What comes to mind when you see a ring that has the design of a snake eating its own tail? Maybe it makes you think of something bad, something dark, like snakes are often seen nowadays. But nothing is further from the truth: it is actually a symbol of eternal love, which became an extremely popular design after Prince Albert gave Queen Victoria an engagement ring like this. This is not the only example of jewellery design that was inspired by Queen Victoria: when her husband died, the overall jewellery style was dark and heavy. All in all, the Victorian jewellery era, ranging from 1837 to 1901, was an era of rapid societal change and a Queen with a major influence. Want to learn more about this era and its jewellery styles? Read our blog below!
The Victorian era
Just like the Georgian era, the Victorian era got its name from the monarch that reigned at the time. The Victorian era began in 1837, when the British Queen Victoria took the throne, and ended in 1901, when she passed away. Queen Victoria was a great lover of jewellery herself, and thus became a true trendsetter in the field. The Victorian era was an era of rapid development in society and industry. When the era began, people drove themselves around in carriages and lit up their rooms with candles, but near the end of the era, there were cars and electricity. Given the relatively long duration of this era, it is not surprising that jewellery from the era is very diverse. Because of this, the era is often divided into three subperiods, namely the romantic period, the grand period, and the aesthetic period. These three periods all had their own characteristic jewellery styles and jewellery making techniques, which we will explain below.
The romantic period (1837 – 1861)
The early Victorian period, often called the romantic period, lived up to its name. The key figures in this period were the young Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. They married in 1840 and their love for each other formed a true inspiration for the jewellery of the era. Love and nature were popular themes, and thus sentimental pieces of jewellery with motifs like hands, hearts, and leaves were very popular. The engagement ring of the Queen herself was a major inspiration for jewellery designs. The ring had the form of a snake eating its own tail, which is a symbol of eternal love. In the years following the engagement, snake motifs began popping up in all kinds of jewellery and the design is still very popular today.
Since the industrial revolution was in full swing, not all pieces of jewellery had to be made by hand and more pieces could be created in bulk. Moreover, the industrial revolution provided more jobs, which left the lower middle class with money to spend on jewellery. Despite the industrialization, certain techniques for creating jewellery that were used in the Georgian era, were still popular in the early Victorian era. Cannetille and Répousse for example, were popular techniques and perfectly suitable to create intricate and romantic designs. Coral was a very popular material during the romantic period. It was especially popular for creating cameo jewellery. Cameos are hard stones that are carved in relief to show a certain design. During the romantic period, they were often made from corals and were used in pendants, brooches, and sometimes even bracelets. Like we explained before, romantic jewellery was often loaded with symbolism and sentimentalism. Acrostic jewellery, which was very popular at the time, is an excellent example of this. Acrostic jewellery is jewellery with a ‘hidden message’, which is expressed through the gemstones that are used. To spell, for example, the word ‘dearest’, a jeweler would use diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, and turquoise in a row.
The grand period (1861-1880)
Unlike the romantic period, the overall mood during the grand period was gloomy and sombre. The start of this period was marked by the death of Prince Albert, after which Queen Victoria mourned for decades. In the same year Prince Albert died, the American Civil war started, which also left its mark on the overall mood. Just like the Queen’s love for Prince Albert formed a huge inspiration for the creation of jewellery, her mourning also had an influence on jewellery styles. Compared to the romantic and elegant pieces that were made during the romantic period, grand period pieces were often heavy and massive, with dark colours. A very popular material for mourning jewellery was jet, which is fossilized wood and has a black colour. Other dark materials, like black onyx, were also very popular at the time. Logically, memorial jewellery was a very popular type of jewellery in the grand period. Lockets are a good example of this, as they could contain a portrait or even locks of hair from a loved one.
Archeological excavations of ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian sites, which already started in the romantic period, also were an important inspiration for jewellery design. Grand period jewellery designs were often inspired by designs from these ancient times and also were a major inspiration for the creation of cameos, which were still very popular during the grand period. Earrings were essential pieces of jewellery during the grand period, and occurred in all shapes and sizes. Likewise, bracelets were a part of many women’s jewellery collection. Popular bracelet designs included buckle bracelets, wide bangles, and mesh bracelets.
The aesthetic period (1880 – 1901)
The Victorian era was concluded by the Aesthetic period, also called the late Victorian period. In this period, the industry was thriving, and women started working as well. A result of this growth of wealth was that women even had time for leisure and sports. The big and heavy jewellery of the grand period did not fit this new, active lifestyle, and thus aesthetic pieces were more delicate and lighter. During this period, jewellery was more often mass-produced, and thus cheaper, which made it more widely available to lower social classes as well. During this period, the focus of jewellery designers was more on the ‘art’ and aesthetic value of the pieces than on symbolism or intrinsic value of the pieces. Jewellery from this period varied greatly in style and popular motifs ranged from history-inspired motifs to animal heads, stars, and leaves.
Unlike the various earring styles that were worn during the grand period, small stud earrings were by far the most popular type of earring during the aesthetic period. Short necklaces that fitted tightly around the neck, also called dog collar necklaces or chokers, were a popular piece of jewellery at the time. Interesting to know is that these necklaces became trendy because Queen Victoria’s daughter in law used to wear them to conceal a scar. In the field of brooches, quantity was important, and women often wore multiple little brooches or pins scattered around their necklines.
Have you become curious about Victorian era jewellery after reading this blog? Take a look at the Victorian section of our web shop to see if there’s a piece that can steal your heart 😉.
“Enjoy your search for the perfect Victorian piece and don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions!” -xxx- Sophie