Estate jewelry might sound like a stuffy topic, but not in the hands of jewelry historian Monica McLaughlin. Every so often, she unearths the most breathtaking, bizarre, and unbelievably intricate works of antique fine jewelry that are up for sale for her column at The Hairpin. The images alone will make you do a double-take. As in, “Is that ring really set with a glass eye?” or “Are those actually taxidermied hummingbird heads on those earrings?”
“I’m terrified I’m going to break everything. A dealer let me wear a beautiful diamond necklace, and my brain screamed ‘Get it off me!'”
The stories behind the jewelry are just as intriguing, as McLaughlin delves into the history of subjects like falconry and masquerade balls, as well as the coded messages in Masonic, suffragette, and so-called “sentimental” jewelry. She also gives would-be jewelry connoisseurs insights into the geology of the rarest stones, and lets them in on how such intricate and stunning pieces are made.
McLaughlin’s knowledge is hard-earned. She spent nearly 13 years working for trade publisher, JCK Group, and its most famous magazine, “JCK,” originally known as “Jewelers’ Circular Keystone.” In 2007, her career took her out of the jewelry world, but she didn’t stay away long. When Edith Zimmerman, the founding editor of The Hairpin, posted a column about her love of Victorian mourning jewelry in early 2011, McLaughlin, a regular commenter, engaged her in a conversation. Thus, the online Estate Jewelry column was born. We asked McLaughlin to explain how she finds all these amazing antiques.
Collectors Weekly: How do you pick what to feature on The Hairpin?
McLaughlin: I don’t really have any system for choosing which pieces I’ll highlight. What I like about The Hairpin column is that, while I can talk about the jewelry itself, I can also talk around it. I love to find pieces that have a great backstory, so I can delve into the history of the time and talk about what factors came together to result in that piece being made. I’m the queen of tangents, so I think it’s probably pretty obvious when I’ve totally fallen in love with something.
“The Victorians were obsessed with natural history, but creating earrings and pins from the heads of hummingbirds is too much for me.”
To find pieces, I check dealer websites constantly, because a site like Ruby Lane has around 500-600 pieces of jewelry uploaded daily, and I also pore through auction catalogs. Auction houses hold jewelry auctions all year long, but the ones that draw the most attention are the “Magnificent Jewels” auctions held by Sotheby’s and Christie’s in the spring and fall. They’re usually held in Geneva and New York City, and those are the auctions where you’ll see the crazy diamonds and other super-big-ticket items. Other auction houses—Doyle, Bonhams, Skinner, Freeman’s, etc.—also hold their own jewelry auctions around the same time, so it gets a little overwhelming.
I probably went through around 20 or 30 catalogs this past November and December. The “Magnificent Jewels” auctions are fun for their grandiosity, but I actually prefer the smaller auctions because there’s a much broader range of items for sale, and you can really find some treasures. I’m also not a big diamond person, so I tend to get diamond fatigue when I go through the Mag Jewels catalogs—everything starts to blur together. I also like to root through the catalogs of non-jewelry auctions, because great things sometimes pop up there, too. Jane Austen’s ring was sold in an “English Literature” auction, not in a jewelry auction, so it’s worth keeping an eye out.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most unusual pieces or kinds of jewelry you’ve discovered?
McLaughlin: Memento mori jewelry is fascinating. “Memento mori” means “remember you must die” in Latin, and it’s a theme that’s been around as long as Christianity. It was used in jewelry from around the 16th to 18th centuries, most often in beautiful rings that are enameled with tiny skeletons, skulls, or coffins. There are also more unnerving examples: I once saw an engraved signet ring that swiveled in its bezel to reveal a carved skull underneath.
One of the more modern pieces that literally made me yelp at first sight was an 18-karat gold “javelin” earring by Marco Rigovacca. Rigovacca was a member of the “Padua School,” a group of 20th-century Italian goldsmiths and designers who created unconventional, sculptural jewelry. The earring is insane. The way it sits, it looks like a four-inch gold spike has been driven through the interior cartilage of the ear, but it’s an illusion – the spike is actually two pieces held together by a small hoop that fits over the ear and is hidden by the hair.
