Jewellery has been worn for thousands of years by all cultures across all continents, it would seem we have always felt the need to adorn ourselves. The reasons for this are not just aesthetic of course, jewellery is so much more than a means of decoration. It has been worn to guard against evil or bring good fortune, used to denote status and wealth, show religious devotion and as a symbol of celebration, of love and of remembrance. Here we offer a brief overview of the main periods of antique jewellery starting at the very beginning and working our way through to the stylish Art Deco jewels of the 1920’s and 30’s.
Our desire to ornament ourselves with items we find attractive can be traced back to prehistoric times. Shells, small stones, animal bones and teeth were fashioned into beads and worn around the neck or wrist, strung together on strips of dried animal skin, hair or other fibrous material. In European culture there is evidence of the use of precious metals in jewellery and the development of the techniques needed to work them dating back to about 3,000 years BC. The first gemstones to be used were stones such as lapis lazuli and carnelian which were valued for their bright, bold colours and used both as beads and for inlay.
Most of the jewellery evidence we have from this early period comes from burial sites which suggests that these pieces were not only highly valued but also imbued with superstitious beliefs relating to the afterlife. Whilst not the earliest, perhaps the most significant and technically advanced collection of ancient gold jewellery was found in the remains of the ancient city of Ur; it contained items such as head-dresses, hair pins, necklaces, chokers, earrings, chains and pendants. Ancient civilisations in Turkey, Greece and Crete were experimenting with a variety of goldsmithing techniques and some of the first examples of granulation, filigree and repoussé come from this region.
Closer to home, Celtic craftsmen were using enamel and coloured stone inlays to decorate their smaller functional pieces such as pins and brooches whilst their torc style neckpieces and armlets which could be made of iron, bronze or gold had distinctive circular shapes and decorative terminals. Necklaces of glass beads and amber were also worn but rings were rare in northern Europe until the Romans bought their jewellery fashions with them when they arrived in England in the first century AD. Their jewellery, whilst plentiful, tended towards simple, substantial designs with finger rings and earrings particularly popular using gems such as emeralds and sapphires. This is also the period where we find the earliest examples of diamond rings, the natural octahedral shaped crystals were set straight into the gold band as the techniques needed for cutting and polishing diamonds were many hundreds of years away.
The Vikings and Anglo Saxons used large quantities of silver for jewellery and many of their pieces were highly ornate with decorative surfaces, piercing, inlay work and animal ornamentation all key features. The use of garnets both as cabochons and inlay became prevalent in the 7th century and by the 10th Century the Vikings were able to draw wires from gold which allowed for plaited and braided styles of necklace and bracelets.
Jewellery from the medieval period was often practical as well as decorative. One of the most common pieces we see is the ring brooch, so called because it was formed of a circular ring of metal with a straight pin set horizontally across the middle and hinged at one side. Made from gold or silver it might be decorated with stones, enamel or simply engraved with patterns or text and it was used to do up clothing. Several examples have been found with inscriptions suggesting that in keeping garments securely fastened, the brooches would help the wearer to ward of unwanted amorous advances. Conversely, this style of brooch was also used as a love token and could have been seen to symbolise the unfastening of clothing and all that that implies! Over time this circular shape was joined by others including hearts and lozenges. Jewellery at this time was influenced by tales of courtly romance both in the phrases engraved into the pieces as well as the tradition that developed of giving jewellery as a gift to a loved one.
Rings were another popular item and examples exist of various different types including fede (clasped hand) rings which had been made popular by the Romans along with plaited and engraved bands. Gemstone rings would usually be set with a single stone, typically a sapphire, garnet or quartz which would have been polished smooth and mounted into a band such as the ‘stirrup’ shape which was very popular. Gems were not only chosen for their colour and size at this time but also for their magical and healing properties. These were widely written about and people firmly believed in the qualities attributed to the different stones; sapphires for example were thought to ensure chastity, piety and goodness and guard against treachery and poison.
Rosaries were popular and worn as jewellery and depending on your means they could be made of a variety of materials including amber, silver, pearls or gold. A stunning example survives and is in the Victoria & Albert Museum, each gold bead is engraved with a saint or scene from the life of Christ, decorated with black enamel. Enamelling was prevalent and techniques were developing during this period; whilst much hasn’t survived, some exceptional examples have and illustrate both translucent and opaque styles.
