American Jewelry: Part I

Shell Beads c.1500-1600, Florida.
Shell Beads
c.1500-1600, Florida.
Photo Courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian
Copper Bracelet, attrib: Shawnee c.1700-1800, Ohio.
Copper Bracelet, attrib: Shawnee
c.1700-1800, Ohio. Photo
Courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian

Natives of North America, in the time before European exploration, adorned themselves with shells, bones, feathers, teeth and other found objects. Migration resulted in tribes exchanging materials not native to a given area. This resulted in turquoise and copper and other items being used in areas where these materials would not ordinarily be found. Seashells also traveled from coast to coast. European explorers brought jewelry and glass trade beads with them in their travels and these quickly found their way into use in Native American adornment.

Rumors of gold and riches in America caused an influx of goldsmiths, jewelers and refiners to arrive among the early settlers of North America. They soon discovered that the materials needed to practice their craft were not indigenous to the colonies and they had to rely on trade to bring them what they needed. As a result, most early colonial jewelry was imported, usually arriving in the new world as property of the settlers.

Jeffery Amherst's Seal (Governor of Virginia c.1750s-60s).
Jeffery Amherst’s Seal
(Governor of Virginia c.1750s-60s).
Photo Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Gentleman's Neck Stock Buckle c. 1760.
Gentleman’s Neck Stock Buckle
c. 1760.
Photo Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

The jewelry that arrived in America with the early settlers was a source of negotiable wealth and the style and materials used were dictated by the country the colonists came from. Seals and signet rings were an early popular jewelry item because of their practical use in establishing the wearer’s identity and usefulness for marking documents and correspondence. Gentlemen wore seals suspended from their watch chain and women wore them suspended from a chatelaine. Signet rings, which served the same purpose, were worn mainly by men.

In addition, gentlemen wore decorative buttons, buckles (at the neck and knees and on their shoes), and watches with seals, fobs, chains, and keys. They carried decorative silver swords and gold-topped canes. Ladies usually counted a pearl necklace and beads of jetamberbonecoral, glass, and jasper among their belongings. In addition, hair combs of ivory and tortoise were popular along with rings and brooches.

Mourning Ring c.1767. Photo Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Mourning Ring
Photo Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Traditions from the “old country” arrived with the settlers. Mourning jewelry of all kinds, including the custom of funeral rings, found their way to the new world. Coffin-shaped stones, skeleton motifs, locks of hair, and pieces with black enamel along with the engraved name of the deceased or loved one were as popular in America as in Europe.

Gimmel rings and posy ring engraved with sentimental inscriptions were abundant but wedding rings were the most commonly stocked jewelry of the Colonial Era. Fancy jewelry included Giardinetti – flowery rings, brooches, and spray pins – that could be worn as aigrettes or brooches set with garnets and other colored stones and diamondsStomachers designed as large floral sprays, seemingly more appropriate for wear at European courts, also found their way to America.

Garnet Earrings.
Garnet Earrings.
Topaz, Garnet, Amethyst and Diamond Brooch.
Topaz, Garnet, Amethyst and Diamond Brooch,
Photo Courtesy of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Garnets were one of the most commonly found gemstones in colonial jewelry. They enjoyed wide popularity throughout Europe during the Eighteenth century and elaborate suites of garnets found their way to the colonies. Martha Washington was particularly partial to garnets and amassed a large collection during her lifetime which included necklaces, an aigrette, earrings, rings, and brooches.

Pearls and mother-of-pearl were essential to every woman’s wardrobe. Native Americans made jewelry from the abundant freshwater pearls found in North America although these pearls were small and often times not very lustrous. Pearls from the Persian Gulf and the Pacific and Indian Oceans were considered the most desirable and beautiful of gems. Whatever the source, however, pearls of all types were found in earrings, necklaces, rings, and brooches just as they are today.

Victorian Seed Pearl Necklace.
Victorian Seed Pearl Necklace.
Paste Brooch c.1740.
Paste Brooch
Photo Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

Trade with India and Brazil during the eighteenth century brought diamonds to Europe and trade with the colonies brought them to America. Rings, earrings, buckles, necklaces, brooches and lockets set with diamonds were sought out by the colonists. Early on, most diamond jewelry was imported already manufactured but, during the colonial era, some of the more enterprising jewelers began to import diamonds directly and advertise custom-made diamond jewelry as well as their ability to repair it.

