Knowledge Centre > Jewellery History > Design Periods > Victorian

Victorian: 1837 – 1901

The 64-year reign of Queen Victoria saw the telegraph, the telephone, and the massacre of General Custer at the Little Big Horn. It witnessed the unification of Italy under Garibaldi and the temporary collapse of Lincoln's Union during the American Civil War. The Tsar of Russia abolishes serfdom, which doesn't prevent his ruling house and descendents from being wiped out by the Bolsheviks fifty-five years later. Germany becomes unified, leading to the mayhem of WWI in less than two generations. Edison introduces the light bulb, the Lumiere brothers usher in the Cinema, and Marconi makes the world a little smaller with his wireless cable. The secrets of the atom are observed by scientists and the secrets of the mind are penetrated by Freud. Just in time to relieve all this burgeoning pressure, Felix Hoffmann invents the aspirin.

Early Victorian 1837-1860

The Early Victorian period is also referred to as the Romantic Period, and with good reason. The new queen was young, vibrant, full of life and in love with her consort, Prince Albert. Queen Victoria adored jewellery and wore lots of it. Naturally the court and the nation mirrored their queen's taste. Gold in every form, sometimes set with enamel and gemstones, was the rage. Fashionably bold cabochons and matching suites of four or more pieces of jewellery enjoyed popularity. For evening wear gold and jewels reigned, but during the day less expensive ivory, tortoise shell, seed pearl, and coral (item ref. 10946) were the appropriate choices. Earrings were long and dangling and bracelets were either flexible or rigid, and often worn in pairs. The belt buckle-style bracelet, (item ref. 9355) in particular, was en vogue. Necklaces were worn short, with a stone in the centre that could be detached and displayed separately as either a brooch or a pendant.

The Victorians had romantic notions about the natural world, no doubt spurred on by John Ruskin's philosophical ideals of beauty and God. They were also heavily influenced by the new fashion for ‘Japonaiserie’. Because of it, they adored flora and fauna images depicted in their jewellery. Birmingham manufacturers imported Japanese craftsmen especially to produce their famous Shakudo jewellery. Whilst American designers were being heavily influenced by Japanese wood block artists Hiroshige and Hokusai using highly stylized natural motifs for jewellery.

Queen Victoria herself loved the serpent motif, seeing it as a symbol of fidelity and love, hence its sudden popularity. Jewellery designs of this period often expressed sentiment (item ref. 8223). Rings, bracelets, and lockets often contained a lock of a loved one's hair (item ref. 6525). Pictures and engraved messages personalized jewellery design.

Middle Victorian 1860-1885

This is the Grand Period. Lush, ornate, opulent and luxurious, this period typified the look that most of us today imagine when we visualize the Victorian era. The technique of granulating gems with grains of gold, once done by the ancient Etruscans (rediscovered and popularised by Castellani), became extremely popular and revived interest in the Etruscan period. Nor was this a singular phenomenon. The great archaeological discoveries of the era also spurred new and avid interest in the Ancient Greek, Roman Egyptian and Renaissance cultures ( item ref. 11283), which in turn greatly influenced the ancient and classical motifs reflected in the jewellery designs.

After the death of Prince Albert in 1861 Queen Victoria's subsequently retired into private life, she wore black for the remainder of her reign. It followed that jet and onyx became extremely fashionable, and not just for mourning. The darker nature of the Victorians, mirrored so well in the brooding romances of the Brontë Sisters, the fantasies of Lewis Carroll, and the schizophrenia of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll, emerged during this period. The rose cut blood red pyrope garnets from Bohemia fitted in with the darker side perfectly and enjoyed huge popularity in any number of incarnations. Stars and crescents were also hugely fashionable at this time (item ref. 7781).

Late Victorian 1885-1901

This is known as the Aesthetic Period. After decades of being bludgeoned by Charles Dickens about the ills and evils of society, conspicuous consumption in the form of elaborate and ornate jewellery fell out of favour. Women wore less jewellery, and smaller versions of it. Stud earrings were invented. Bar brooches with a small motif in the centre were considered tasteful (item ref. 9707).

However, the grandiose impulse didn't entirely die out (after some minor intervention by the Princess of Wales). With the discovery of a diamond mine in South Africa in 1867, diamonds had become more available and slightly less expensive, their popularity reached new heights. Diamonds were paired with colourless gems like opals (item ref. 11108), moonstones, and the ever-beloved pearl. Colourless gems in general became more popular, along with ivory carved in highly romanticised botanical motifs. Chokers were worn high on the throat, composed of several rows of pearls held together with vertical bars of diamonds or other pearls, while separate ropes of pearls hung under them.

The Industrial Revolution led to a counter revolution in jewellery which rejected the machine-made over the gifts of nature. The results were softer forms (item ref. 6335), spontaneous lines, and soft colours like lilac. yellow and pale green, which led us gently into the Art Nouveau period.

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Updated 13/04/2024 at 3:17PM

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