The Victorian Era spanned Queen Victoria's rule of England from 1837 until 1901. During this time, a middle class began to emerge, sparking a demand for jewelry in the mass market. The era is usually divided into several subsections: the Romantic Period from 1837 to 1861, the Grand Period from 1861 to 1880, and the Aesthetic Period from 1880 to 1901.
Jewelry of the Romantic Period (when the queen’s husband, Price Albert, was still alive) seemed to mirror the affection between the country’s rulers. Enameled serpents and snakes—with diamonds or garnets for their eyes, yellow gold for their bodies, and small turquoise cabochons to imitate the scales on their heads—were fashioned into necklaces, brooches, pendants, and bracelets. Indeed, Albert’s ring to Victoria was a snake with its tail in its mouth, which was considered a symbol of love eternal.
Others chose engagement rings of diamonds or amethysts set in platinum or gold. Sometimes diamonds were paired with pearls, rubies, emeralds, or sapphires. In so-called acrostic rings, multiple stones were used so that the first letter in the name of each stone spelled out the word "dearest," (i.e., diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire, and topaz). Other rings from the period harbored secret, hinged compartments behind the stones.
Some of the most interesting antique and vintage rings from this period are those with the word "Mizpah" on them. They were worn by couples and lovers separated by circumstances or travel. Usually these rings were simple bands of silver or gold, with "Mizpah" standing boldly in relief on the outside of the ring.
Flower motifs were also popular in Romantic Period jewelry. Leaves were rendered realistically in gold, while flower buds were studded with jewels. Many flower heads shivered with the movements of their wearers, thanks to a technique called en tremblant. Hands were another recurring motif, symbolizing either friendship or whatever the hands were holding.
Bracelets and bangles were very big—literally. Bracelets were composed of hand-worked gold links as well as gold chains punctuated by lozenges with enameled floral decorations at their centers. Large bangles with hinged clasps were often made out of rolled gold to produce scroll-like reliefs, some of which were accented with figures or animals in silver and other materials.
Of course, brooches and pins were another Romantic Period favorite. Sometimes trios of aquamarines set in gold provided a base for a swinging aquamarine pendant below. Other silver pins were shaped like birds, which were often covered with seed pearls and turquoise...
Cameo and intaglio (the reverse of a cameo) were used on both brooches and rings. Usually carved out of shell but also fashioned from coral or stone, cameos and intaglios were sometimes surrounded by small diamonds. Just as frequently, though, they stood alone, either framed in gold or set into a mount, whose visible prongs would hold the piece at the top, bottom, and sides.
Hairwork pieces are one of the most unusual products of this early part of the Victorian Era. They consisted of tightly woven strands of human hair, which were used instead of, say, a gold chain in a necklace or bracelet. There were even hairwork earrings, with gold findings that actually attached to the woven strands of hair.
The Grand Period of the Victorian Era began in 1861 with the death of Prince Albert, which caused Queen Victoria to wear mourning attire for decades to come.
Black jewelry thus became quite fashionable. The best pieces were made out of jet, a fossilized coal found near Whitby, England. In the 19th century, tourists would go to Whitby to watch the jet artisans and perhaps take home a souvenir brooch of the town’s signature abbey. Alternatives to jet include a black glass called French jet and vulcanite, which is a hardened rubber. Bog oak, which is more of a brown color but still dark, was also used to achieve the same somber effect, as was black onyx and black enamel.
Another key trend that impacted jewelry was Revivalism, a hugely popular movement during the Grand Period. Cameos, which had been around for a while, were suddenly Romanesque. Ancient mosaic techniques were employed to create pins in the shapes of peacocks, belt buckles and clasps sported tight geometric patterns, and earrings were produced with mini-mosaics that formed tiny doves. Etruscan forms such as a two-sided pendant called the bulla were also given the mosaic treatment.
In necklaces, Revivalism meant gold leaves alternating with bunches of purple glass grapes, the sort of thing a lascivious Bacchus might bestow upon a young maiden as a gift. Trends from the Renaissance were also copied to create necklaces using enamel, colored gemstones, and pearls—fleur-de-lis links were quite common. Going even further back in time, the Victorians also appropriated Egyptian motifs for earrings and brooches bearing scarabs, lotus blossoms, falcons, and the heads of Pharaohs.
