The Beginning of the Georgian Period
The Georgian era of jewelry gets its name from the string of English kings who reigned from 1714 to 1830, George I-IV. A time where technical innovation was beginning to reshape the world as we knew it, the world of jewelry, art and fashion underwent some massive changes as it struggled to keep up with a modernizing society.
Early Georgian Jewelry
For centuries, only the wealthiest individuals across Europe, could afford to wear jewelry. That began to change in the 1700s as people began to rise up against lavish monarchies and opportunities stemming from the industrial revolution created new jobs that centralized citizens in major cities like never before. Many citizens found themselves with the ability to afford luxuries that had previously been reserved for only the wealthiest members of society.
Revolutions Give Rights to the People
The Georgian period was a significant time of political change and saw a shift of power away from the elite. The first of these events being the American Revolution in 1776 and the next being the French Revolution, which would tear down the French monarchy upon it’s end in 1799.
These revolutions did not immediately change the aristocracy across Europe, but it did introduce a unique, new idea called Democracy. The new democratic ideas, combined with the industrial revolution slowly beginning to create larger, centralized cities with an up and coming middle class that gave individuals a renewed sense of power and potential.
Citizens across Europe embraced these new ideas and people who were not born into the Aristocracy began to embrace fashion and jewelry for the first time.
Neoclassical – The Allure of Napoleon and Beyond
Following the French Revolution in 1789, the European public embraced a simplified manner of dress, which had a much smaller emphasis on jewelry in general. This tradition would be short lived, as Napoleon’s emergence as Emperor of France in 1804 sparked a new age revival of old designs.
Paris first became the world’s preeminent jewelry manufacturing hub in the 1200-1400s, a tradition that lasted centuries before a brief standstill sparked by the French Revolution. Napoleon’s prompt rise to power revitalized the jewelry trade and his exuberant tastes would influence the artistic world of Europe, much like that of Queen Victoria many decades later.
The Neoclassical movement began with the coronation of Napoleon as emperor of France in 1804. Napoleon was a lavish man, who sought to revive classical designs and even outshine his predecessors (whose flamboyant lifestyle ended up costing them their heads).
Napoleon’s tenure as ruler of France was destined to be short-lived. Upon his ousting as emperor in 1815, the new again Bourbon rulers (King Louis XVIII who had been living for 23 years in exile following the ousting of his family in the French Revolution) brought about a new time, which they would call “The French Restoration”. This new style rejected the natural focus of Napoleon’s more Rococo style, but very much embraced and even attempted to build upon it’s lavishness.
The Neoclassical designs pulled influence from Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as incorporating designs inspired by nature. Diamonds, emeralds and rubies were the most popular gemstones, as well as engraved gems.
Why the obsession with ancient greece and rome?
One of the most infamous stories of natural destruction in the history of human civilization was fully rediscovered and explored in the 18th century. The ruins at Pompeii were first uncovered in the 1500s, but the town of Herculaneum wasn’t known until 1709 and the excavation that began in 1738 unearthed a society literally frozen in it’s tracks at a moment’s notice. Herculaneum was a wealthy Roman town located directly beneath the infamous Mount Vesuvius and left a preserved look at Roman life in even greater detail than the famous Pompeii.
For the first time in history, we had a true look at what life was like for people who lived in Ancient Rome. Buildings, art, artifacts and even people, completely frozen like statues exactly as they were on that fateful day in 79 AD. The discovery of this well preserved, Ancient town captured the interest and imagination of people across Europe, and thus, a renewed demand for classical styles for art, jewelry and architecture would follow.
Despite his military prowess, Napoleon was a romantic man who helped spark an artistic period focused around the beauty in nature and humanity. This movement placed a heavy focus on individuality and intense emotion, glorifying medieval designs rather than the classical styles which had become the trend.
The artistic styles of Romanticism very much fell in line with the jewelry traditions emerging at the time. The art of the time emphasized emotions such as apprehension, horror and awe, while still focusing on the more traditional focuses of beauty in nature and the natural form.
The idea of Romanticism sought to glorify heroes (particularly in art and literature) and place such a high value on their achievements, that it would motivate the onlooker and eventually raise the quality of modern society.
Bigger is better
Reverting to a more natural tradition would also mean that there was a much more significant emphasis on the gemstones themselves. Large gemstones became so popular, that semi-precious gemstones were required to fill the void.
Many fashionable women of means would own several parures, which is a set of jewels intended to be worn together. One may feature rich violet amethyst, another with olive-green peridot, one with golden topaz or citrine and possibly another with aquamarine or blue turquoise. The stones were often set in bold, yellow gold settings, sometimes decorated with filigree. The combination of brightly colored gemstones in a gold setting would come to be known as “l’antique”.
Every Day Jewelry – Artistic and Sentimental
Colorful, extravagant designs were embraced as a formal luxury, but everyday jewelry in the Georgian period was much more practical. Jewelry would be worn casually by men and women expressing personal sentiment, patriotism and nostalgia from the past. These pieces would often adorn picturesque clothes, which continued to embrace the qualities of Romanticism.
The concept of Romanticism in every day jewelry can probably be best described by the French poet Chateaubriand, who recalled an experience dining with Marie-Louise, Napoleon’s widow. The poet was surprised to see that her bracelets were not adorned with precious gemstones or diamonds, but rather marble, which had supposedly been chipped off of the tomb of the famous Shakespeare heroine, Juliet.
Toi et Moi
Translated from French to “you and me”, toi et moi rings got their start in the Georgian period when Napoleon famously gave one to his future bride, Josephine de Beauharnais, as an engagement ring. Napoleon’s love for Josephine, a widower 6 years his senior and a mother of 2, appalled his family, but their passion and love for one another won over; they wed the year after meeting.
This was not necessarily the first piece ever made in the “toi et moi” style, but it was the first time this style was publicized on such a grand scale. The ring was yellow gold with 2 stones in the center: a pear shape blue sapphire and diamond facing opposite directions.
Two separate stones coming together to create something beautiful, two souls coming together to create a life more meaningful and special together, each stone independently symbolic to both the giver and the recipient. To this day, “toi et moi” rings (and their sister, the bypass/”forever us” ring) are still very popular, both as gifts and engagement rings. The continuation of this trend pays homage to one of history’s greatest love stories.
Another major change revitalized by this new age of Romanticism and Neoclassicism is the revival of cameos and intaglios. Originally made popular in ancient Greece and Rome, these beautiful designs embraced the natural form of humanity and added a unique, classical take on traditional stones and jewelry. Napoleon was so fascinated by the beauty of cameos that he even mounted some antique carvings in new designs for his own personal collection.
While Napoleon’s rise to power brought wealth and luxury back to France, the same cannot be said about the rest of Europe. The most notable instance of this comes from 1813-1814, when the Prussian army desperately needed precious metals to help fund the war to stop Napoleon’s advancing army. Patriotic women at the time were encouraged to trade their precious metal jewelry in exchange for iron jewels, commonly baring the inscription, “Gold gab ich für Eisen, 1813”, which translates to “I gave my gold for iron, 1813”.
These new jewels were most often delicate floral or Neoclassical openwork designs with a shiny black coating. Shortly after the war ended (Napoleon lost), jewelers in France and across Europe embraced the new tradition and “Berlin Iron” jewelry. This new, iron jewelry would remain in fashion until around the middle of the 19th century.
As history so often repeats itself, iron jewelry would once again come back in style a century later when some European countries requested their citizens donate their gold in return for iron to help finance WWI.