By the end of the 14th Century the faceting of gems was becoming more common and alongside this we see a development in setting styles too. In order to be able to show off as much of these new cut stones as possible, some of the surrounding metal would be removed from around the edge of the gem leaving what we would now think of as a series of ‘claws’ to keep it firmly in place.
The jewellery of the Renaissance could be characterised as colourful, opulent and detailed. Pendants and rings were very popular and earrings and bracelets became increasingly so during the period. Along with the pieces that have survived, we can also learn a lot about the jewellery of this time and the way it was worn from contemporary portraiture. Wealthy women would wear layers of gold chains, ropes of pearls, multiple rings and pendent ornaments pinned to their clothes and even tied into the hair. Maritime voyages to new lands and the discovery of new sea routes opened up new sources of desirable goods and the opportunities to trade them. This led to gemstones, pearls and precious metals finding their way to Europe in ever increasing quantities. It also inspired nautical themed jewels with galleons, sea creatures and mermaids all popular motifs.
The revival in interest of the arts of Ancient Greece and Rome influenced both style and subject matter with cameos and intaglios of historical and mythological figures becoming fashionable. This instigated the regeneration of the craft of gem carving with Italy in particular producing large quantities of finely engraved gems which were traded across Europe.
Christian imagery in jewellery remained widespread with the sacred monogram IHS (from the Greek word for Jesus) popular throughout Europe along with depictions of biblical scenes and symbols such as sheep and pelicans worn to symbolise the Lamb of God and the Pelican in her piety. Alongside this were the Memento Mori jewels (the name deriving from the Latin for ‘Remember you must die’) which emphasised the Christian beliefs of Heaven and Hell and the need to live a good and virtuous life so as to ensure ones place in the former. Rings with enamelled skulls and skeletons were typical but pieces became more elaborate over time and the symbolism fed into the fashion for mourning jewellery which became increasingly widespread after the execution of Charles I in 1649.
Romantic love was celebrated with heart shapes, lover’s knots and depictions of cupid and it is during this time that the posy (poesy, posie) ring becomes increasingly popular. Earlier examples have the text engraved on the outside of the ring, often in French or maybe Latin but by the 17th Century, English had become more prevalent and the text had moved to the inside of the band where the message would lie against the skin strengthening its meaning. Typical phrases would include declarations such as ‘Til my live’s end’ and ‘In thee my choyce I do rejoyce’.
The Cheapside Hoard, discovered in London in 1912 has given us an incredible insight into late 16th and early 17th jewellery. It comprises a huge quantity of pieces and is believed to be the stock of a jeweller who buried it at some point during the 1620’s. From gold and enamel chains, through pendants and hair ornaments to rings and fan holders, there are pieces on display in both the Museum of London and the Victoria and Albert Museum, both of which are well worth a visit.
The Georgian period covers most of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th and takes its name from the four successive Kings, Georges I – IV, who ruled consecutively between 1714 and 1830. Jewellery of the period could be characterised by a sense of abundance whilst remaining elegant and balanced with a fashion for large pieces and jewels worn in quantity such as rings on most fingers, layers of long chains and multiple bracelets or bangles. The prolific use of multi coloured enamels fell out of style, partly due to an increased availability of a much wider range of gemstones. These were used to ‘colour’ jewellery without the dependence on enamels and were used effectively in all manner of jewels such as the popular giardinetti (little garden) brooches and rings that consisted of coloured gem flowers with emerald leaves in little pots or vases.
They also facilitated the fashion for acrostic jewellery where the initial of each gemstone would spell out a word, typically a name or sentiment such as ‘dearest’ or ‘regard’ which would have been made up with a ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby and diamond. Sentimental jewellery was very popular during this period and it was common for friends, family and sweethearts to exchange jewellery as gifts with engraved messages, locks of hair and classical symbolism all used to convey meaning and sentiment. The romantic ‘lover’s eye’ painted miniatures that gained widespread favour were particularly enchanting gifts, the givers identity concealed except for the window to his or her soul framed by pearls, diamonds or coloured gems. Similar motifs were also used in mourning jewellery which saw a pronounced stylistic change during the latter part of the century. The prevalence of graphic depictions of death such as skulls and skeletons which had been borrowed from the Memento Mori tradition gradually waned in favour of columns, urns, weeping willows and female figures in classical robes.