Collectors Weekly: What are some examples of utilitarian jewelry that you’ve come across?
McLaughlin: I’d never heard of coach covers until I came across a set in an auction catalog last fall and was totally delighted. They’re little hollow, hinged balls—I’ve since seen them enameled in black and also in gold with a textured finish—that snap over the drops in drop earrings. They were used during the late 1800s as camouflage: They hid one’s diamonds during the day, and could be removed for evening soirees. I’m in awe that any of them have survived, and I also know that I will never buy a pair, because I would immediately lose one of them.
Skirt lifters, or dress holders, are clever little contraptions that women used in the late 1800s to prevent the hems of their dresses from getting dirty. They look like decorative little tongs, with a ring at one end that would have been attached to a ribbon or chain suspended from a belt or a chatelaine. The tongs allowed the lady to arrange the way her dress draped—also providing a peek at her fashionably decorative petticoats—and saved her from having to constantly lift up her skirts as she walked.
Poison rings always fire up the imagination! They’ve been around for centuries, and they certainly could have contained poison—either destined for some unfortunate enemy, or for the wearer, should he or she find themselves captured and in a bad situation. Lucrezia Borgia, an aristocrat from Renaissance Italy, is often rumored to have owned and used a poison ring, but I don’t think anyone’s ever proved that. More often, though, the compartment within the ring was used to hold things like relics, love tokens, or perfume.
Collectors Weekly: Was some supposedly romantic or “sentimental” jewelry more about asserting control?
McLaughlin: Lover’s eye jewelry, which literally features a miniature painting of the eye of one’s lover, is generally interpreted as an outward display of love, but I’ve also read that it could be seen as said lover never letting the wearer out of his (or her) sight. There are so many possible interpretations, though. The fantastic eye-jewelry exhibit, “The Look of Love: Eye Miniatures from the Skier Collection” (most recently on view at Winterthur Museum in Delaware and opening at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in May), has examples that point to any number of meanings. Some eye jewelry features pearl tears, which suggests mourning, while other pieces surround the eye miniature with gemstones that may have been chosen for the symbolism attached to them. A frame of coral, traditionally a stone meant to ward off the evil eye, could be interpreted as protecting the person whose eye is depicted, or the person wearing the jewel, or both, while a frame of garnet may simply symbolize friendship, and have nothing to do with a so-called “lover.”
Other styles, gate bracelets with heart padlocks, buckle rings, etc., were also tokens of love and loyalty, despite seeming pretty fiercely possessive to us now. But a lot of these motifs were just following a sort of 19th-century code, in which symbols had specific interpretations that were well known and widely used. Knight’s Gems or Device Book from 1836 lists the meanings behind the symbols used in the jewelry of the time, and tells us that a heart with a keyhole and/or heart-shaped padlocks were meant to be interpreted as “Thou hast the key.”
Collectors Weekly: Why was mourning jewelry so popular with Victorians?
McLaughlin: Mourning jewelry did exist prior to Queen Victoria, but she made it huge. Popular trends reflected Victoria’s every enthusiasm prior to Prince Albert’s death, so it followed that mourning would also become a part of that when he died. I don’t think people expected it to go on for decades, though. Poor Victoria; she really loved Albert. I read somewhere years ago that she continued to have his clothes laid out every morning until she died.
Collectors Weekly: Did people really buy or make hairwork jewelry that wasn’t from someone they knew?
McLaughlin: They absolutely did! In the second half of the 19th century, hair jewelry was so prevalent it had become a genteel hobby. Braiding patterns were printed in the ladies magazines of the day, and women would make jewelry from their own hair or use hair that they purchased from vendors. Hair jewelry was even sold in the Sears catalog; I have a few replica catalogs from the late 1800s, and they have pages of things, such as watch fob chains, that are all made of hair.
Collectors Weekly: How often do you come across things we might find disturbing now?
