewelry has become extremely rare and precious. Brooches and rings are the most common types of Georgian era jewelry still in existence. Earrings and necklaces remain available to a lesser extent.
As the 20th century was approaching, an imaginative and original style of jewelry-making burst forth from the vibrant European arts scene. The Art Nouveau (literally “New Art”) era, lasting from 1890 to 1910, overlapped with the Edwardian and Victorian eras and was relatively brief, though it made a lasting contribution to the meaning of magnificent jewelry. Art Nouveau was actually a broad artistic movement, with one of its key tenets that art should be a part of daily life. Thinking of themselves as artists more than jewelry-makers, Art Nouveau jewelers took extra care to craft exquisite, breathtaking jewelry.
Inspiration & Style
The mood of Art Nouveau jewelry is soft, mystical, and romantic. Pale colors and flowing, undulating curves helped to establish a soothing aura. Victorian and Edwardian jewelers often borrowed ideas from ancient and classical art and architecture. Art Nouveau jewelers, greatly influenced by depictions of nature in Japanese art, looked to the natural world for inspiration. Orchids, irises, lilies, ferns, snakes, dragonflies, and butterflies were all prevalent motifs in Art Nouveau jewelry, as were depictions of the female form.
Gemstones & Metal
The established viewpoint during the 1800s had been that a gemstone was the most important element in a piece of jewelry. Breaking from tradition, Art Nouveau jewelers placed more emphasis on settings. This philosophy gave jewelers license to experiment with beautiful enameling techniques as well as with different gemstones and materials. Diamonds were used cautiously, while moonstone, amethyst, opal, amber, citrine, peridot, and freshwater pearls became common in Art Nouveau rings and jewelry. Materials such as horn, shell, and copper also were sometimes used, all in pursuit of the jeweler’s artistic vision.
light & Lacy Designs
Light, graceful, and elegant designs were characteristic of the Edwardian era, named for King Edward of Britain. Running from 1901 to about 1920, the Edwardian era is perhaps best known for extensive use of filigree techniques. By applying threads of gold, platinum, and other precious metals to the surface of their settings, Edwardian jewelers gave their jewelry a wonderfully lacy look. A piece of Edwardian jewelry was thus the perfect complement to the Edwardian woman’s ensemble, with her dress of lace and silk and hat topped with feathers.
The Edwardian era was a time of both continuity and change. Although the 20th century was beginning, the culture of Victorian times had not completely receded, and jewelry was still designed to convey femininity and decorum. Edwardian jewelers preferred simple, classic motifs and palettes able to highlight a gemstone’s inherent beauty. Roman, Ancient Greek, Napoleonic, and French Baroque influences were all evident in Edwardian jewelry styles. Tassels, bows, laurel wreaths, garlands of flowers, and scrolls were also prevalent motifs that illustrated the refined yet energetic sensibility of the era.
The Edwardian Trio
Diamonds, pearls, and platinum were key components in Edwardian rings and jewelry. Pearls and diamonds were prized for their understated elegance, and jewelry was designed to showcase their natural beauty. Platinum, likewise, was an Edwardian favorite. Strong yet lightweight, it permitted jewelers to create “invisible” settings in which little metal was needed to secure a gemstone. Together, diamonds, pearls, and platinum—or some combination thereof—were an unbeatable combination. The white-on-white appearance was considered the epitome of sophistication and class.
The Art Deco era, running roughly from 1920 to 1935, was a high-spirited era of gangsters, flappers, and speakeasies. During the Roaring Twenties, the economy boomed and jazz blossomed just as Prohibition heightened the urge to cast aside Victorian restraints.
The Art Deco Style
Art Deco jewelry is stylish and fun. Jewelry, like other areas of fashion, became a realm in which women felt free to express their individuality. Styles became bolder, sharper, and more masculine than in previous periods. The lacy, filigree patterns of Edwardian jewelry and the soft pastels and curves of Art Nouveau jewelry gave way to brighter colors and straighter lines. A signature characteristic of Art Deco jewelry is the use of futuristic motifs and geometric forms, reflecting the confident and free-thinking spirit of the times. The soaring Empire State Building and Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso perfectly embodied the new design choices of the Art Deco era.
During the Art Deco era, advancements in cutting techniques, including the advent of the modern round brilliant cut style, allowed for diamonds to become more dazzling and scintillating than ever before. Meanwhile, prosperity was permitting more people to afford diamond jewelry and engagement rings. New casting techniques further increased accessibility, as jewelers discovered more efficient ways to produce the most intricately detailed of settings. With platinum becoming a popular material, jewelers began using white gold—an alloyed form of gold—that was more affordable than either platinum or yellow gold though with a hue that was nearly identical to platinum.
Bold & Glamorous
Retro jewelry, sometimes called “cocktail jewelry,” refers to the style of jewelry that became popular beginning in the mid-1930s and continuing through the end of the 1940s. With the twin crises of economic depression and war, it might be expected that Retro jewelry would be minimalist and restrained. In fact, jewelry from the era was bigger, bolder, and more exciting than ever. In the midst of hard times, women sought jewelry that was eye-catching and extraordinary. This was also Hollywood’s golden age, and women wanted jewelry that reflected the glitz and glamour they saw on the big screen.
Retro jewelry was dazzling, almost larger-than-life. Cocktail rings, bracelets, and necklaces tended to be oversized, lending the jewelry a playful and whimsical dimension. However, larger did not mean less feminine. As World War II brought women into the work force and required them to adopt straight-fitting business attire, they chose jewelry that allowed them to express their femininity. Retro jewelry is characterized by curved designs and feminine motifs such as bows, ribbons, ruffles, and flowers—but almost always on a grand, Retro-era scale.
Creativity went hand-in-hand with Retro boldness. Partly this was due to war-time realities. A scarcity of platinum led jewelers to use more gold, but when they did so they experimented with exquisite new alloys. By mixing yellow gold with other metals like silver and copper, they produced gold with beautiful shades of rose and green. Budget-conscious jewelry shoppers as well as a limited supply of precious stones during the war fostered greater use of synthetic rubies and sapphires. Semi-precious stones such as aquamarine, citrine, and topaz were also prevalent in Retro rings and jewelry.