Queen Victoria’s reign was one of the most significant in history. Britain was at the forefront of industrial development, and with the strong female monarch at its helm it was also the most peaceful and prosperous it had ever been. The art and jewellery of the beginning of the era featured strong religious symbolism, as well as lots of references to nature. Hearts, birds, trees, flowers, crosses, hands and knots all featured heavily, suggesting a romanticism that was a striking contrast to Victoria’s dour and serious demeanor during her older years.
When she took to the throne at the start of the 19th century, there was a huge gulf between rich and poor. The vast majority of the population did manual work on farms, while the wealthy sat back and reaped the benefits. The Industrial Revolution saw the birth of the Middle Classes, bridging the gap between the “haves and the have nots” and putting money in the hands of people from less privileged backgrounds. While jewellery had previously been considered something that only the very wealthy could afford, the masses were now suddenly able to enjoy beautiful pieces too.
Victoria should be considered the social media icon of the 19th Century. Early women’s fashion magazines across Europe and North America all took their fashion cues from QV, and fashionable women couldn’t wait to see what she was wearing - particularly her jewellery. The Victorian fashion styles are typically defined in three distinct periods:
The Romantic Period
Victoria and Albert fell in love during the Romantic Era. This was when some of the world’s most beautiful symphonies were being composed, the likes of Turner and Goya were creating masterpieces and everyone from Blake to Wordsworth was writing heartfelt poetry. When Victoria and Albert married in 1840 it was at the height of Romanticism, and their love story started a jewellery trend that’s still enjoyed to this day. Albert gifted his Queen with a snake ring that symbolised eternal love, handmade himself and featuring her birthstone, emerald. Serpents and snakes became hugely popular, with their tails wrapping around their bodies and curving into their mouths. Bracelets, rings, necklaces and earrings, often crafted from yellow gold and embellished with precious stones, became the must-have token of undying love. Flowers were also extremely popular, particularly in earrings and brooches.
Victorian society had very strict rules about dating, and women were never allowed to go out meet a gentleman on their own unless accompanied by a “chaperone”. Forced to find inventive ways to communicate with each other in secret, they hid secret messages in jewellery. Acrostic jewellery used the first letter of each gemstone to spell a word - if you had a ring with lapis lazuli, opal, vermeil (garnet), and emerald, in that order, the message would be “love”.
The Grand Period
Everything was going well for Victoria and Albert until his sudden death from typhoid at just 42. Stricken by grief, Victoria entered a period of mourning that lasted until her own death forty years later, in 1901. She wore only black as a symbol of her sadness, and insisted that all other mourning women did the same.
Reflecting her black mood, fashion and jewellery became darker and more severe. Fashionable women wore pieces made from jet - a stone made from polished fossilised coal found near Whitby in North Yorkshire, England. Famously this was the setting for much of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Whitby is still considered to be a mecca for fans of gothic art and literature today.
For those who were unable to afford the real thing, other black materials were popular, including vulcanite and a type of black glass known as French Jet. Black enamel and onyx were also highly fashionable.
More is More is More
Lives were changing for mid Victorian women. They were competing with men for jobs, and suddenly they had their own money - with a law in 1870 that allowed them to keep it! This drove the sale of jewellery and fashion.
Although death and war perpetuated the Victorian desire for mourning jewellery, new developments and ideas influenced Grand Period jewellery, too. More is more is more - jewellery was large, heavy, stacked and stronger colours - reflecting the grander women attire of the time, and massive pieces reflected their wealth and new found independence.
The Grand Tour
Archaeological excavations, grand tours (holiday tours across Europe by train were now accessible to the rich) and grand exhibitions drew fascination in ancient civilisations and created various revival styles, such as Egyptian, Renaissance, Greek and Etruscan.
The metal of the day was gold, after the gold rushes in California and South Africa made it more accessible to jewellery makers. New crafting techniques developed during the Industrial Revolution also made it much easier and quicker - and therefore cheaper - to make items forged from pure gold. And a new diamond mine in South Africa created a boom in the diamond trade.
1880 - 1901
The Aesthetic Period
The Aesthetic Period: 1880 - 1901
After years of misery and no colour, people began to tire of Victoria’s Mourning Period. The late 19th Century also saw the rise of the Aestethic Movement, when artists and intellectuals began to question old fashioned Victorian values in search of fun and beauty. While Victorians had previously believed that art should fulfill important ethical, religious or political roles, the pioneers of the Aesthetic Movement were all about decadence, and “art for art’s sake”. Designers like William Morris and writers including Oscar Wilde were all set on rising up against what they saw as the dehumanisation of the Industrial Age, while women in art had flowing locks, red lips and plentiful bosoms. Japanese designs began to flood the market to reflect the British fascination with the far east.
The Jewellery of this period was smaller, lighter and more feminine, with a focus on craftsmanship. Since women had joined the workforce and were leading more active lives, jewellery became more comfortable and purposeful, and was more likely to be worn during the evening than in the daytime. To keep hands free, long chains held coin purses, watches and spectacles, and whistle bracelets enabled ladies to enjoy long bike rides and whistle for help from 2 miles away!
It’s no great surprise that the Victorian era is one of such change and contrast - she did, after all, reign for 64 years. But what is the most striking is how much love affected her. From the delicate, romantic pieces from her early courtship and marriage, to the dark, gothic style of her mourning period, Victorian jewellery is defined by love - and its loss.