In the loupe: Gems and jewels

Jewelry has always been worn for many purposes. In addition to social status, it has served as a memento of loved ones living or dead. It also has a role as decorative and/or functional parts of clothing. A jewel can be worn as an expression of religious faith, and as a talisman or amulet to ward off evil and disease.

Pieces of souvenir jewelry, and traditional jewelry symbolic of national or cultural origin or group membership, are also common. In fact, more non-status antique jewelry, often made from non-precious materials, survives today in its original form than does gemstone and gold jewelry. Anything with components of value was more likely to be broken up for its gemstones and precious metal and reworked into pieces in keeping with current fashion.

Fine and expensive high-karat gold and gemstone pieces from the late 18th and early 19th centuries certainly do turn up at auctions and high-end antiques shows. However, most of the earliest accessible and affordable jewelry that exists today is memorial and sentimental jewelry.

Although it may seem arbitrary, the year 1837 is generally recognized by jewelry historians as the beginning of a new era, although some types and styles of jewelry carried over from the previous decade. Jewelry doesn’t always fit neatly into one or another time-slot or category. Styles tend to overlap, and newer versions of old designs continued to be made in later periods. Many materials were worn throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries, e.g., coral, cut steel, and diamonds; many motifs recurred, such as snakes, flowers, and hands, and many types or forms of jewelry continued to be worn, like watch chains, bracelets, and cameos.

Precise dating can be difficult, unless there are clues like maker’s marks, hallmarks with date letters, or engraved dated inscriptions. More often than not, late 18th and 19th century jewelry is unmarked. Identifying construction techniques and original findings can help to narrow the date range. Some findings, however, like the “C”-catch (a simple hook) and the “tube” hinge of brooch pin assemblies, were in use for the entire period, and often continued to be used in the 20th century. Furthermore, pieces with intrinsic value – precious metals and stones – do not always survive intact. Alterations are common.

In Victorian times, naturalism was expressed in jewelry with exact depictions of flora and fauna in gold and gemstones or other materials.

Distasteful as it may seem today, real insects and birds’ heads were sometimes made into jewelry. Flowers were symbols of sentiment and nature. Every flower had a specific meaning, and their definitions were catalogued in several flower dictionaries. One book, published in 1866, was appropriately called The Language and Sentiment of Flowers. Several versions are still available today.

The second half of the 19th century was the age of the international exhibition – what later came to be known as World’s Fairs and Expos. Their historical importance should not be underestimated. In a period lacking mass communications media like television, exhibitions were the mass marketing tool of the era. They made it possible for manufacturers and merchants to display their wares over a period of six months or more to hundreds of thousands of potential customers.

The latest discoveries and developments, styles, and tastes were introduced to the general public at exhibitions. Instead of “as seen on TV,” an item would be touted, for example, “as seen at the Paris Exposition.” To have a booth at an exhibition conferred the highest status upon the goods and their maker.

The designs of exhibitors became fashionable by word of mouth and through reports in periodicals. They inspired many imitators.

The period 1837-1901 is called Victorian in the United States, as well as Great Britain. In spite of our country’s independence from hers, Victoria’s tastes influenced Americans, as well as her own subjects. While the Western world looked to Paris for the latest styles and trends, English interpretations of French styles were acceptable to the more conservative American temperament. At times, these styles were modified even further by American artisans and manufacturers.

When the young Queen ascended the throne of Great Britain in 1837, the United States was still a young country. Machine-made jewelry production had begun in New  England and New Jersey, but a distinct American style had yet to emerge. Most of it was imitative of the English or French. Some jewelers, in fact, tried to “pass” their items as European. Other types of jewelry that were worn were usually imported from Britain and the Continent.

In the early years of this country’s history, patriotism and lifestyles in general discouraged ostentatious displays of wealth. Aristocracy and all that symbolized it, like jewelry, was out. The Puritan work ethic was in. Many Americans wore little, except sentimental jewelry, until after the Civil War.

Wives of statesmen and presidents, the elite of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and other well-to-do Americans were the exception to this rule. Dolley Madison was known for her jeweled turbans, sent from Paris—the War of 1812 notwithstanding.

In the 1840s, President John Tyler’s new wife, Julia, was the closest thing to royalty this country ever saw. She wore crowns and diamond tiaras.


Memorial, mourning and hair jewelry

One of the most popular expressions of sentimentality, on both sides of the Atlantic, was the making and wearing of jewelry containing human hair, a practice which originated in the 17th century. These pieces were worn as memento mori (mourning) and also as love tokens.
The earliest type of hair jewelry was made with glass or rock crystal-covered compartments to hold the hair of a loved one, living or deceased. These continued to be made and worn through the greater part of the 19th century, with some alterations in style. Eighteenth and early to mid-19th century mourning brooches might depict an entire funereal scene painted on ivory, complete with weeping willow, urn, and a despondent maiden standing forlornly by. The sepia tones of the paint were often derived from using macerated hair as a pigment. This was strictly for reasons of sentiment, not because the hair provided a superior form of paint. Sometimes the scene was made three-dimensional with snippets of hair forming, for example, the branches of the willow.

In some pieces, the hair is formed into curls, called “Prince of Wales plumes,” or made into wheat sheaves, mounted on a white background. Another technique was to lay strands of hair flat on “goldbeater’s skin,” a type of adhesive backing, and cut out individual floral motifs which were then assembled as a three-dimensional “picture” under glass.

More commonly, locks of hair were simply braided or coiled, sometimes using more than one color (from different family members), and placed in compartments set into a frame and covered with glass.

On mourning pieces, the outer or inner frame could include a snake motif, symbolizing eternity. Seed pearls, symbolic of tears, were sometimes added, along with gold thread or wire tied around the lock of hair. In late Georgian and early Victorian pieces, the backs are gold or gold-filled, and slightly convex. They were often engraved with names or initials, and dates of birth and/or death. This personalization of a piece is desirable to collectors, and of course it takes the guesswork out of placing the piece in its time-frame.

Circa 1820-40, mourning brooches were small rounded rectangles, ovals, or crescents, often worn pinned to black ribbon as a necklace or bracelet. They were bordered with pearls, garnets, coral, French jet (black glass), or black enamel around the glass-covered compartment; these were sometimes called “handkerchief pins,” later known as “lace pins.” Later brooches were larger, worn at the throat or in the center of the bodice. Black onyx plaques or black enameled borders inscribed “In Memory Of” around a central hair compartment became standardized forms for mourning pieces.

Double-sided rock crystal lockets with gem-set frames were popular in the mid to late 18th century. They could contain a lock of hair or other memento of a loved one.

Late Georgian mourning rings, like brooches, could also be navette-shaped or oblong, or wide bands with inscriptions encircling the outer surface. Others bore inscriptions around the outside of a narrow black-enameled shank surmounted by a hair compartment framed in garnets or pearls, or a gemstone. Some mourning rings have swiveling compartments, one side containing hair. Victorian mourning rings might be simple bands with woven hair channel-set around the outside, or an enameled inscription. Fancier rings had cutout or enameled names on compartments containing hair.


warman's jewelryWarman’s® Jewelry, 3rd Edition
By Christie Romero

The best-selling guide to the most popular and collectible jewelry from the 19th and 20th centuries just got better!

Now in its third edition, Warman’s® Jewelry is in full-color and completely revised and updated. Collectors will find detailed descriptions and pricing information for more than 1,000 pieces of antique, period, and vintage collectible jewelry on the U.S. market today. More than 600 color photos.

Christie Romero is a historian of antique and vintage jewelry, as well as a certified gemologist, lecturer, instructor, consultant, and collector.

Available at