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the beginning of the victorian period

In the early 1830s, both France and Great Britain appointed new monarchs (Philip VI of France and William IV of Great Britain), who both detested the extravagance of their respective predecessor. For the first time in history, the monarchies started to become dependent upon the middle-class prosperity for their own survival.

queen victoria
Queen Victoria adorned in jewels
print by George Baxter

Following the frugality of the 1820s, the early 1840s brought about a new wealth acquired by the middle class and an abundance of gold, following its discovery in Australia and California. The middle class’ new ability to afford precious gems and metals combined with the abundance of gold on the international market led to more people than ever wearing jewelry.

The period draws its name from the person who most strongly influenced the fashion trends of the time, Queen Victoria. Leading the empire at its height, her reign started in 1837, at the tender age of 18, and it lasted 63 years and 7 months, longer than any other British or female monarch in history.

early victorian jewelry trends (1830 - 1860)

Following years of war in Europe, gemstones and precious metals were a rarity. The scarcity of stones led to more elaborate metalwork and the increasing popularity of cannetille and filigree jewelry. This trend began to change towards the 1840’s, as the mechanical revolution introduced the process of repoussé, making it much easier to set semi-precious stones.

Silver, 18-22K gold and colored gold were among the most commonly used metals for jewelry. Colored gold, particularly red and green, was used generously in creating floral and leaf pattern motifs, used most commonly in brooches, rings and buckles. These pieces were usually engraved and often decorated with small semi-precious stones, such as garnet and turquoise. The shortage of gemstones also inspired a return to the art of enameling, micro-mosaics and cameo carving.

victorian eagle brooch
One of the Turquoise Eagle brooches that Queen Victoria gave to each of her 12 bridesmaids.

A nostalgia for the Middle Ages and Italian/French Renaissance brought back a renewed interest in the symbolic powers of gemstones. Rings were commonly made in acronym form to make the words “Regard” or “Dearest” by using the first letter of the stone and setting them in the correct order. Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, amethysts and garnets were the most commonly used stones for these jewels.

By the 1840s, diamond set floral bouquets were worn as brooches on in the hair with diamond drops (representing either seeds or rain drops) falling from the flower heads. These pieces are the predecessor for the 3-dimensional designs Cartier made popular more than 100 years later.

lower karat gold in jewelry

While there were no hallmarking laws in the early 19th century, creating gold jewelry with less than 18k (9k, 12k and 15k) was not legal until 1854. This move made it much easier for European jewelers to compete in international markets.

serpent jewelry

Popular for as long as the idea of wearing jewelry, serpent jewelry reached the height of its popularity in the 1840s, due to the favor of Queen Victoria. At a point where old traditions and symbols were actively followed, the serpent metaphorically represented eternity and wisdom. The allure of the snake is mysterious in itself considering many women, both then and now, like serpent jewelry, but either do not like or are afraid of snakes and other reptiles.

rose gold diamond and ruby snake ring
A rose gold diamond and ruby double snake ring and a rose and green gold snake bangle bracelet – both dating back to the Victorian period

new, exotic motifs

The French occupation of Algeria from 1830-1847 introduced African symbolism to French jewelry. The publication of Ninevah and Its Remains in 1848, by Sir Austen Henry, also sparked a renewed interest in Assyrian patterns and themes, particularly, the lotus flower.

The agreement to open up trade between France and Japan, in 1854, also played an important role in directing European fashion trends. Many European people became fixated on the art and fashion styles of this exotic nation, which had previously been cut off from contact with the outside world for more than 200 years.