Chatelaines were the accessory du jour for ladies and could be made from cut steel, silver or gold. They hung from the waist and would conceal any number of useful household tools in miniature such as scissors, a pencil, tweezers, thimble and vinaigrette. For gentleman, jewelled buttons and shoe buckles were the height of fashion with many being made from paste set in silver. Paste (manmade glass) was widely used in the Georgian period, providing a more affordable means for many people to keep up with the trend for multi gem-set pieces. Whilst initially used to imitate genuine gems, paste quickly became a fashion in its own right with a wide range of colours available due to the brightly coloured foils which were placed behind the stones and enclosed in solid backs. Popular items of the day such as brooches, corsages and rivière necklaces were created in paste and they are now very collectible. Possibly one of the most quintessential of Georgian jewels was the suite or parure as it was known. Typically made in gold and often showcasing techniques such as repoussé and later cannetille work, they would be set with gems such as topaz, amethyst and aquamarine which were frequently foiled in the same manner as the paste jewels either to enhance their colour or just to add brightness.
Many of these pieces survive today, having escaped the fate of so much diamond jewellery from this time which it was customary to break up in order to reuse the stones and metal to create new pieces as styles changed and fashion dictated. It is for this reason that in spite of the discovery of diamonds in Brazil in the 1730’s which vastly increased the availability of these sought after stones, relatively little diamond jewellery from this period survives.
The Victorian period coincided with the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 – 1901 and is often associated with romance and grandeur, in art, literature and music as well as jewellery. As affluence spread and manufacturing capabilities grew, the jewellery industry flourished meaning more and more people were able to afford and wear jewels. Queen Victoria loved jewellery and wore a lot of it, both formal and informal, and naturally the styles of the court were copied by everyone else. She is credited with inspiring the popularity of snake jewellery, one of the motifs closely associated with the era, after being given a snake ring by Prince Albert on their engagement. Serpents had long been associated with fertility, creativity and protection and were seen as symbolic of rebirth and renewal. The ouroboros, a serpent who grasps his tail in his mouth thereby forming a continuous circle, was believed to represent eternity and by extension eternal love. Rings, bangles and necklaces were all made with coils encircling fingers, wrists and arms in both solid and flexible forms of gold with gem-set and enamel heads and tails.
There is a definite distinction between daytime and evening jewellery during this period. Suitable choices for day included coral, seed pearls, tortoiseshell and turquoise with carved shell cameos becoming increasingly popular during the second half of the 19th Century. These were worn both singly and in suites at the neck, wrist and also as brooches, and often depicted classical motifs and characters from Greek and Roman legend. Clever design would often allow day jewels, particularly earrings and necklaces to be converted for more formal wear once the sun had set with the addition of extra drops or pendants, these are often referred to as day-to-night jewellery. Other types of jewellery that could be worn in different ways included necklaces that became tiaras once positioned on frames and brooches with detachable fittings and hinged loops that would see them transform into pendants.
Naturalism was a strong theme throughout the era with flowers, birds, insects and animals frequently depicted in a number of different styles. From small bar brooches and stick pins with gem-set pheasants and dragonflies or fox heads in carefully engraved and finely painted Essex crystals through to huge diamond corsages designed as sprays of flowers set en tremblant so they moved with the wearer, Victorian jewellery is alive with flora and fauna.
With increased wealth and the rise of the middle classes came a widespread interest in travel with many people taking The Grand Tour of Europe. The buying of souvenir jewellery became a popular way of remembering the places visited and Italy in particular produced a wide variety of jewellery for the tourist market. Fringe necklaces made from native corals, cameos carved from lava, bracelets and brooches depicting cultural landmarks in micromosaic or floral arrangements in pietra dura were all popular mementos. Perhaps the most famous of this type of jewellery was made by Castellani in Rome who was producing intricate and detailed goldwork pieces in an archaeological revival style that became very fashionable in England and even America.
Towards the end of the 19th Century there was a reaction against the mass produced jewellery that had been flowing out of the Birmingham factories during the last few decades. Whilst it had greatly contributed to the widespread availability and increased affordability of jewellery, especially for the emerging middle class, there were those who started to seek a return to the idealised values of individual craftsmanship. It was out of this growing sentiment that the Arts and Crafts movement developed with a focus on unique handmade pieces valued for their original designs. Materials were regarded as of secondary importance and the jewellery was typically made in silver with enamel and low cost gems used for decoration and characterised by a somewhat homemade feel. Whilst similar values were upheld by the Art Nouveau jewellers, their style was quite different and they took the aesthetic to a much more heightened extreme.