The materials used to create all of these pieces of Victorian jewelry were also changing. Tiffany, the largest jeweler in the United States, used blue sapphires from Montana and tourmalines from Maine. Diamonds were discovered in South Africa in 1867; opals were discovered in Australia in around 1840 but were not mined until 1871. Tortoiseshell was also employed to create piqué, which is tortoiseshell that has been inlaid with gold or silver.
Precious gemstone jewelry continued to be much sought-after. Diamonds and turquoise were sometimes combined with pearls in necklaces. In other pieces, diamonds either stood alone or were used as the sparkling backdrop for colored stones such as garnets, emeralds, sapphires, and topaz.
It was gold, however, that really dominated the Victorian era. In 1840, the Industrial Revolution added stamping and electroplating techniques to the jeweler’s bag of tricks, which allowed gold to be used more economically, thus reducing prices to customers. Then there was the string of 19th-century gold discoveries—from California (1848) to Australia (1851) to South Africa (1886) to Alaska (1898).
In particular, rolled gold (called "filled gold" in the United States) was widely used—until the middle of the century, platinum had been the metal of choice. This new form of gold had copper or brass on the inside: the phrase "filled gold" suggests the opposite, but the confusing terminology has persisted to this day. The good news was that gold jewelry was now cheaper than ever. The bad news is that the pieces were rarely marked, so contemporary collectors don’t always know what they are getting.
Stamping techniques allowed jewelers to create gold pieces that are sometimes called hollow work. They resemble hand-worked répoussé pieces, such as the puffy hearts on Victorian charm bracelets. The surfaces of hollow work gold were often engraved and then filled with black enamel for an effect called taille d’épargné, or black-enamel tracery. Niello, a similar technique, used a mixture of silver, lead, copper, and sulfur to fill voids caused by engraving instead of enamel.
During the final phase of the Victorian Era, the Aesthetic Period, jewelry got simpler in design and smaller in scale. Japanese influences were on the rise, paving the way for the Arts and Crafts movement. Imitation tortoiseshell and fake ivory made out of a plastic called celluloid were beginning to be used to produce hair combs, brooches, and hatpins. And because ear piercing was considered a barbaric practice, screw-back findings for earrings were invented in 1894.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign, the monarch-loving public snapped up pieces of silver Jubilee jewelry. These inexpensive brooches and other objects were typically decorated with a capital V and the dates 1837 and 1897. Costlier Jubilee pieces added gold or precious gems.
The Edwardian era, which years later would be sentimentalized as the Belle Epoque, ran from 1890 to 1920, even though Edward himself was only on the throne from 1901 until 1910. The reason for the overlap is that many trends that are associated with the Edwardian era actually began in Victorian times. For example, Princess Alexandra popularized the wearing of so-called dog collar chokers made of diamonds or pearls many years before she became Edward’s Queen.
In general, Edwardian jewelry hewed to 18th-century traditions, even though Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau were in the air. Instead of a focus on the craftsmanship of a setting or piece, as was the practice in the Arts and Crafts era, the Edwardian sensibility was more interested in the setting’s stones. This renewed emphasis on diamonds in particular coincided with improvements in diamond-cutting technologies.
Filigree rings, including engagement rings, of white gold, set with a single diamond, were not uncommon. The Edwardians also liked engraved signet rings, in 10 or 14 karat gold, as well as birthstone rings. Finally, Edwardian jewelry eschewed the colorful treatments of the heavily enameled or mosaic-decorated Victorian pieces for a palette that bordered on the monochromatic.
Which is not to say it was dull. Edwardian jewelry was actually inspired by Rococo, with its profusion of bows, tassels, and wreaths, creating what became known as the garland style. Cartier was a leading proponent of this look, as was Fabergé, which made a name for itself with pieces that combined hand-enameled decorations with machine-made, geometric guilloché backgrounds. As for the festoon-style necklaces, with their little lengths of chain linking tourmaline, pearl, or ruby pendants, they can almost be seen as precursors to the some of the revealing looks worn during the 1920s, which were anything but dull.