The Victorian era is one of the closest to my heart. More than just the grandiose designs and bright gemstones lure me in; it’s the rich symbolism and sentimentality that make antique Victorian jewellery so captivating. Even though diamonds and precious metals remained popular during this period, unusual pieces made with unconventional materials like steel, tortoiseshells, and hard stones are those that trigger interest and curiosity.
All jewellery periods have their own signature hallmarks, and the Victorian era is no different. This was a time of great change and innovation in the world of jewellery, which inspired countless modern designs and productions in later years. Let’s take a closer look at this fascinating time.
Victorian Jewellery Period Overview
The Victorian Jewellery Era began with Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837 and ended with her death in 1901. Her 64-year reign saw a period of prolonged peace and prosperity in the UK. Naturally, this led to an increase in the standard of living and the demand for luxury goods like jewellery, which was now being mass-produced thanks to the Industrial Revolution.
Fuelling this demand was Queen Victoria’s own love of jewellery, which she wore in abundance and also designed as gifts for high-ranking members of the British Empire. Victoria was not only a much-loved monarch but also quite the trendsetter for her time. Thanks to transport improvements, the spread of newspapers, and the invention of photography, the Queen and the royal family travelled and were seen on an unprecedented scale. This meant countless people all over Europe witnessed her lavish jewels and tried to mimic her style.
Though antique jewellery from the Victorian period is mostly associated with England, Europe, particularly France, produced much of it. However, based on the Queen’s personal life, style evolution, and inventions of the time, the era is divided into three sub-periods:
♦ Early Victorian or Romantic Period (1837-1861)
The early Romantic Period reflected the great romance between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Symbols of love and nature dominated the young monarch’s – and, therefore, the period’s – jewellery. Designed by Prince Albert, her engagement ring featured a golden serpent with an emerald (her birthstone) head eating its tail. This design symbolised eternal love and remained in demand throughout the era. Secret compartments, acrostic jewellery, and floral motifs were also very popular during this time.
♦ Mid-Victorian or Grand Period (1861-1880)
The start of this period was marked by the death of Prince Albert, which plunged Queen Victoria into a prolonged state of mourning. This led to the introduction of darker gems and more sombre colours in jewellery. Materials like black jet, onyx, and black enamel gained popularity. Cameos were another major trend that reached its peak during this time.
♦ Late Victorian or Aesthetic Period (1880-1901)
The late Aesthetic Period saw Victorian jewellery becoming more simple and feminine, as well as moving more from handcrafted to mass-produced. Light and small designs replaced heavier earlier examples while cheaper jewellery became widely available to the prosperous middle class. Stud earrings and diamond hairpins were all the rage, as were pearls and choker necklaces.
Metals Used In Antique Victorian Jewellery
Gold was the most common and favourable metal used in Victorian-era jewellery, seen in all colours except for white, which wasn’t available until 1900. Prior to 1854, the term “gold” meant anything from 18ct to 22ct, with jewellers mostly choosing 18ct yellow gold for their creations. However, lower carats, along with rolled gold, gold electroplate, gold plating, and pinchbeck, were also common before the California Gold Rush (1848-1855) alleviated a gold shortage in Britain. A new English law introduced in 1854 required that jewellers mark their pieces to show the gold content, leading to the use of the 9, 12 and 15-carat hallmarks.
As the Industrial Revolution fuelled a series of innovations in metallurgy, lower-carat gold alloys like rose gold began to become prevalent. This had a number of benefits since lower-carat gold is more durable and affordable, and is also strong enough to take slimmer delicate forms like the filigree. No longer was gold Victorian jewellery the exclusive privilege of the rich nobility. The lower cost, coupled with advanced processes, meant that jewels could now be produced in larger quantities for the ever-growing middle class. And since these pieces were tougher, many have survived almost intact to this day.
During the Romantic Period, the value of silver was far greater than it is today and almost equalled the value of high-carat gold at one point. It, therefore, represented an investment for the wealthy and was mostly used by upper-class society members. Thanks to the advancement of silver-crafting processes and the colonies making the metal more available, the price decreased, and silverware became much more affordable. The year 1840 also saw the invention of silver plating.
This swift change in the silver’s value and crafting techniques make antique Victorian silver pieces a tangible historical record. They are highly coveted by collectors and illustrate the evolution of the silversmith’s art. Victorian Silver was and continues to be extremely wearable while making a bold and statement presence. Intricate engravings featuring flower and dove motifs, as well as figural jewellery such as anchors, arrows, and heart lockets were typical designs and were generally beautifully executed.
A surprisingly interesting Victorian-era style was costume jewellery made of cut steel, aluminium, and gunmetal. The origins of this kind of jewellery can be traced back to the 18th century when it was often worn by noblemen who donated their precious jewels to their country.
Cut steel jewellery was usually made of tiny nail-like studs mounted on steel plates. These studs were often faceted to create brilliance and a diamond-like effect.
