Young, hopeful and determined to do the right thing, Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837 when she was just 18 years old. She reigned over Great Britain for 67 years and three months; it was a time of great prosperity for England and great change as well. The Industrial Revolution was well underway creating a middle class with money to spend. Jewelry was an important part of the Victorian years and because that era was so long styles changed considerably, but certain motifs remained, especially bows, hearts, crescent moons and stars.
Since Victoria was young and single, it was expected that she would marry. The world watched as royal suitors from European monarchies courted the Queen. In 1840 she married Prince Albert, of Germany. Victoria and Albert were genuinely in love, a rarity for royalty in that era when a quest for power and alliances often dictated marriages. Their fairy-tale love story rang in an era of romantic love and family bliss that blossomed during the early years of Victoria’s reign as the royal couple grew their family to nine children. This period of Victoriana was known as the Early Years or Romantic Years.
One of the most popular motifs in Victorian jewelry was the snake. The serpent’s status as jewelry superstar started when Prince Albert gave Victoria a snake ring to mark their engagement (as Queen she had to be the one to propose). After that, sinewy snakes wrapped around fingers, wrists and necks. Brooches and hair ornaments were also favored as was wearing large matching pairs of bracelets. Necklaces were short and worn close to the throat. Amethyst rivières (a line of amethyst) were favored, pearls and coral beads were also popular. Long gold chains were in every well-dressed Victorian woman’s jewelry box and were sometimes embellished with a watch. Pendants and lockets dangled from long chains or a ribbon. In the early 1800s hairstyles covered ears, so earrings didn’t get much attention.
The Grand Years
In 1861, Prince Albert died sending Victoria into mourning for the rest of her life and also marking the start of the Middle Years, or Grand Years of her rule. Mourning had many rituals in the Victorian era and it spawned a whole category known as mourning jewelry. Mostly black, it was made from jet, onyx, black enamel, or gutta percha, a type of very dark colored hardened tree sap that could be molded into chain links, lockets and other forms.
Due to archeological digs in Italy and Egypt, Etruscan Revival jewelry and scarabs became popular motifs during this time. Astronomy was important to Victorians with major comet sightings prevalent during the 1800s and of course it inspired jewelry. Crescent moons were very fashionable and stars harmonized beautifully with moon motifs, it was not uncommon for the two to be worn together. In 1867 the discovery of diamonds in South Africa created a steady and ample supply of these sparkling gems that were often used in moon and star brooches. Hairstyles also changed revealing ears bringing earrings of all shapes and sizes back to prominence.
The Aesthetic Years
The end of the Grand Years, saw a rebellion against industrialization and machination. Art for art’s sake became more important as the Grand Years morphed into the Aesthetic Years. These years were a convergence of multiple styles in jewelry, the revival styles of the earlier years began to fade and there was a desire for handmade pieces. Some designers thought that jewelry should be intrinsically beautiful and that the value of the stones and materials were of less importance than the artistry of the finished jewel. Jewelry also became smaller in scale during the Aesthetic Years as clothing fabrics changed and heavy brocades were replaced with lighter muslins.
A favorite past time of Victorians was gardening. Victorians planted elaborate gardens and wealthier people even collected exotic plants. Dragonflies, butterflies, bees, flies and flowers rendered in precious metals and gems were popular themes in jewelry.
During the 1890s, technology to melt platinum became available. It was now possible to use this precious metal in jewelry, launching a whole new look of light, lacy diamond or diamond and pearl pieces that set the stage for a new style of jewelry that was elegantly refined. Queen Victoria died in 1901 and her son Edward, took over the throne ushering in the Edwardian era, a time of formality and elegance.
Featured image (top of page): Victorian gold and turquoise snake necklace in original box.
First: Victorian oval shaped amethyst and 14-karat gold rivière necklace with a detachable quatrefoil motif pendant/brooch in original box; Second: Victorian 18-karat gold, diamond and ruby locket, French; Third: Victorian amethyst, natural pearl and gold earrings, French; Fourth: Victorian ruby, diamond and gold butterfly brooch; French.
Authored by Amber Michelle