The Victorian period in jewelry is considered to include jewelry designed and created between 1837 and 1901. This long period is named for Queen Victoria, who ruled the United Kingdom and British Empire from 1837 to 1901. It’s often broken up into three shorter periods: Early Victorian, Mid Victorian, and Late Victorian.
Early Victorian (1837-1861)
Also known as the Romantic period, the Early Victorian period spanned the time of Victoria’s marriage. Many jewelry designs from these years depict or symbolize nature, love, friendship, happiness, or family. Common motifs include plants, animals, moons, stars, hearts, and monograms. Decorative frills – fringes, ribbons, tassels, and scrollwork – were also popular.
Among the favorite forms for women in this period were brooches, hair ornaments, necklaces, and bracelets – especially bangles. Another was the chatelaine (SHA-ta-lane). This is an ornamental clasp, worn at the waist, with small items or decorative elements suspended by short chains.
The materials for Early Victorian jewelry were mainly silver, gold, diamonds, and traditional colored gemstones. These included emerald, ruby, and sapphire, as well as amber, amethyst, chalcedony, coral, red garnet, pearl, and smoky quartz. Glass and enamel were also used in fine jewelry during this period.
Mid Victorian (1861-1880)
This is often called the Grand period because Britain’s political and economic power reached great heights. Victoria’s husband died in 1861, however, and the queen stayed in mourning until her own death 40 years later. This personal observance by a leading tastemaker influenced the jewelry that was worn by Victoria’s British subjects, and by many Americans as well.
Many pieces from this period are classified as mourning jewelry. As the name implies, they were originally made, purchased, and worn to commemorate the death of a loved one. And as you might expect, they have a somber, heavy look.
Wreaths, flowers, and angels were favorite motifs for mourning jewelry. Large lockets were popular. So were brooches, bracelets, and necklaces.
Mourning jewelry typically features dark-colored gemstones like black onyx, deep-red garnet, and jet (a hard, dense form of coal). Amethyst was used too because its color was thought to symbolize grief and emotional or spiritual loss.
One distinctive material from the period is human hair. This often came from the person the piece was made to commemorate. The hair was woven into intricate miniature patterns, given a protective covering of glass or a transparent gem material like colorless quartz, and then put in a pendant, brooch, or ring setting.
Late Victorian (1880-1900)
In the later years of Victoria’s reign, her son and his wife – Prince Edward and Princess Alexandra – became fashion trendsetters. During this time, also known as the Aesthetic period, jewelry became simpler but more sophisticated.
Nature and romance returned as primary design themes. Lockets and brooches remained popular, but they became smaller. Long hatpins with ornate finials were women’s wardrobe essentials.
In the Late Victorian period, silver and colored gemstones were “in” for daytime, while gold, platinum, diamonds, and pearls were required for formal evening wear (at least, among the upper classes).
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