Symbolism in Jewelry
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.
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.
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.
- 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;”
- Seven Pointed Antlers
- Arrow & Target
- Archery and Cupid/Love
- “It glitters but it wounds”
- Coiled Snake
- Crescent/New Moon
- New relationship – Hopeful it will “wax” into matrimony.
- Crossed Oars
- Contentment (“dun roamin”)
- Religious: Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit
- Messengers of Venus
- Love and Fidelity
- Fascination (Popular Victorian hobby of fern “hunting”)I
- In mourning it can mean Sincerity.
- Figure 8
- Garter with Buckle
- 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.
- Ivy or Evergreen
- Wedded love
- Authority – has the power to unlock the heart, therefore love and sentiment
- Roman Symbol of Wedded Bliss.
- Protects the Heart and Thereby Love.
- Lover’s Knot
- Forever: Cannot be untied.
- Ouroboros – Snake in a circle with tail in its mouth.
- 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.
- Endurance of the Soul.
- Ancient Greek & Roman, guardian spirit, symbol of wisdom.
- Bracelet with gems – Everlasting love.
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.
Death & Remembrance Symbols
- Woven, Braided, Curled and Painted
- Token of Remembrance
- Symbol of Love
- Reminder of Friendship
- Keepsake of a Child
- Keepsake of One who has Gone Away (i.e. to War)
- Skulls, Coffins, Skeletons, Death’s Heads
- Popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
- A reminder that life is short – “remember you must die”
- Usually accompanied by a motto that reminds us that death is waiting for us.
- Lover’s Eye Miniatures
- 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 with adjacent designs
- Angels/Putti or Classical Maidens
- Fallen Trees and Broken Columns
- Weeping Willows
- Sinking Ship – Death by drowning.
- White enamel inscriptions.
- Child or single person.
- Black Enamel Snakes with Crosshatch Pattern.
- Coiled on ring shanks and surrounding lockets, pendants and brooches.
- Snake, Cross, Torch and Crown
- Georgian Symbols of Royal Bereavement
- Worn with mourning attire as rings, brooches, and necklaces.
Religious Icons & Symbols
Religious and Spiritual Jewelry
- Latin, Greek, Maltese Cross, St. George’s Cross.
- Christian Faith.
- A Dove In Cruciform
- Holy Ghost
- Red Cross on a White Background
- 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.
Greek & Roman Gods & Goddesses
Zeus – Jupiter
- Male Profile or Figure of a Man
- King of the Gods
- God of the Seasons & Weather
- God of Fertility
- Zeus – Myriad love conquests which represented Greek victories.
Aphrodite – Venus
- Depicted rising from the sea on a scallop shell.
- Myrtle Tree
- Goddess of Love
- Goddess of Beauty
Apollo – Apollo
- Male Profile or Figure of a Man
- God of Light
- God of the Arts, Music, Medicine
- Artemis’ twin (G)
- Son of Zeus (G)
Ares – Mars
- Depicted with a Plumed Helmet and Sword
- God of War
Artemis – Diana
- Depiction often with Crescent Moon atop her head.
- Bow & Arrows
- Cyprus Tree
- Many Breasts
- Goddess of Hunting
- Goddess of Childbirth
- Protector of Animals
Athena – Minerva
- Female Profile or Figure of a Woman
- Athena – Depicted Helmeted, often with an Owl, symbol of Athens
- Olive Tree
- Goddess of Knowledge, Wisdom, the Arts and War
- Athena: Daughter of Zeus
- Athena: Patron of Athens
Eros – Cupid
- Putti or Winged Baby – depicted with Bow & Arrows to spear love victims.
- Symbolic of Earthly LoveRelationships
- Eros: Son of Aphrodite & Ares
Poseidon – Neptune
- • 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
- • Poseidon – Brother of Zeus
Hermes – Mercury
- Male Profile or Figure of a Male
- Depicted with Winged Helmet or Winged Sandals
- • Messenger for the gods
- • God of Commerce and Science
- • Defender of Wanderers and Thieves
Hera – Juno
- Goddess of Light
- Goddess of Marriage
- Goddess of Childbirth
- 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)
- Flat, round disk with central hole.
- 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.
- Carved dragon, either flat or three dimensional.
- 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
- Imperial Sovereignty
- Issued royal proclamations
- Embodiment of Yang (male force)
- Double tailed dragon
- Dragon of the water
Apples & Apple Blossoms
- Apples symbolize peace loving and their blossoms are symbolic of beauty.
- 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.)
- Bats bring good luck and happiness.
- Bats can also represent longevity.
- Five bats in a group represent the Five Blessings
- Long Life
- Natural Death
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Immortality and Longevity
- Coins symbolize prosperity and good luck.
- 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.
- 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 represent Spring and good fortune. They can also symbolize a beautiful woman.
- Bees symbolize industriousness and zealousness.
- 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.