Archived vj

Early Victorian

The Victorian era spanned 64 years and is divided into 3 major periods, The Early Victorian Period, or Romantic Period, spanning 1837-1860; the Mid or High Victorian Period, also known as the Grand Period spanning 1860-1885; and the Late Victorian Period, or Aesthetic Period spanning 1885-1901.

Jewelry of the Early Victorian Period 1837-1860

The early years of the Victorian era were described as romantic or sentimental and reflected the youth, courtship and marriage of the young queen, Victoria. Britain was in a state of industrial euphoria, obsessed by mechanical gadgets.

Victorian double headed snake pin.

The world of nature, inspired from styles of the Renaissance and Middle Ages, was still a very popular motif in Victorian Jewelry. Bouquets of flowers, branches, leaves, grapes and berries remained fashionable. There was a symbolism associated with flowers that carried through the first half of the century. Snake and serpent motifs reached their peak in the 1840's. The snake used as a decorative motif symbolizes wisdom and eternity. Victorian jewels were often set with gems that were attributed with magical properties and special meanings. Seed-pearls denoted tears, and pink coral could protect one from evil and disease. Love tokens and souvenirs from travel or events were cherished.

The most popular metals incorporated into the jewels of the era were 18k to 22k gold, tricolor gold, silver, rolled gold and electroplate. Before the process of electroplating was discovered, less expensive jewelry pieces were produced using pinchbeck. Electroplating produced far better results, as it covered the entire surface of an object with a film of gold making it superficially indistinguishable from the real thing. Advancements were also made in the development of imitation stones. Parian, an ivory imitation made from a type of porcelain, was carved and used for Victorian brooches and clasps.

Most of the jewelry in the Early Victorian Period was hand manufactured, but the industrial revolution was introducing methods of manufacture that could greatly speed production. In 1852 a method for cutting and stamping settings was developed. This allowed entire pieces of jewelry to be made quickly and very inexpensively.

In the late 1830's to early 40's, lady's clothing fashionably covered all of the body. High necklines and bonnets covered the ears, therefore, necklaces and earrings were not often worn. Extremely large brooches were in vogue, and worn at the neck during the day, or at the low décolletage, often combined with fresh flowers, for evening wear. Adornment of the hands and wrists became increasingly important, with Victorian rings and large bracelets designed to make the hand look dainty and feminine.

Victorian Scottish agate pin.

Gold and silver Scottish Victorian brooches, often depicting the foot of a grouse or a thistle, began to appear throughout Britain after Victoria and Albert bought Balmoral in Scotland in 1848. Multi-colored agates were common accents. Many were set with Cairngorm's, a variety of golden smoky quartz found only in the Cairngorm Mountains. Cairngorms are no longer mined and today either citrine or smoky quartz is used as a substitute.

The British government did not require jewelers to use any hallmarking system during the 19th Century, so a characteristic of jewelry made during this time was a lack of a maker's mark or quality stampings. Before 1854, most of the jewelry produced was 18k. After 1854, 9k, 12k and 15k were made legal in order to compete with international markets. This information is a great aid in circa dating.

In the 1850's lady's clothing took an elegant turn. Hair was worn, parted in the middle, in an elegant upsweep, which lent itself to diadems becoming popular and we see the reappearance of earrings. Bracelets remained in fashion, worn alone or in pairs. The tours of Egyptian tombs, offered by Thomas Cook, led to a popular Egyptian Jewelry Revival. Fortunato Castellani, was inspired by the ancient world and produced a collection of "archaeological" jewelry that fetched enormous prices throughout Europe.

The most widespread gemstones used in jewelry during the Early Victorian Period were diamonds (rose-cuts and brilliants), amethyst, pink and golden topaz, turquoise, chalcedony, coral, garnet, ruby, seed pearls and cameos. Cameos were fashioned out of many elements, including shell, lava, coral and micro-crystalline, layered quartz varieties.

Mid Victorian

What started as a decade with optimistic expectations, ended abruptly for England. In 1861, Victoria's mother, The Duchess of Kent passed away, followed later in the year by the passing of her beloved husband Prince Albert. Victoria and the nation were stunned and devastated by grief.

At the same time, in the United States, the first shots were fired marking the beginning of the Civil War. What was expected to be a short conflict, raged into years of battle.

Victorian Calla Lily motif locket.

On both sides of the Atlantic, lockets became a very important fashion accessory. They held the memory of a dear one close to the heart. They could contain locks of hair or early examples of photographs (daguerreotypes), kept in secret compartments. Victorian lockets were often suspended from "book chain" necklaces and adorned with taille d'epargné style enamel work. Book chain necklaces had a dual purpose;when these flat chains were removed at night, they could be used as a bookmark!

Victorian mourning jewelry and clothing followed a strict protocol. After a year of full mourning (requiring all black jewelry and clothing), half-mourning colors such as gray, mauve, or purple were allowed back into the wardrobe. Jet, Onyx, Gutta-Percha, Vulcanite, French Jet, and Bog Oak were common materials utilized for mourning jewelry.

In 1865, America was hit with another dismal blow. President Lincoln was assassinated, a mere month into his second term;death was an overwhelming reality of life during Victorian times.

Victorian diamond and pearl crescent moon motif pin.

Travel and exploration of ancient sites became easier as the century progressed. There was a continued fascination with Egyptian and Etruscan Revival pieces, but in the 1870's the United States made some discoveries that influenced the trends. The Treasure Vaults of Kurium resulted in the popularity of Phoenician inspired crescents; Victorian crescent jewelry was enameled, jewel encrusted, and adorned with granulation. The crescent motif, fashioned into brooches, earrings and pendants remained popular until after the turn of the century.

