Symbolism in Jewelry

Edwardian Spinel Diamond Heart.jpg

A Romantic and Ravishing Spinel and Diamond Symbol of Love from the Edwardian Period, c.1900.


Throughout history, communication, and therefore symbolism, has been an integral part of human interaction. Symbols play a powerful part in the rituals of expression and we employ thousands of them every day. Literal representations of commonplace objects are given new meanings so they can be used to instantly convey information and ideas. If obfuscation is the goal, symbols can be disguised and imbued with secret meanings which are shared only with the initiated few. More overt symbols of power, love, strength, spirituality and belief bind us together and provide a common language that bestows upon us a unifying platform. Cultures, countries, religions, clubs and rituals all rely on symbols, some imbued with talismanic power, to unify, protect and link those who believe in or belong to their group. This survey of symbols found in jewelry demonstrates their visual diversity as well as their myriad of interpretations.

Victorian Symbolism

The use of symbolism has been an important part of adornment since the first cave man or woman hung a carved or shaped rock around their neck for the sake of beauty. What better way to protect oneself, to project outwardly one's beliefs and affiliations or to project strength and power than to display its symbol as a piece of jewelry. Whether trying to communicate overtly or covertly, symbols speak louder than words.

A gift of jewelry presented to celebrate a life event was a new and exceedingly popular Victorian tradition and these tokens were always saturated with sentiment. Victorians became thoroughly obsessed with the secret language assigned to love tokens, friendship gifts and mementos from cherished lovers, friends, and family. Flowers, gems, and jewelry were commandeered as a means of discrete communication with elaborate messages being sent and received. Gemstones were arranged in patterns that, when the first letters of their names were put together, messages such as Je t'adore appeared. Everyday motifs were assigned meaning - a dog represented "faithful service," a butterfly and flower indicated "I am settled" and the list goes on.

Victorian Turquoise Snake Necklace.jpg

Victorian Diamond, Ruby, Turquoise and 15K Gold Articulated Snake Necklace Symbolic of Wisdom.

Horticulture was a particular obsession for the Victorians with plants being sought out from all corners of the world to be brought back to England. This fascination for all things floral and botanical translated into jewelry designs rendered in intricate detail, Manuals were produced so that the meaning behind the choice of a particular design could be interpreted (often with contradictory results.) New jewelry making techniques were devised and older techniques refined in order to create incredibly realistic representations of every type of flower, fruit, plant, leaf and bug.

Hair mementos had evolved into intricate designs and "painted" techniques with which elaborate messages could be constructed to accompany the intrinsic sentiment of a loved one's hair. Moving beyond glass compartmented hair displays, woven hair jewelry assembled from three-dimensional plaited and woven hair segments were held together with metal ends and clasps. This allowed for bigger and more elaborate displays of sentiment with entire parures created from hair.

See Also:

Jewelry

Anchor
Victorian Anchor.jpg

Scottish Silver Anchor Pin, the Symbol for Hope and Steadfastness, Decorated with a Hand Engraved Scrolling Foliate Motif .


Design
• Anchor
Symbolizes
• Hope
• Derived from a Bible reference in Hebrews 6:19 "Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters into that within the veil;"

Antlers
Victorian Stag with Antlers Brooch.jpg
.

Reverse Crystal Intaglio Depicting a Deer and Framed in White Enamel.
Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.


Design
• Seven Pointed Antlers
Symbolizes
• Leadership

Arrow & Target
Victorian Arrow and Target Brooch.jpg
.

Diamond-Set Arrow Brooch c.1900.
Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.


Design
• Arrow & Target
Symbolizes
• Archery and Cupid/Love
• "It glitters but it wounds"

Coiled Snake
Victorian Coiled Snake Bracelet.jpg

Diamond and Blue Enamel Coiled Snake Bracelet.
Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.


Design
• Coiled Snake
Symbolizes
• Eternity

Crescent
Victorian Crescent Brooch.jpg

Victorian Diamond Crescent Brooch.


Design
• Crescent/New Moon
Symbolizes
• New relationship - Hopeful it will "wax" into matrimony.

Crossed Oars
Victorian Crossed Oars Brooch.jpg

Diamond and Turquoise Enamel Crossed Oars Brooch, c.1890.
Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.


Design
• Crossed Oars
Symbolizes
• Contentment ("dun roamin")

Dove
Victorian Dove Pendant.jpg
.