Art Nouveau jewellery developed out of a combination of influences including a backlash against what was perceived as the overwhelming dominance of the diamond, an emerging interest in Japanese art and in particular their representations of nature, as well as contemporary social thinking and interests. Of course the style wasn’t only confined to jewellery; it was evident in all creative art forms from furniture to textiles, ceramics and art.
Characterised by fluid lines, organic forms, an appreciation of the female body and a blend of realism and fantasy, Art Nouveau jewellery focused on the value of design and execution over the innate value of its component parts. This means that diamonds are rare and usually only used in minor supporting roles leaving some of the less common gem materials such as ivory, opal, horn and moonstones to shine alongside enamel and sculpted gold to depict images largely drawn from the natural world.
Horticulture and botany were of great interest at this time and with expeditions to the Far East and North and South America bringing exotic blooms back to Europe, so it is not surprising that designers were inspired to imitate them in jewels. Whilst flowers had been a popular inspiration for traditional Victorian jewellers, they had typically been depicted in diamonds and precious gemstones. Now however the desire was to replicate them much more literally which meant that gems were chosen on the basis of their colour and transparency and enamel was much utilised as it could be made in whatever colours were necessary and applied with a variety of techniques, depending on the effect required. And it wasn’t only flowers in full bloom that were portrayed but also buds, leaves, seeds, wilting petals and bare branches representing nature’s full life cycle as well as the changing seasons.
Insects were another popular motif and alongside those with attractive colours and pretty wings such as dragonflies there were also those more ominous looking such as wasps and beetles. In a similar vein, animals such as bats, snakes and sea creatures were frequently used and were often depicted with gaping mouths revealing sharp fangs or with dangerous claws or spiked tails. One of the most original, and to many people disturbing, images of Art Nouveau jewellery was the element of fantasy created by designers who fused these creatures with female figures. The female form was a widespread motif in itself and was typically portrayed nude with long, flowing hair in a celebration of femininity which many saw as representative of the increasing emancipation of women in society at the turn of the century. However she was also realised in a variety of hybrid forms sometimes just with the addition of a pair of dainty fairy-like wings, at others with arms replaced by huge moth wings, head adorned with antennae or legs replaced with a mermaids tail or lions body. In one of the most famous pieces of the period by René Lalique, the head and armless torso of a woman, finely carved in green chrysoprase, emerges from the jaws of a gold dragonfly, her huge finely veined articulated wings spread wide in front of the insects frighteningly large clawed arms. This archetypal jewel combines many of the movements themes, not least nature, metamorphosis, sensuality and a darkness that underpinned much at the fin de siècle.
Paris was seen as the centre of Art Nouveau and many of the most famous proponents of the style such as Lalique, Fouquet and Verver were French, indeed the movement took its name from the Parisian gallery ‘Maison de l’Art Nouveau’ which opened in 1895 and was entirely dedicated to this new ‘modern’ artistic style.
The reign of King Edward VII, which defines this brief nine year period, was a time of relative peace and prosperity. In jewellery terms it sits alongside the latter half of the Art Nouveau movement but stylistically has virtually nothing in common with it. The jewellery we associate with the Edwardians is formal and traditional but compared to Victorian styles it is much lighter and more open, characterised by the rise of platinum as the jeweller’s metal of choice and a monochromatic look achieved with prolific use of diamonds and pearls. Platinum was much harder than the silver which had, until now, been the white metal used to set diamonds. It meant that settings became increasingly delicate and refined as less metal was required to hold stones securely and it could all but disappear into the background allowing the stones to take centre stage. Finely pierced, open, lacy designs that looked almost cobweb like in comparison to 19th Century jewels were now possible and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that the use of this metal in fine jewellery revolutionised its design.
Baroque, Rococo and Neo-Classical influences all combine in what is referred to as the Garland Style with its distinctive swags, curls, wreathes and drops fashioned from leaves, ribbons and floral motifs. These frequently complex and ornate designs were set throughout with a multitude of round diamonds, often within millegrained edges, and highlighted with creamy white pearls in round, bouton and drop shapes as well as softly coloured stones such as aquamarine. Improvements in cutting techniques meant that diamonds were becoming ever more symmetrical in both outline and proportions and experimentation with different shapes saw the pear and marquise begin to feature in jewellery by the end of the period.
