The Victorian Era of jewelry and design technically began with the 1837 Coronation of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India. In reality it took a few years for the young queen’s love of art and fashion to become influential, with her style truly taking hold in the early 1840’s.
Queen Victoria reigned for over sixty years, until her death in 1901. When she took the throne, motorcars were unheard of and railroad trains were considered the height of new technology. Her rule saw the Colonial period rise and fall in India, the opening of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt, the American Civil War, and the rise of the suffragette movement. All of these historical events influenced the designs of the times, but perhaps none so much as the Queen’s own mourning for the death of her beloved Consort, Prince Albert.
The Victorian Era is generally divided into three periods: the Romantic Period, The Grand Period and the Late, or Aesthetic Period.
The early years of the Victorian Era represented a movement away from the Georgian ideals, replacing rationalism with spirituality and mysticism. The jewelry of the Romantic period reflected the courtship and marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert.
Her engagement gift from Albert was a ring, which started the tradition of engagement rings. This one of a kind piece was in the shape of a snake, holding its tail in its mouth; a symbol of eternal love and wisdom. Her birthstone, an emerald, was set in the snakes head. Queen Victoria set the tone for her nation, and so engagement rings using the bride’s birthstone became wildly popular.
Clothing of the day covered women head to toe with high necklines and bonnets, hiding throats and ears. Because of this, necklaces and earrings of the times were few. Instead, brooches, rings, and bracelets were often bold to emphasize the ideal of delicate hands and features. Bright gemstones in large sizes were popular, including amethyst, bloodstone, garnet, moss agate, ruby, and topaz. Rings often included interesting natural materials like coral, ivory and tortoise shell into their design. The Georgian period tradition of halo settings transformed from circlets of diamonds, to strands of seed pearls floating in a frame around the center gem.
The natural world inspired many of the motifs of the times, with themes such as bouquets of flowers, birds, snakes and dragons. The early part of the Victorian era also saw gemstones that were attributed with magical properties and special meanings. Pink coral was said to protect the wearer from evil and disease, ruby to symbolize passion; seed pearls to depict tears. The Romantic Period was a time of fairy tales and magic.
The decade of the 1860’s was tragic for Queen Victoria. The passing of the Queen Mother in 1861 was quickly followed by death of her beloved Prince Consort, Albert. In addition, the start of the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln deepened the international mourning.
Death was a constant presence in the Victorian times, and so the traditions surrounding mourning were elaborate and quite strict. Full Mourning, which required an entirely black wardrobe and jewelry, was worn for a year. Half mourning, grey and somber tones in both jewelry and clothing, extended for the next six months. There were entire industries dedicated to mourning fashion, with wealthy women buying new wardrobes of black clothing upon the death of a loved one. Even servants dyed their clothing black, and might purchase jewelry to match, and so mourning truly became an industry.
In addition to wearing all black, mourners coveted mementos of the deceased. Mourning jewelry became popular, such as lockets to hold a photo or lock of hair. Memorial rings appeared, featuring elaborately woven hair and intricate engraving. Most often these pieces were made with jet, onyx or gemstones with deeper tones, such as garnets and amethysts.
Counterbalancing this season of mourning as fashion came the beginning of tourism for the upper classes and those of a scientific demeanor. The excavation of pyramids along the Nile created a fascination with Egyptian themes, such as scarabs, falcons, ankhs and the images of the Egyptian Gods themselves
For others, the plundering of pre-Roman Etruscan tombs in Italy was more interesting. Jewelry designers spent much time recreating Etruscan granulation techniques to replicate the jewels discovered in the archaeological digs that delved into the art of these ancient civilizations.
In the 1870s, a major opal discovery was made in the British Territory of Australia. Diamonds had been discovered in South Africa in 1867, and were becoming widely available for the upper classes. The world exploration continued with a French expedition to China, which created in new interest in jade. These international discoveries and fresh new materials widened the world of jewelry design.
The rise of the middle class, and the growing power of their purchasing dollar lead to a surge in demand for “Fine Costume” jewelry – pieces that were as carefully crafted and as immaculate looking as the jewels worn by the upper crust, but at a lower cost. Advances in technology helped meet this demand, with goldsmiths bringing gas and steam engines into their studios to create materials such as rolled gold fill and mass produced silver pieces. Pyrite, cut steel and marcasite glittered like diamonds in the right light, and surged in popularity in these glittery, expensive looking costume pieces. Thanks to the high quality of craftsmanship, much of this jewelry has survived and is still being worn today.
The Industrial Revolution, Sherlock Holmes, the Suffragette Movement.. these are the characteristics of the final period of the Victorian Era as well as the designs it influenced.
As the clothing of the day became lighter and more functional, jewelry of the day became lighter and smaller too. This change is characterized by the 1890s drawings by Charles Dan Gibson, who’s “Gibson Girl” was independent, well-read and free spirited.
Women were increasingly involved in the business world, and newly popular sporting activities such as bicycling led to dramatic wardrobe changes, wearing much less jewelry during the day. Small stud earrings became popular, as the last Victorian hairstyles exposed the ears. Solitaire rings started to emerge. The aesthetics of the Art Nouveau era were starting to be seen during this time – with soft curves and shapes accented by delicately colored amethysts, emeralds and opals.
Queen Victoria was the longest reigning monarch ever to sit the English throne, and the longest reigning Queen in all of history. The fashion period named for her, The Victorian Era, is as wide ranging as the empire she governed, as changing as the roles she played in life, and yet as iconic and timeless as the the Queen herself.