Victorian Seed Pearl, Turquoise and Gold Dove Locket.


Design
• Dove
Symbolizes
• Religious: Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit.
• Peace
• Messengers of Venus
• Love and Fidelity

Fern
Victorian Fern Locket.jpg

English Victorian Sterling Silver Locket.


Design
• Fern
Symbolizes
• Fascination (Popular Victorian hobby of fern "hunting")
• In mourning it can mean Sincerity.

Figure 8
Victorian Figure 8 Brooch.jpg

Diamond Figure "8" Brooch.
Photo Courtesy of Sotheby's.


Design
• Figure 8
Symbolizes
• Forever
• Eternity

Garter
Victorian Garter Bracelet.jpg

Victorian Engraved Silver "Garter" Bracelet.


Design
• Garter with Buckle
Symbolizes
• Loyalty
• Strength
• Protection
Origin
• The British Order of the Garter is an Order of Chivalry and the highest honor bestowed upon those who have held public office or served Britain or the Crown in an outstanding way. Created by King Edward III in 1348 the Order's traditions and regalia are alive today.

Horseshoe
Victorian Horseshoe Brooch.jpg
.

Antique Sapphire and Diamond Horseshoe Pin


Design
• Horseshoe
Symbolizes
• Luck

Ivy & Evergreens
Victorian Ivy Locket.jpg

Victorian Engraved Ivy Motif Locket.


Design
• Ivy or Evergreen
Symbolizes
• Fidelity
• Wedded love

Key
Victorian Lock and Key Stickpin.jpg

Victorian Lock and Key Motif Stickpin.


Design
• Key
Symbolizes
• Authority - has the power to unlock the heart, therefore love and sentiment

Lizard
Victorian Lizard Brooch.jpg

Antique Silver Over 18K Rose Gold Lizard Brooch.


Design
• Lizard
Symbolizes
• Roman Symbol of Wedded Bliss.

Lock or Padlock
Victorian Padlock Charm.jpg

15K Gold English "Gate" Bracelet.


Design
• Lock/Padlock
Symbolizes
• Protects the Heart and Thereby Love.

Lover's Knot
Victorian Lovers Knot Ring.jpg

Double Knot Vintage Diamond Ring.


Design
• Lover's Knot
Symbolizes
• Forever: Cannot be untied.

Oak
Oak Leaf Acorn Earrings.Jpg

Victorian Gold Acorn Motif Earrings.


Design
• Oak
Symbolizes
• Strength

Ouroboros
Victorian Ouroboros Necklace.jpg

18 Karat Yellow Gold Oroboros Necklace


Design
• Ouroboros - Snake in a circle with tail in its mouth.
Symbolizes
• Eternity

Scarab
Victorian Scarab Beetle Necklace.jpg
.

Victorian Rose Gold Scarab Beetle Necklace, c.1850.


Design
• Scarab
Symbolizes
• In ancient Egypt dung beetles were believed to lay their eggs in dung balls then roll them into their nests. They became a symbol of renewal and regeneration.
• Endurance of the Soul.

Snake
Victorian Snake Brooch.jpg

Antique Natural Pearl and Enamel Snake and Cresent Pin.


Design
• Snake
Symbolizes
• Ancient Greek & Roman, guardian spirit, symbol of wisdom.
• Bracelet with gems - Everlasting love.

Memento Mori & Mourning Symbols

Symbols representing death have been present throughout the history of mankind, but they were particularly popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The intention of this symbology was to remind the wearer that they were mortal and that everyone must eventually die. All sorts of imagery from skulls to skeletons were paired with mottos that served to keep that certainty at the forefront of the wearer's thoughts.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries mourning was taken very seriously with prescribed periods of withdrawal from society, the wearing of certain clothing and colors and the styling of mourning and memorial jewels. Black jewelry was particularly important and at that time beads, crosses and other symbols were carved from materials such as jet or bog oak or fashioned from black glass and black onyx. Memorial jewels in the form of lockets, watch fobs, rings and bracelets that included the hair of a treasured soul was almost always a necessity. Hair was used not only to commemorate a loved one who was deceased, but to hold dear anyone who was far away or at war or simply loved by another.

Victorian Jet Locket Necklace.jpg

Victorian Faceted Jet Locket-Necklace Worn for Mourning.