The not-so-wealthy imitated this love of diamonds with paste, wearing all manner of paste jewelry to imitate them. Paste could also be foil backed to imitate colored gems such as topaz and amethyst. Another colorless gem, rock crystal quartz, was also a popular diamond simulant. In addition to being used to imitate diamonds, quartz could be used as a clear cap over ciphers, enamel pieces, pictures, and many other items.

Jewelry for the wealthy was made from silver and gold, and metals for the less well-to-do included pinchbeckpewterbrass, and steel.

Timeline: Part I

Name/PeriodYearCompany InfoSpecialty
Jeremiah Dummer
Boston MA
Dummer, Jeremiah

  • First American trained goldsmith.

  • Specialized in mourning rings or “funeral rings” given out to mourners at a funeral. He made the first mourning ring in America in 1693.

Frances Richardson
Philadelphia PA
Richardson, Frances

  • Founded a dynasty of goldsmiths.

  • As a Quaker, he made only practical jewelry such as rings, lockets, thimbles, buttons, buckles, spectacles and the like.

  • His sons and grandson continued the business making chains by the inch, earrings, posy, seal and mourning rings, and buckles.
James Boyer
Boston MA

  • Jeweler and stone setter.
William Cario
Boston MA

  • Goldsmith and Jeweler
Alexander Kerr
Williamsburg VA

  • A goldsmith by trade.

  • Kerr sold jewelry and other household goods by lottery.
  • John Paul Grimke
    Charleston SC

    • One of the first American jewelers to offer "diamond work".

    • He was a diamond importer as well as a jeweler.
    James Craig
    Williamsburg VA

    • Craig was pro-American, manufacturing during the time that the colonies were gearing up to separate from England.

    • George Washington was a customer, purchasing garnet earrings and mourning rings.

    Daniel Parker
    Boston MA
    Parker, Daniel

    •  Silver and cutlery
    Charles Dutens
    Philadelphia PA

    • Rings of every kind, earrings, seals, buckles, chains and diamond and topaz brooches.
    Joseph Richardson
    Daniel Christian Fueter

    Philadelphia PA
    New York NY

    • Struck silver medals for presentation to the Indians during the French and Indian Wars and on other occasions.

    • Gold clasps for fastening necklaces, chatelaine hooks, gold bead necklaces, buckles, and chains were some of the popular items made by Richardson and Fueter.

    • Colorless quartz, referred to as crystal or "Bristol Stones" began to be used extensively. It was harder and more durable than paste. Could be used to "cap" items such as gold "cyphers" and hair.
    Paul Revere
    Boston MA
    Revere, Paul

    • Revere made silver (and sometimes gold) medals, buckles, buttons, funeral rings, as well as various small household items.

    • Paste jewelry was very popular, and was known as "French Jewelry".

    • A popular brooch had an open center with a bar that passed behind the fabric of a ribbon or neck scarf, without piercing it, and ended up in the front of the brooch to fasten the piece.
    Charles Oliver Bruff
    Maiden Lane
    New York NY
    Bruff, Charles Oliver

    • Employed an English jeweler skilled in diamond and enamel work. They produced enameled lockets and hair plaited lockets.

    • Began to do lapidary work. This practice was frowned upon by Great Britain as they wanted the colonies to import products from them, not produce any of their own. This was the beginning of a national interest in manufacturing in the colonies.

    • Their lapidary produced seals with heraldic, arms, crests, figures, etc. to sell to customers as well as to other jewelers.

    • During the Revolution, they made swords and other military items.
    Otto de Parisen
    New York NY

    • German born jeweler known for fabulous gem-set jewelry.
    William Whetcroft
    Anapolis MD

    • Whetcroft established a policy of repairing and maintaining a customer's jewelry free of charge.
    James Bennett
    New York, NY

    • Ladies shoe buckles, earrings, hair pins and egrets, seals, necklaces, combs, lockets, buttons and mourning rings with hairwork.
    John McFarlane
    Boston MA

    • "said by some today to be the forerunner of all jewelry establishments in America."1

    • Novelty Shop

    • Watches and novelties
    George Dorwig
    Baltimore MD

    • Sold jewelry and objects made of precious metals by lottery.

    Christopher Hughes and Company
    Baltimore MD

    • The shop was located at the corner of Market and Gay Streets.

    • Specialized in rose and knot buckles, Macaroni shoe buckles and rings set with gemstones.

    • As was common during that time, they also sold paste and marcasite jewelry.
    American Revolution1776

    • Commemorative Jewelry

    • Mourning jewelry for those fallen in battle, memorial lockets, brooches and rings

    More American Jewelry


    1. Proddow & Healy, p.12
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