Symbolism in Jewelry

Edwardian Diamond and Spinel Heart Brooch.
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 that 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 interpretations.

Victorian Symbolism

The use of symbolism has been an important part of adornment since the first caveman 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.

Victorian Turquoise and Pearl Articulated Snake Bracelet. Symbolic of Wisdom Suspending a Heart, Symbolic of Love and Romance.
Victorian Turquoise and Pearl Articulated Snake Bracelet. Symbolic of Wisdom Suspending a Heart, Symbolic of Love and Romance.

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.

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Victorian Symbolism

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

  • 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;"

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

  • Leadership

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

  • Archery & Cupid/Love
  • "It Glitters but it Wounds."

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

  • Eternity

Victorian Diamond Crescent Brooch. Circa 1895.Crescent/New Moon

  • New Relationship - Hopeful it Will "Wax" into Matrimony.

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

  • Contentment ("dun roamin")

Victorian Dove & Olive Branch Necklace.Dove

  • Religious: Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit
  • Peace
  • Messengers of Venus
  • Love and Fidelity

English Victorian Sterling Silver Locket.Fern

  • Fascination (Popular Victorian Hobby of Fern "Hunting")
  • In Mourning it Cn Mean Sincerity.

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

  • Forever
  • Eternity

Victorian Engraved Silver "Garter" Bracelet.Garter with Buckle

  • Loyalty
  • Strength
  • Protection
  • 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.

Victorian Diamond and Sapphire Horseshoe Brooch.Horseshoe

  • Luck

Victorian Engraved Ivy Motif Locket.Ivy & Evergreen

  • Fidelity
  • Wedded Love

Tiffany & Co. Silver Key Pendant.Key

  • Authority - Has the Power to Unlock the Heart, Therefore Love and Sentiment.

Emerald and Diamond Lizard Brooch.Lizard

  • Roman Symbol of Wedded Bliss

Victorian Gate Bracelet with Hear Lock and Key.Lock or Padlock

  • Protects the Heart and Thereby Love.

Lover's Knot Ring.Lover's Knot

  • Forever: Cannot be Untied.

Victorian Gold Acorn Motif Earrings.Oak

  • Strength

18 Karat Yellow Gold Ouroboros NecklaceOuroboros
(snake with a tail in its mouth)

  • Eternity

Victorian Rose Gold Scarab Beetle Necklace, c.1850.Scarab

  • 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.

Antique Natural Pearl and Enamel Snake and Crescent Pin.Snake

  • Ancient Greek & Roman, Guardian Spirit, Symbol of Wisdom.
  • Bracelet with Gems - Everlasting Love.

Memento Mori & Mourning Symbols

Victorian Faceted Jet Locket-Necklace Worn for Mourning.
Victorian Jet Locket-Necklace.

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

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

  • 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)

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

    • 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 Memorial Brooch With Clouds. Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.Tear Jewelry

    • Lover's Eye Miniatures with Tears or Clouds

    • Sorrowful Remembrances of a Dearly Loved One.
    • Clouds Around the Eye Evokes the Imagery of Being Watched Over from Heaven.

    English Mourning Ring. This item is displayed in the Schmuckmuseum in Pforzheim, Germany.Urns

    • Urns with Ancient Designs
    • Angels/Putti or Classical Maidens
    • Fallen Trees and Broken Columns
    • Obelisks
    • Weeping Willows
    • Sinking Ship - Death by Drowning.

    • Mourning
    • Sorrow
    • Grief

    White Enamel Mourning Ring. V&A Museum.White Enamel

    • White Enamel Inscriptions.

    • Mourning a Child or Single Person.

    Memento Mori Ring, Flag Commemorating Service to His Country. V & ABlack Enamel Snakes

    • Black Enamel Snakes with Crosshatch Pattern.
    • Coiled on Ring Shanks and Surrounding Lockets, Pendants and Brooches.

    • Eternity

    Princess Amelia, Daughter of George II and Charlotte Died at Age 27.Snake, Cross, Torch or Crown

    • Snake, Cross, Torch or Crown

    • Georgian Symbols of Royal Bereavement
    • Worn with Mourning Attire as Rings, Brooches, and Necklaces.