Death & Remembrance Symbols

Hair
Victorian Hair Snake Bracelet.jpg

Victorian Snake Bracelet Composed of a Woven Hair Body and Gold Head and Tail.
Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.


Design
• Woven, Braided, Curled and Painted
Symbolizes
• Token of Remembrance
• Symbol of Love
• Reminder of Friendship
• Keepsake of a Child
• Keepsake of One who has Gone Away (i.e. to War)

Memento Mori or Vanitas
Memento Mori Enamel Skull Ring.jpg
.

Diamond and Enamel Skull with Crown Memento Mori Ring, Attilio Codognato.
Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.


Design
• Skulls, Coffins, Skeletons, Death's Heads
• Popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Symbolizes
• A reminder that life is short - "remember you must die"
• Usually accompanied by a motto that reminds us that death is waiting for us.

Tear Jewelry
Lover's Eye with Clouds.jpg
.

Lover's Eye Memorial Brooch With Clouds.
Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.


Design
• Lover's Eye Miniatures
Symbolizes
• Sorrowful remembrances of a dearly loved one.
• Some with a jeweled tear or pearl.
• Clouds around the eye to evoke the imagery of being watched over from heaven.

Urns
Mourning Ring Urn.jpg

Diamond and Enamel Mourning Ring with Urn Motif, Circa 1800.
Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.


Design
• Urns with adjacent designs
• Angels/Putti or Classical Maidens
• Fallen Trees and Broken Columns
• Obelisks
• Weeping Willows
• Sinking Ship - Death by drowning.
Symbolizes
• Mourning
• Sorrow
• Grief

White Enamel


Design
• White enamel inscriptions.
Symbolizes
• Child or single person.

Black Enamel Snakes


Design
• Black Enamel Snakes with Crosshatch Pattern.
• Coiled on ring shanks and surrounding lockets, pendants and brooches.
Symbolizes
• Eternity

Snake, Cross, Torch and Crown


Design
• Snake, Cross, Torch and Crown
Symbolizes
• Georgian Symbols of Royal Bereavement
• Worn with mourning attire as rings, brooches and necklaces.

Religious Icons & Symbols

Religious and Spiritual Jewelry

Cross
Art Nouveau Cross.jpg
.

Art Nouveau Diamond and 18k Yellow Gold Pendant.


Design
• Cruciform
• Latin, Greek, Maltese Cross, St. George's Cross.
Symbolizes
• Christian Faith.

Saint Esprit
St Esprit Pendant.jpg
.

Diamond & Seed Pearl St. Esprit Pendant, c.1980.
Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.


Design
• A Dove In Cruciform
Symbolizes
• Holy Ghost

St. George's Cross
St Michael St George.jpg
.

Order of St.Michael and St.George.
Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.


Design
• Red Cross on a White Background
Symbolizes
• The Warrior Saint, St. George.
• Used by many, including the Knight's Templar and Crusaders from many nations.
• Still in use by many nations today.

Mythological Symbols

Greek & Roman Gods & Goddesses

Zeus - Jupiter
Symbolism Zeus & Hera.jpg

Zeus and Hera Depicted with their Symbolic Eagle Carrying Jupiter's Thunderbolt.


Design
• Male Profile or Figure of a Man
• Eagle
• Thunderbolt
Mythological Prowess
• King of the Gods
• God of the Seasons & Weather
• God of Fertility
Relationships
• Zeus - Myriad love conquests which represented Greek victories.

Aphrodite - Venus
Symbolism Venus.jpg

Rectangular Shell Cameo Depicting Botticelli's famed "Birth of Venus."


Design
• Depicted rising from the sea on a scallop shell.
• Dove
• Swan
• Myrtle Tree
Mythological Prowess
• Goddess of Love
• Goddess of Beauty

Apollo - Apollo
Apollo Wedgewood Cameo.jpg
.

Wedgwood Ceramic Cameo - White Jasperware with Black c.1780-1800.
Victorian & Albert Museum Collection.


Design
• Male Profile or Figure of a Man
• Lyre
Mythological Prowess
• God of Light
• God of the Arts, Music, Medicine
Relationships
• Artemis' twin (G)
• Son of Zeus (G)

Ares - Mars
Mars Venus Vulcan Cupid.jpg
.

Hardstone Cameo Depicting "Vulcan's Forge" with Mars, Venus, Cupid and Vulcan. c.1830.
© Trustees of the British Museum.


