The Victorian era was named for Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 until her death in 1901, the longest reign of any British monarch before Elizabeth II. Queen Victoria presided over the United Kingdom during a period of great technological and social advancement, as well as incredible prosperity.
It was a time of great technological and industrial innovation, characterised by both an abundance of resources and extreme ingenuity. The inventiveness of Victorian era jewellers and the adoption of new techniques to allow faster and less labour intensive production resulted in some truly remarkable pieces of jewellery.
The Early Victorian or Romantic Period – 1839 to 1860
Queen Victoria was an extremely influential monarch, and the events of her life had a profound effect on the character, culture and fashions of the age. Wealthy individuals were particularly keen to emulate the habits of the royals, and the Romantic period was one of the most stark examples of this.
In 1840 Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, whom she loved with such intensity that the union captured the hearts of the nation. Their love, and Victoria’s willingness to express it publicly, was deeply compelling to her subjects, and it is this devotion and adoration which defined the prevalent styles of the jewellery produced during her early reign.
The Romantic period, as it came to be known, saw a rise in ornate pieces with an overwhelmingly amorous theme. Rings set with multiple gems whose first letters spelled out a message of love such as ADORE (Amethyst, Diamond, Opal, Ruby, Emerald) or DEAREST (Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire, Topaz).
Upon his engagement to Victorian, Prince Albert presented her with a gift of a serpent ring with eyes made from her birthstone, the emerald. This expression of the young royals’ love was emulated by the jewellers of the day, and many thousands of pieces of fine jewellery were created with the serpent prominently placed. Overtly sentimental and sweet motifs, such as hearts, songbirds, floral designs and elaborate bows were also common, and allow the modern collector to effectively place the piece on a timeline.
Unfortunately this nationwide celebration of love and passion was not to last.
The Grand Period (1860 to 1880)
In 1961 Prince Albert succumbed to typhoid fever and died. Devastated, Victoria’s outward appearance immediately changed. She began to wear mourning jewellery, and many of the most famous depictions of the Queen show her in sombre black clothing during this period.
Mourning jewellery had initial been popular during the Georgian period, but the death of the Prince and the grief of the Queen led to a resurgence. In contrast to the earlier pieces’ sombre memorialisation of the dead, Victorian mourning jewellery was still at heart connected with love, albeit love lost.
Many themes from earlier mourning jewellery were continued, such as the inclusion of locks of hair from the deceased, but new additions included the use of black materials to further signify grief. Onyx and Jet were commonly crafted into these pieces, and the deep, bloody red garnet was used to signify the bleeding of a broken heart.
As the nation mourned, so too did they look to the distant past as either an expression of the epic tragedy they felt, or an escape from it. Ancient Egyptian, Roman and Etruscan themes and styles experienced a revival. Despite Victoria’s loss, the British Empire was still a major force in the world, and the discovery of new sources of diamond and silver meant that jewellers were able to craft new pieces at lower cost and in greater numbers.
The Aesthetic Period (1880 to 1901)
By 1880 Victoria’s subjects had begun to surface from the gloom of the Queen’s loss. Although it could be argued that Victoria herself never recovered, the people of Britain began to move away from the pragmatic industrial focus of her early reign. A renewed appreciation of the arts sparked the Aesthetic Movement.
The Aesthetic ideology was concerned with creating “Art for art’s sake” and represented a radical departure from the styles of both the Romantic and Grand periods. Heavy, substantial pieces favoured during Victoria’s early reign gave way to lighter weight and more delicate jewellery. Mourning jewellery began to wane in popularity, whilst hopeful religious messages, such as the Hebrew word “Mizpah”, meaning “Watchtower”, which signified the bond between humankind and God, and indicated that He was watching.
Queen Victoria’s Britain was at the heart of an empire on which, it was said, the sun never set. By the end of her reign it covered one fifth of the earth’s surface, and the resources from every corner of this vast territory flowed back to its heart. An influx of precious gemstones, pulled from mines in nations as far away as Australia, gave jewellers the opportunity to alter the focus of their creations.
Where Georgian jewellery had sturdy, closed back metalwork galleries to hold moderately sized stones, Victorian jewellers surmised that their gems were of such an elevated quality and size that they could form the focal point of their works. Metalwork began to be reduced, concealed and even entirely removed where possible. The effect was that many late Victorian pieces are adorned with a small number of truly remarkable gemstones.