    Religious Icons & Symbols

    Art Nouveau Diamond and 18k Yellow Gold Pendant.Cross

    • Cruciform
    • Latin, Greek, Maltese Cross, St. George's Cross

    • Christian Faith.

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

      • A Dove in Cruciform

      • Holy Ghost/Spirit
      • Christian Trinity

      Order of St.Michael and St.George. Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.St. George's Cross

      • 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.

      Mythological Symbols

      JewelryGod or Goddess
      Greek - Roman
      DesignMythological ProwessRelationships
      Zeus and Hera Depicted with their Symbolic Eagle Carrying Jupiter's Thunderbolt.Zeus - Jupiter

      • Male Profile of Figure of a Man
      • Eagle
      • Thunderbolt

      • King of the Gods
      • God of the Seasons & Weather
      • God of Fertility

      • Zeus - Myriad love conquests which represented Greek victories.

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

      • Depicted Rising From the Sea on a Scallop Shell.
      • Dove
      • Swan
      • Myrtle Tree

      • Goddess of Love
      • Goddess of Beauty

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

      • Male Profile or Figure of a Man
      • Lyre

      • God of Light
      • God of the Arts, Music, Medicine

      • Artemis' twin (G)
      • Son of Zeus (G)

      Hardstone Cameo Depicting "Vulcan's Forge" with Mars, Venus, Cupid and Vulcan. c.1830.Ares - Mars

      • Depicted with a Plumed Helmet and Sword
      • Dog
      • Vulture

      • God of War

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

      • Depiction Often with Crescent Moon Atop her Head.
      • Bow & Arrows
      • Deer
      • Cyprus Tree
      • Many Breasts

      • Goddess of Hunting
      • Goddess of Childbirth
      • Protector of Animals

      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.Athena - Minerva

      • Female Profile or Figure of a Woman
      • Athena - Depicted Helmeted, Often with an Owl, a Symbol of Athens
      • Olive Tree

      • Goddess of Knowledge, Wisdom, the Arts and War

      • Athena: Daughter of Zeus
      • Athena: Patron of Athens

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

      • Putti or Winged Baby - Depicted with Bow & Arrows to Spear Love Victims.

      • Symbolic of Earthly Love Relationships

      • Eros: Son of Aphrodite & Ares

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

      • Heavily Bearded Nude Male.
      • Depicted with a Trident - a Symbol of Creation.
      • Horses & Bulls

      • God of the Sea
      • Greek - God of Earthquakes and Horses

      • Poseidon - Brother of Zeus

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

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

      Chinese Cultural Symbols

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

      • 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.

      Double Sided Jadeite Carving (Front). Because of its Characteristic Toughness, Jadeite is Well Suited to this Type of Carving,Dragon

      • 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 BC - 220 AD)

      • Guardian of the East
      • Spring
      • Courage
      • Imperial Sovereignty
      • Issued Royal Proclamations
      • Embodiment of Yang (Male Force)


      • Double tailed Dragon
      • Dragon of the Water

      Photo Courtesy of Christie's.Apple

      • Apples Symbolize Peace Loving and their Blossoms are Symbolic of Beauty.

      Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.Bamboo

      • 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.)

      Photo Courtesy of Christie's. Bat

      • Bats Bring Good Luck and Happiness.
      • Bats Can also Represent Longevity.
      • Five Bats in a Group Represent the Five Blessings

        1. Long Life
        2. Wealth
        3. Health
        4. Virtue
        5. Natural Death

      Jadeite Carved Buddha Stickpin. Buddha

      • 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

      Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.Butterfly

      • 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.

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

      • 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.

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

      • Immortality and Longevity

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

      • Coins Symbolize Prosperity and Good Luck.

      Foo Dog.Lion with Curly Hair

      • 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.

      Apricot (no image)Apricot

      • Apricots Represent Spring and Good fortune. They Can also Symbolize a Beautiful Woman.

      Bee (no Image)Bee

      • Bees symbolize Industriousness and Zealousness.


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      • 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.
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      • Gere, Charlotte and Rudoe, Judy. Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria: A Mirror to the World: London, The British Museum Press, 2010.
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      • 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.
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