Design
• Depicted with a Plumed Helmet and Sword
• Dog
• Vulture
Mythological Prowess
• God of War

Artemis - Diana
Symbolism Diana.jpg

Exquisitely Carved Shell Cameo Brooch Depicting Diana, or in Greek Mythology Artemis, Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt.


Design
• Depiction often with Crescent Moon atop her head.
• Bow & Arrows
• Deer
• Cyprus Tree
• Many Breasts
Mythological Prowess
• Goddess of Hunting
• Goddess of Childbirth
• Protector of Animals

Athena - Minerva
Symbolism Athena.Jpg

Hardstone Cameo Depicting Athena Wearing a Helmet with a Live Serpent on Top and a Secondary Visage on the Visor. Her Chest Armor Displays the Aegis of Zeus.


Design
• Female Profile or Figure of a Woman
• Athena - Depicted Helmeted, often with an Owl, symbol of Athens
• Olive Tree
Mythological Prowess
• Goddess of Knowledge, Wisdom, the Arts and War
Relationships
• Athena: Daughter of Zeus
• Athena: Patron of Athens

Eros - Cupid
Eros Cameo.jpeg
.

Eros with Chariot and Butterflies, Roman Sardonyx Cameo.
Photo Courtesy of Christie's.


Design
• Putti or Winged Baby - depicted with Bow & Arrows to spear love victims.
Mythological Prowess
• Symbolic of Earthly Love
Relationships
• Eros: Son of Aphrodite & Ares

Poseidon - Neptune
Poseidon.jpg
.

Neptune Flanked by Two Hippocampi, Shell Cameo c.1700.
Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.


Design
• Heavily Bearded Nude Male.
• Depicted with a Trident - a symbol of creation.
• Horses & Bulls
Mythological Prowess
• God of the Sea
• Greek - God of Earthquakes and Horses
Relationships
• Poseidon - Brother of Zeus

Hermes - Mercury
Symbolism Mercury.jpg

Mercury (Hermes in Greek) Sporting his Trademark Winged Helmet.


Design
• Male Profile or Figure of a Male
• Depicted with Winged Helmet or Winged Sandals
Mythological Prowess
• Messenger for the gods
• God of Commerce and Science
• Defender of Wanderers and Thieves

Hera - Juno
Zeus and Hera.jpg
.

Hardstone Cameo of Zeus and Hera c.1820.
Victorian & Albert Museum Collection.


Design
Mythological Prowess
• Goddess of Light
• Goddess of Marriage
• Goddess of Childbirth
Relationships
• Juno - Wife of Jupiter
• Hera - Wife & sister of Zeus

Chinese Cultural Symbols

Known as "The Jewel of Heaven," the Chinese culture has revered carved jade ornaments since c.9500-9000 B.C. Seen as a link between the spiritual world and the physical realm (or heaven and earth,) jade is viewed as magical, imbued with qualities of both yin and yang. The six ritual colors of green, blue, lavender, red, yellow, white and black are carved with symbols derived from nature and from fantasy and are presented to mark every significant occasion throughout a lifetime. Everyday objects used in the household such as fasteners, buckles, jewelry items and tools, have been decorated by carved symbols believed to bring happiness, fertility, longevity, wealth, good fortune and other such desirable qualities. Ownership of jade was originally a right only of the privileged and the high ranking but today it is sought after by all those believing in its magical properties.


Jade Disk or Bi (Pi)
Pi.jpg

A Pair of Apple Green Jadeite Pi earrings, each Surmounted by Elegantly Fashioned Diamond-Set Tops, c.1930s.


Design
• Flat, round disk with central hole.
Symbolizes
• Heaven - heaven was believed to be round (and earth to be square.)
• Wealth and Power.
• The central hole was thought to open a speaking tube to the gods whereby your pleas and prayers could be delivered to heaven.
• Historically used in funeral ceremonies and in graves to create the earth and sky connection.
• Placed on the body in a ritualistic manner.

Dragon
Dragon.jpg

Double-Sided Jadeite Carving Depicting a Spectacular Ferocious Fire-Breathing Dragon.


Design
• Carved dragon, either flat or three dimensional.
Symbolizes
• Highest-ranking animal in the Chinese animal Hierarchy; one of the four Celestial animals in Chinese culture.
• Dragons represent cosmic force, strength, protection and prosperity/
Han (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.)
• Guardian of the East
• Spring
• Courage
• Imperial Sovereignty
• Issued royal proclamations
• Embodiment of Yang (male force)
Hydra
• Double tailed dragon
• Dragon of the water

Apples & Apple Blossoms
Jadeite Carved Apples.jpg

Photo Courtesy of Christie's.


