Deriving from the Old French verb for “to adorn,” a parure once referred to an entire wardrobe or suite of jewelry, often designed to be worn all at once. The concept has its origins in the flamboyance of Baroque and Rococo-era France, when aristocrats—men and women alike—adorned themselves with elaborate ornamentation, sky-high wigs, and makeup.
By the mid-17th century, jewelry stopped being individual works of art intended to convey personal meaning and became surface decoration, designed to convey one’s status and wealth. Women’s fashion featured plunging necklines and upward-pushed bosoms, creating décolletage begging to be decorated with sparkling jewels. Even though the French Revolution was reaction to the decadence of the royals, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte loved to gift his wife Josephine with magnificent parures.
These wardrobes could consist of a necklace, comb, tiara, diadem, bandeau, pair of bracelets, pins, rings, chandelier or cluster stud earrings, brooch, aigrette (headdress adornment), and belt clasp. Originally the only uniting theme in a parure was the use of one or two kinds of stone. By the 19th century, however, the exact motifs were replicated in every piece of the parure. In 1878’s “The Art of Beauty,” Mary Eliza Haweis express disdain for this trend, which she blamed on industrialization.
Relatively affordable and pretty paste glass emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries as a substitute for rare gems, permitting the first costume jewelry, which was more accessible to the middle class than the real thing. During the Victorian era, it was customary for a groom to present his bride with a “corbeille de mariage,” or a casket containing at least part of the parure that her social life would require. This might contain a jeweled necklace, bandeau, tiara, cestus or girdle, armlets, bracelets, brooches, and shoe knots.
The proper Victorian lady would also have a more modest set of jewelry for daywear, usually made of plain gold. Often these types of parure would only consist of matching brooches, earrings, and a pair of bracelets—considered the respectable amount of jewelry to wear during the day. The daytime set could also include practical items like fine gold chains meant to hold eyeglasses, fans, and a châtelaine, which was worn suspended from the waistband of a dress and was designed to hold various useful objects like a watch, notebook and pencil, scissors, or a small perfume container known as a vinaigrette.
An antique parure still in its case is twice as valuable as a parure without one—the cases are often as opulent and elaborate as the jewelry they contained. It’s extremely rare to find a parure from the 18th century in good condition, while 19th-century sets are slightly more common. As costume jewelry grew in popularity in the 20th century, so did small parures and demi-parures, which is why these vintage sets are much easier to acquire.