Pearls at this time were still all natural and tiny seed pearls were particularly popular, knitted or twisted together to form long necklaces or bracelets highlighted with diamond set platinum bars. They were also used to make tassels which were very fashionable suspended from the end of long sautoirs. Other popular necklace styles were the negligee with its two parallel, uneven length drops hanging from a central, typically horizontal motif and pastel coloured guilloche enamel pendants decorated with diamonds which would sometimes feature interchangeable enamel discs in different colours which would allow a lady to always co-ordinate her jewels with her outfit!
Tiaras in various sizes were still popular for formal wear along with decorative hair combs, diamond bands and even brooches which were used to ornament and embellish the elegant hair styles of the period. Rings were worn in multiples and favoured styles included solitaires, two stone cross overs, clusters with a central diamond or coloured gem surrounded by smaller diamonds as well as larger dressier rings in dome shapes with delicate details and piercing, sometimes referred to as filigree.
The style of jewellery during this period was mirrored in France where it was referred to as Belle Époque and sometimes you’ll hear this term used in reference to Edwardian jewellery. It remained en vogue up until the outbreak of war in 1914 and when peace returned an entirely different style of jewellery would come to replace it although diamonds and platinum would retain their sparkling allure.
For many people, Art Deco jewellery is inextricably linked with the idea of the roaring 20’s. With flapper girls in short fringed dresses sporting cropped hair, drinking from champagne saucers and dancing the night away to live jazz. After the sinuous, asymmetric lines and soft colour palette of Art Nouveau jewels, Art Deco did a complete about turn and went in the opposite direction with straight lines, bold geometric shapes and abstract design. Diamonds reigned supreme both on their own and to provide contrast with coloured gems. These were used both singly, for example black onyx which created a stark yet chic effect and in bold, vibrant combinations such as red coral, lapis lazuli and jade. Inspiration came from the shapes found in modern architecture and machine parts and whilst some naturalistic motifs were still in evidence they were typically depicted in a stylised, symmetrical fashion. Jewellery was also influenced by more exotic motifs resulting from travels to countries such as India, Egypt and the Orient.
The 1922 discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun sparked a craze for all things Egyptian, re-igniting an interest that had been simmering for decades. Many of the fine jewellery houses took inspiration from both the colours and iconography associated with Ancient Egypt and pharaohs, sphinxes, lotus flowers and especially scarabs, often with outspread wings, became popular motifs. Some designers even went as far as to incorporate original artifacts such as faience amulets, beads and figurines into their jewellery and Cartier were particularly skilled at this. They were also responsible for creating the colourful ‘tutti frutti’ jewels that are synonymous with this period. Jacques Cartier returned from visits to India with large quantities of rubies, emeralds and sapphires all carved in the traditional Moghul fashion into a variety of flowers and leaves. These were then combined with diamonds and set into platinum to make bright, vivacious jewels such as bracelets and brooches.
One of the most popular jewels of the period was the double clip brooch which, like many Art Deco pieces, was convertible and could be worn in multiple ways. It was composed of two identical halves fitted together on a frame to make a single brooch and could be worn just as it was or separated and each half worn either singly or together on the lapels of a jacket for instance or the straps of a dress. Another type of dress ornament that was worn widely was the jabot pin which is characterised by having two motifs joined by a long pin which would be hidden behind the fabric when worn, leaving only the jewelled ends on show.
After the war, women found they had increased independence and the changes in fashion reflected this. The columnar silhouettes of dresses with square necklines, the jackets that could now be worn with trousers as well as skirts and the sleeveless evening dresses which scooped low both front and back all needed jewellery styles to compliment the new found sense of freedom they conveyed. Necklaces were worn long with a pendant or tassel on the end often referred to as a sautoir, rows of pearls (both real and costume thanks to Coco Chanel) would be wrapped multiple times around the neck and earrings were also long, accentuating shorter hair styles and exposed necks. Bracelets could be very fine lines of round diamonds alternately set with calibre cut coloured gems such as sapphires or rubies; geometric openwork links of diamonds and multi-coloured gems or wide straps pave set with diamonds –all styles were worn in multiples, stacked up the wrists and forearms.
The bold modern look of Art Deco jewellery, characterised by its symmetrical, linear, sleek, designs means that many pieces look as contemporary today as they did nearly a hundred years ago and they remain highly sought after and very wearable.