Design
• Apple
Symbolizes
• Apples symbolize peace loving and their blossoms are symbolic of beauty.

Bamboo
Jadeite Carved Bamboo.jpg

Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.


Design
• Bamboo
Symbolizes
• All the characteristics of bamboo are symbolized; flexibility, endurance, youthful vitality, suppleness.
• Bamboo can also be interpreted as representing luck, especially with money (i.e. easy/quick money.)

Bat
Jadeite Carved Bat.jpg

Photo Courtesy of Christie's.


Design
• Bat
Symbolizes
• Bats bring good luck and happiness.
• Bats can also represent longevity.
• Five bats in a group represent the Five Blessings
• Long Life
• Wealth
• Health
• Virtue
• Natural Death

Buddha
Jadeite Carved Buddha.jpg


Design
• Buddha
Symbolizes
• Meaning is derived from the hand gestures and the pose or posture of the Buddha.
• There are over 100 poses and each has a specific hand gesture or Mudra.
• Right hand raised and facing outward: Protection and overcoming fear.
• Happy Buddha: Prosperity and Happiness

Butterfly
Jadeite Carved Butterfly.jpg

Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.


Design
• Butterfly
Symbolizes
• Butterflies are used to express beauty and elegance.
• Butterflies can also represent long life.
• Joy and warmth.
• Butterflies are often paired with other symbols:
• Another butterfly: Young love with happiness and an undying bond.
• Cat: Living a long productive life.
• Upon a hand: To be happy in old age.
• With a peony: Tasting the joys of passion.
• With plum blossoms: Beauty and a long life.

Cicada
Jadiete Carved Cicada.jpg

Carved Jadeite Cicada c.18th-19th Century. Photo Courtesy of Christie's.


Design
• Cicada
Symbolizes
• Cicadas bring the hope of life after death and immortality along with eternal youth.
• Rebirth and Mortality are associated with the cicada because they survive underground then emerge to soar to the sky.

Peach
Jadeite Carved Peach.jpg

Carved Jadeite Peaches c.18th-19th Century. Photo Courtesy of Christie's.


Design
• Peach
Symbolizes
• Immortality and Longevity

Coin
Jadeite Carved Coins.jpg

Pale Celadon Carved Jade Plaque c. 19 - 20th Century. Photo Courtesy of Christie's.


Design
• Coin
Symbolizes
• Coins symbolize prosperity and good luck.

Foo Dog/Lion
Foo Dog.jpg

Foo Dog.


Design
• Inspired by Asiatic lions that came to China along the Silk Road c.206 BC to 220 AD.
• Referred to in the west as Foo Dogs or Foo (Fu) Lions.
• Chinese refer to them as Shishi.
Symbolizes
• These "stone" lions/dogs are the protectors of the truth in Buddhism (Foo/Fu means Buddha or prosperity in Chinese.)
• Sculptures of these guardians were placed in front of imperial palaces, temples, bridges, aristocrats homes and government buildings.
• The curls on the lions represented rank with 13 being the highest and below seven no guardian lions were allowed.

Apricots


Design
• Apricot
Symbolizes
• Apricots represent Spring and good fortune. They can also symbolize a beautiful woman.

Bees


Design
• Bee
Symbolizes
• Bees symbolize industriousness and zealousness.

Sources

  • Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. USA, Barnes & Noble Books, 1995.
  • Dawes, Ginny Redington Dawes with Collings, Olivia. Georgian Jewellery: 1714-1830: Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2007.
  • Flower Margaret. Victorian Jewellery: South Brunswick, New Jersey: A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1967.
  • Fontana, David. The Secret Language of Symbols. San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1994.
  • Gere, Charlotte and Rudoe, Judy. Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria: A Mirror to the World: London, The British Museum Press, 2010.
  • Gump, Richard. Jade: Stone of Heaven. Garden City, NY, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962.
  • Nozedar, Adele. The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols: The Ultimate A-Z Guide from Alchemy to the Zodiac. London, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2008.
  • Wilkinson, Philip. Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology, Heroes, Heroines, Gods, and Goddesses from Around the World. London, Dorling Kindersley, 1998.