Victorian opal and diamond circular pin.

It was during the Victorian era that opals first gained their reputation for bringing bad luck to the wearer, other than being worn as a birthstone. It's thought that Sir Walter Scott originated this concept in a best selling book, titled Anne of Geierstein , about an opal hair ornament that brought catastrophe to its owner. After a huge discovery of opal was made in Australia (a British Territory) in 1870, Queen Victoria herself tried to dispel the superstitions surrounding opals. By 1886, opals had lost much of their unlucky reputation and were being used in the newest Victorian designs.

In the late 1880's it became a trend to take the ornately hand pierced cock covers from watches made in the 1600-1700's and fashion them into earrings, bracelets and pendants. This was appropriately called "Cock Cover Jewelry". The cock covers protected a watch's balance's wheel and staff. They were usually made out of a gilded brass.

Popular gemstones in the mid-Victorian period were amethysts, cabochon garnets, crystal, emeralds, diamonds, onyx, opal, pearl, ruby, black glass, bog oak, jet, ivory and tortoise shell.

Silver jewelry, both plain and oxidized, became very popular in the late 1800's. The discovery of silver in Virginia City, Nevada in the 1860's greatly reduced the price of silver and provided a source for the metal needed to create many of these designs, which reflected a growing middle market. Both low and high karats of gold were also used extensively. Engraved bangle bracelets, monogram and name brooches and sentimental lockets developed a more whimsical character in the late 1880's. Acorns, anchors, monograms, hearts, bees, bells, birds, swans, stars, sphinxes and daisies were all in vogue.

Late Victorian

The early years of the Victorian era were described as romantic or sentimental and reflected the youth, courtship and marriage of the young queen, Victoria. Britain was in a state of industrial euphoria, obsessed by mechanical gadgets.

The 1890's were exciting, prosperous and ground-breaking times in our history. Women were increasingly involved in the business world and the stock market. Workers generally enjoyed much more leisure time, making entertainment a thriving business. Darwin's controversial theories on evolution were widely publicized. The automobile was revolutionizing transportation!

Throughout the 19th Century exhibitions played a major role in introducing the public to innovations in art and industry. To celebrate the 400th Anniversary of the discovery of the United States, Chicago hosted the 1893 Colombian Exposition. The highlight of the show was electricity! Visitors to the show were awestruck by fabulous, illuminated displays by some of America's top designers like Tiffany and Gorham. Case after case of Victorian chains, rings, bracelets, earrings, and watches were met with great enthusiasm. The jewelry was lighter and on a smaller scale than in previous years. Clothing was getting lighter as well. Heavy Victorian brooches were replaced by smaller pins scattered on the bodice of a dress. Diamond pins were often worn in the hair for evening. Small stud earrings were desirable as latest Victorian hairstyles were exposing the ears.

The manufacturing of Victorian jewelry had shifted from hand-crafting to mass production by machine. This suited the growing demand of consumerism by an emerging middle class. Machine-made curb-link bracelets, often with dangling hearts and keys were first introduced at this time. The revival motifs were still wildly popular. Crescents and Etruscan and Egyptian inspired jewels were being extensively produced. The Darwinian controversy and numerous botanical discoveries led to Victorian jewelry designs that reflected the natural world. Insects, like gem-set butterflies, enameled beetles and gold houseflies were in great demand. Hunting and sporting motifs were also well-liked.

Victorian Horseshoe Stickpin.jpg

Activities for women such as bicycling and golf lead to dramatic wardrobe changes. To keep the hands free, long chains held Victorian coin purses, watches and lorgnettes. Whistle bracelets were a must for ladies who took long rides by themselves. If help was needed, they could be heard within a radius of 2 miles!

The Royal Family still had an influence on fashion. Victoria's daughter-in-law, Alexandra was responsible for trends long before she became queen. The choker style necklaces she wore became popular throughout Europe and America. Pearls were another of her passions, which made them even more desirable to the general public. Prince Edward's love for horse racing popularized the horseshoe motif as a good luck charm.


In 1890, Charles Dan Gibson introduced "The Gibson Girl". His drawings portrayed Victorian women in a new light, which reflected their changing role in society. The "Gibson Girl" was independent, fun-loving, self aware and self assured! The photograph on the left depicts Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Roosevelt, reflecting the Gibson attitude. Victorian hair combs were essential accessories for the hair styles the "Gibson Girl" inspired. They were often made of tortoise-shell embellished with precious metals, pearls and gems.

The earliest examples of Victorian solitaire diamond rings, set in both gold and silver were seen in 1895. Discoveries of diamonds and gold in South Africa helped supply the trend. Victorian stomachers (large brooches worn on the midriff) became a favorite for evening attire. The manufacture of class rings became a thriving business.

The most popular gemstones in the late Victorian period were amethyst, aquamarine, chrysoprase, chrysoberyl, opals, moonstones, sapphires, turquoise, peridot and rubies. Demantoid garnets from the Ural Mountains are occasionally seen. They were often mis-identified as olivine. Silver and oxidized silver continued to be popular metals for Victorian jewelry pieces, as well as gold and rolled gold. In the late 1880's, advancements in jewelry manufacturing made platinum easier to work. It was a favorite for diamond mountings.

Queen Victoria passed away on January 22, 1901. Although there were dramatic changes in the world, socially and industrially, her legacy lives on through the numerous examples of Victorian jewelry created during her 64 year reign.

Her son, Prince Edward, became Edward VII upon her death and reigned until his death in 1910.


Victorian Findings