McLaughlin: It’s definitely hard to reconcile a lot of these things, but I have to keep reminding myself that they were products of their time. Tiger-claw jewelry was a popular souvenir for Westerners traveling in India in the late 1800s, and while it bothers me to think of Bengal tigers being hunted for sport, the jewelry itself serves as an example of the really beautiful work done by the Indian goldsmiths of the time. Hummingbird jewelry is pretty horrifying, too.
The Victorians were obsessed with natural history, so I get where they were coming from, but creating earrings and pins from the heads of hummingbirds is too much for me. They weren’t only used in jewelry, either: Feathers and entire taxidermied birds of all sorts were used extensively as hat decorations during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Millions of birds were slaughtered in North and South America and elsewhere to meet the demand. I saw an image on Twitter recently of an American hat from 1890 that’s in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s a bonnet, and it has three green budgies just sort of stuck to it. The Met has a ton of other hats that also include birds, but in those, the birds are at least a little more artfully arranged so you can see the aesthetic thought behind them. But the budgie bonnet is just awful.
Some good did come of all this, though. Not all society women approved of the fashion, and in the late 1800s, many of them helped establish bird-protection organizations throughout the U.S. and Europe. It was their work that led to laws banning the feather trade, and those organizations were actually the forerunners of our Audubon Societies.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell me about the emergence of “art” jewelry?
McLaughlin: “Art” jewelry is an umbrella term for a variety of styles—Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, etc. The first to emerge was Arts & Crafts, which was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. It grew out of a late 19th century England that was rapidly becoming mechanized, and artists and critics like John Ruskin and William Morris felt that the hand and eye of the designer were being lost in a sea of cookie-cutter machine-made mediocrity. They called for a return to thoughtful, handmade design, and they set about doing it by creating artist guilds and reviving old techniques. Their work drew from earlier Renaissance and Gothic styles, incorporating organic motifs with lots of stylized florals, and they also deliberately used less-expensive materials—silver, garnet, moonstone, etc.—so that the finished product would be more affordable.
Art Nouveau emerged in the 1880s, and it took the curvy, natural motifs of Arts & Crafts and exaggerated them, while also incorporating symbolism and depictions of the female form. René Lalique, probably the best-known Art Nouveau designer, actually spent a couple of years studying art in England, where he was exposed to the Arts & Crafts aesthetic. He then went back to France and developed his own take on the style, with sinuous lines and incredible enameling. At the same time, related movements were emerging in other countries—the Jugendstil or “youth style” in Germany, the Wiener Secessionist movement in Austria, and Skonvirke (“beautiful work”) in Denmark. They all share some of the characteristics of Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau, but they each created their own feel or identity.
Times change, though, and after the First World War, all those curves began to look stale. Industrialism was no longer a bad word, and the sleek, geometric lines of Art Deco (which got its name from the 1925 Paris World’s Fair, also known as “Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes”) took over as designers began to streamline and simplify their designs. Cubism had appeared as a new art movement of the time, and jewelry designers were doing the same thing Picasso and Braque were attempting with their paintings, removing all extraneous detail so that the simple, clean form beneath could shine. Platinum was used extensively, and designs were often influenced by international sources—excavations in Egypt, traditional Indian jewelry styles, African tribal art, etc. Diamonds were extremely popular, too, and a lot of new cuts were developed at this time. Van Cleef & Arpels also introduced their mystery setting, which allows gemstones to be set tightly together without visible prongs. I love gemstones, so I’m constantly falling for Deco pieces that I could never afford in a million years.
Collectors Weekly: Who is your favorite jeweler of all time?
McLaughlin: It’s difficult to choose just one because there have been, and are, so many incredible jewelers whose work sets them apart. Plus, I tend to get swept up in the story and work of whomever I’m researching at the moment. I do always come back to Carlo Giuliano, though. Giuliano was an Italian goldsmith who moved to London in the 1860s. He initially created jewelry for various retailers in the city, but eventually he opened his own successful shop, specializing in Renaissance Revival and archaeological-style jewelry. He was best known for creating intricate pieces that paired gemstones with enameling in the “Holbeinesque” style (named after the Renaissance artist Hans Holbein), which surrounded a central gemstone with an extremely delicate, enameled border of stylized floral motifs. It’s a look that is opulent and regal and just really, really pretty. I can look at it for hours. Carlo died in 1895, but his two sons, Carlo Joseph and Arthur, continued the business until the start of the First World War. Their work is very similar to their father’s.