Another major turning point of the Victorian period was the annexation of much of India by the British Empire, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The Queen condemned the actions of both sides during this civil war and accumulated land which was previously ruled by the British East India Company. This decision led to Victoria becoming known for her compassion and religious tolerance, and it influenced the use of unique materials to the European jewelry market, such as ivory and tiger’s claw to the jewelry industry.

cameos

Cameos also saw a resurgence in popularity during the middle of the 19th century. The new designs were much larger and bolder than those of the Napoleonic times and often featured subjects from modern religion and ancient Greek mythology. Shells were imported all across the Mediterranean for carving and onyx, chalcedony and amethyst were also popular canvases.

pendant watch in gold
A Patek Philippe pendant watch in gold with miniature paintings, circa 1860’s

the technological innovations of patek philippe

It was in 1844, at the Industrial Exposition of 1844 when Antoine Norbert de Patek first met French horologist Jean-Adrien Philippe. Philippe was exhibiting his newest invention, the world’s first watch that was capable of being wound without a key.

While this invention did not initially earn the respect of watch-makers across Europe, it did catch the attention of Queen Victoria, who purchased one of the company’s first keyless watches in 1851, at the Great Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park.

Queen Victoria was so impressed by the ingenuity of these young watch makers, that she appointed Patek Philippe as horologer to her court, immediately making the watches made by Patek Philippe, some of the most highly sought after by European royalty.

THE WORLD BEGINS TO OPEN UP FOR TRAVELERS

New technological innovations of the age made it much easier for affluent Europeans to travel to other countries for pleasure. Italy became a favorite travel destination for people all over Europe, and bringing back souvenirs spread the popularity of Italian themed jewels and intricately carved cameos made of shell, coral and the lava from Mount Vesuvius. Roman and Florentine themed micro-mosaics and enamel portraits also captured the attention of Europeans and could be seen as a direct precursor to the popular themes of the Art Nouveau period.

MOURNING JEWELRY

During the 1800’s, it was very common for people to wear jewelry honoring a lost loved one. “Forget-me-nots”, carved plaques of onyx, black enamel or jet were hollowed out in order to place the hair of a loved one on the inside. Many women also wore brooches or pendants with hair set invisibly behind their gems as a subtle reminder of a lost loved one. Rings, bracelets and other jewelry items were also woven out of strands of hair in honor of lost loved ones.

MID-VICTORIAN JEWELRY TRENDS (1860’S-1880’S)

During the Middle of the Victorian period, jewels were most commonly worn in mourning fashion to commemorate the loss of a loved one. In a time of constant war, before sanitation and anti-biotics, it is no wonder that so many people were holding on to the memory of lost loved ones.

One of the monumental turning points of the Victorian period was the passing of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, on December 14, 1861. She entered an intense state of mourning, wearing black and avoiding public appearances for the remainder of her life. Her seclusion eventually earned her the title, “widow of Windsor”.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the concept of death was just as unavoidable. The first shots of the Civil War rang out on April 12, 1861, and it would be several years before the United States of America would know peace.

Silver was the most popular metal used for jewelry during this time. It’s discovery in Virginia City, Nevada, in the 1860s, led to a surplus of silver, making the metal much more affordable.

Amethyst, black glass, diamond, emerald, garnet, jet, opal, onyx, pearl, ruby and tortoise shell were among the most popular gems used in Mid-Victorian jewelry.

LATE VICTORIAN JEWELRY TRENDS AND THE DOWNFALL OF VICTORIAN JEWELRY (1880-1901)

Victoria’s extended isolation eventually led to the concept of monarchy becoming increasingly unpopular amongst British citizens and encouraged the idea of the republican movement. Near the end of the 1870s, fashion jewelry was reduced to very simplistic designs, and most women wore very little, and sometimes no jewelry at all. By the 1880’s the rejection of the Victorian style of jewelry and the artistic inspiration of French artist, René Lalique, directly led to the flavorful and imaginative Art Nouveau movement.

At the end of her reign, she had accumulated the modest title of “Her Majesty Victoria, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India”. On January 22, 1901, Queen Victoria died at the age of 81, officially ending the “Victorian Period”. She was succeeded by her son, Edward VII, who also gave his name to the style of jewelry produced during his reign (Edwardian Period).

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