Prior to the Victorian era only 18ct or higher Gold was used in the creation of jewellery, but as scientific and industrial advancements fuelled a series of innovations in metallurgy lower carat gold alloys began to become prevalent.
Lower carat gold was stronger, more durable and more affordable, which had a number of effects on the jewellery of the era. Most importantly it made jewellery less prohibitively expensive. No longer would jewellery be the exclusive property of nobility, royalty and the rich. Lower cost, coupled with new processes meant that more jewellery was made and sold. As this jewellery was more numerous and tougher many more pieces survived from the Victorian era through to the present day.
Stronger gold was also able to take slimmer forms without becoming unstable, allowing jewellers to create thinner links, shanks and fasteners. It also allowed the crafting of filigree; elaborately patterned metalwork consisting of slim wires laced together into delicate patterns.
During the early Victorian period silver had a far greater value than it does today, at one point being almost equal to the value of high carat gold. Silver represented an investment for the wealthy, and it was rarely used by any but the higher echelons of society. As techniques for the working of silver improved, and a greater amount of the metal became available from the colonies, price came down and silverware became much more affordable.
This rapid change in the value and crafting processes for silver mean that silver pieces from the Victorian era represent a tangible historical record. This makes them extremely desirable to collectors, who are able to place individual silverwares in a timeline illustrating the development of the silversmith’s art.
The creation of imitation gemstones from heavy lead-infused flint glass had been popular in the time before Queen Victoria’s reign began, but as more gemstones came into Britain from the colonies the market for less expensive variants increased. Paste jewellery, so-called for the consistency of the initial mixture, could be crafted into stones which effectively mimicked the look of diamonds, and colour could be added to create facsimiles of coloured gem such as sapphire, ruby and emerald.
You can read more about Paste Jewellery here.
Developments in industrial processes and mass production techniques, particularly in the early Victorian era, fuelled a period of extreme innovation which touched all corners of society. New processes allowed jewellers to radically decrease the amount of time taken to produce a particular piece, allowing a greater number of items to be created without sacrificing their quality.
An abundance of materials also meant that the craftsmen of the age became more inventive with their designs. Where Georgian jewellers had to constantly bear in mind the potential cost of a mistake, and were therefore more inclined to play it safe, Victorian jewellers were more free to experiment and produce new pieces in forms which were not possible before.
Larger, more impressive gemstones were easier to acquire, and in greater numbers. This meant that jewellers were able to build jewellery around the stones, rather than relying on the elaborate engraved metalwork that had dominated the previous era.
Open galleries were now a viable alternative to the closed, foil-backed galleries common in Georgian pieces. The lower concentration of gold in alloys allowed stronger settings to be crafted which were lighter weight and served more as an accompaniment to the central gem.
Workmanship, Rarity and Value
Victorian jewellers were masters of their craft, and the prosperity of the era allowed them to create a great many pieces with a level of skill that has seen many survive to the present day.
There was a resurgence in interest in ages past, and aesthetic influences from ancient civilisations led to variations in style, as well as an understanding that jewellery could retain its value for many years. Victorian jewellery was built to last, and the practise of cannibalising older pieces to preserve materials began to wane in popularity. The repurposing that had altered much of the previous eras jewellery was less prevalent in the Victorian age as it was understood that the item did not need to be updated to reflect current fashion trends.
Although many Victorian pieces have been lost to the ages a greater number survived from this era than the preceding Georgian era. Although this makes Victorian jewellery less rare today the variety in styles produced some works whose artistic value was extremely high.
The Victorian era was arguably the most prosperous and influential time in the history of Great Britain, and modern buyers have a great deal of interest in Victorian pieces. Not all Victorian jewellery is of the same standard however, so collectors must take care that they invest in the right pieces.
At Laurelle Antique Jewellery we have spent years developing the necessary expertise to identify, acquire and present the finest Victorian jewellery in the United Kingdom. To view our full collection of Victorian pieces click here. You can also find our collection on fine Victorian Engagement rings here.
Click the links below to learn more about the Georgian, Edwardian and Art Deco periods.
The Georgian Period
The Edwardian Period
The Art Deco Period