Collectors Weekly: Who are other important jewelers to look for?
McLaughlin: I like to get Paulding Farnham’s name out whenever I can, because he was an incredible talent and I think he got a raw deal. Farnham designed jewelry for Tiffany & Co. for 23 years. He officially started his career there in 1885 after an apprenticeship, and just four years later, his mind-blowing collection of jeweled orchids won Tiffany the gold medal for jewelry at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair “Exposition Universelle.”
Aside from its technical and aesthetic brilliance, Farnham’s work is important because it was so particularly American. He collaborated with the great George Frederick Kunz, Tiffany’s gemologist, to use American gemstones that had rarely or never before been seen in jewelry—Mississippi River pearls, Yogo sapphires from Montana, Arizona turquoise, and peridot, etc.—and he was also deeply influenced by Native American design.
Farnham’s jewelry went on to win loads of awards at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago as well as another grand prize for jewelry at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, and in the process he cemented Tiffany’s reputation as an American jewelry powerhouse.
Things started to go wrong for Farnham in 1902, when Charles Lewis Tiffany, the founder and president of Tiffany & Co., died. His son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, took over the company, and while the two initially worked together, Louis eventually assumed full artistic control. Farnham barely contributed any jewelry at all to the various Expositions that were held in the following years, and he even had to endure his own work being redesigned by Louis. He finally left the company in 1908, moved out west (where he lost most of his money on various mining interests), and never designed jewelry again. If you can find a used copy, there’s a beautiful book about him, Paulding Farnham: Tiffany’s Lost Genius, by John Loring, Tiffany’s former design director.
Collectors Weekly: Can you afford any of this stuff?
McLaughlin: Ha! A publishing salary does not facilitate a jewelry collection. I can only laugh when I see some of the estimates. But thankfully my taste doesn’t run to the crazy expensive. I love Georgian and Victorian jewelry, and I do have a small collection—primarily rings, because I like to admire them while I work! I love mourning rings in particular, because I feel as if I’m continuing someone else’s original purpose by caring for them and keeping them safe. I want to be a good steward for my part of a jewel’s life.
I think the most valuable item I own is a late 18th-century French signet ring, and it taught me a great lesson. It was the first piece of antique jewelry I ever bought, and I found it at one of the first trade shows I ever attended. It was one of those situations where the piece didn’t look like much in the case, but when I put it on, it was made for me. So I immediately went and blew my entire budget—I’d been saving up for ages!—on that one ring. Granted, it wasn’t a huge budget because I was in my 20s, but I was still a wreck afterwards, worrying that maybe I shouldn’t have spent it all on one thing. I’m so glad I did, though. I still love the ring, and it taught me that it’s much better to save up for one good piece rather than fritter money away on a bunch of cheaper, lesser-quality items.
Collectors Weekly: Do you ever get to try these things on?
McLaughlin: I have tried on some amazing things, usually at trade shows or auction exhibition days. It’s kind of wasted on me, though, because I get insanely nervous when I’m handling anything that’s super valuable. I love to see the backs of jewelry and especially how the pieces are put together, but I’m always terrified I’m going to break everything in sight. A dealer once let me wear a ridiculously beautiful diamond necklace that had belonged to American socialite Consuelo Vanderbilt, and my brain screamed “Get it off me!” the entire time. I’m also haunted after witnessing a dealer drop a gorgeous jet necklace onto the countertop at a trade show. Pieces of jet shot all over the booth. It was horrible.
More mind-blowing estate jewelry
This circa-1900 brooch contains an "Essex" or reverse crystal. A fox intaglio was carved into the back of the crystal cabochon and then painted. (The Hairpin, via alvr.com)
(To learn more about antique and vintage jewelry up for auction, follow Monica McLaughlin’s Estate Jewelry column at The Hairpin.)