Thanks to technological advancements, we also see some platinum beginning to be used in antique Victorian jewellery from 1880 onwards. Very little platinum was used before then, and the pale metal didn’t really become popular until after 1895.
Victorian Jewellery Gemstones And Cutting Styles
By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, the British Empire covered one-fifth of the Earth’s surface, allowing the harnessing of resources from every corner of this vast territory. A great influx of precious gemstones mined from countries as far away as Colombia and Australia gave jewellers the opportunity to make exquisite large stones the focal point of their creations. While natural pearls and diamonds maintained their popularity throughout the Victorian era, brightly coloured gemstones became incredibly fashionable. The Queen herself promoted the wear of coloured stones not just in the daytime but also at special and royal events, where diamonds once ruled.
Victorian-era jewellery was designed to be noticeable and bright gems were the perfect way to make a statement and show off one’s latest addition. Pink rubies, green emeralds, and deep-blue sapphires were favoured amongst the upper class, even within Victorian engagement rings, which once exclusively featured diamonds. Other popular gem materials, particularly during the Romantic Period, include tortoiseshell, ivory, lava stone, and coral (the redder, the pricier). Increased global trading contributed to an expanding variety of gemstones throughout the Victorian period, including:
- Mother of pearl
- Seed pearls
The popularity of paste or imitation stone jewellery was also reinforced during this era as the market for less expensive gemstone variants and costume jewels increased. Heavy lead-infused flint glass would be expertly crafted into diamond-resembling stones, while colour could be added to mimic gems like rubies and emeralds.
The most notable cutting styles of the period were:
♦ Rose or Table Cut: Round shape with a flat bottom and domed top.
♦ Cabochon: Flat bottom with a rounded top.
♦ Old Mine Cut: Rounded square shape with multiple (58 or more) facets – similar to the modern round brilliant cut.
♦ Old European Cut (from 1890 onwards): Round shape with a small table, large culet, and 58 triangular facets.
Signature Antique Victorian Jewellery Trends
Probably the most popular jewellery trend from the Victorian era – particularly the early Romantic Period – is sentimental jewellery. The deep love between England’s young Queen and Prince Albert captured the nation’s hearts and inspired emotional motifs that served to celebrate love and remembrance. Those included hearts, cupids, angels, arrows, and endless knots. Romantic nature-inspired elements, such as doves, roses, daisies, forget-me-nots, vines, leaves, and certain insects, were also incorporated.
Of course, the snake motif, inspired by Queen Victoria’s engagement ring, was always in demand! Secret compartments were a common feature in Victorian rings, pendant lockets or brooches, often holding a token from a loved one inside. All social classes wore sentimental jewels made from all kinds of materials; silver and gold, diamonds and hard stones.
The symbolism of jewels in the Victorian era was richer than ever before. Much of the jewellery produced during this period had religious or symbolic connotations that still exist to this date. Popular symbols included crosses for faith, anchors for hope, stars for guidance, clovers for good fortune, and serpents for eternity.
Thanks to advances in manufacturing processes, jewellery makers could craft pieces with increasingly intricate symbolic motifs. Crescent moons, birds, flowers, eyes, hands, and garters were very fashionable, and each had its own unique meaning.
Acrostic jewellery was arguably the ultimate token of love in the Victorian period. This clever trend dates back to the Georgian Era but reached new peaks thanks to the sentimental styles of Victorians. They would arrange gemstones in settings so that each gem’s initial spelt out an endearing word or a message of love.
Popular examples include ADORE (Amethyst, Diamond, Opal, Ruby, Emerald), DEAREST (Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire, Topaz), and REGARD (Ruby, Emerald, Garnet, Amethyst, Ruby, Diamond).
Scottish jewellery became fashionable from the 1860s onwards after Prince Albert purchased the Balmoral estate in Scotland for his Queen. Innovative, colourful fine and costume designs served to reflect the country as a newly-popular touristic destination. Tartan, thistle, mythological, and Celtic knot patterns were favoured.
Pebble jewellery was popularised by the Queen, featuring the endless agate stones or “Scotch Pebbles” found in the country’s river beds. This style also featured locally-mined jasper, bloodstone, citrine, malachite, granite, as well as cairngorm stones, which the Queen often collected on her walks near Balmoral.
International And Old World Influence
The Early Victorian period saw a renewed interest in Gothic and Mediaeval designs like skulls and armour. Meanwhile, France’s presence in Algeria brought Moorish motifs like knots and tassels to the table. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan themes also experienced a revival following the archaeological digs of the time that fascinated the public.
The Rosetta Stone’s translation in 1822 helped to finally read Egyptian hieroglyphics, while the Suez Canal’s construction ended in 1869, increasing Britain’s presence in Egypt. These factors started a craze for what would become known as Victorian Egyptian jewellery towards the end of the Grand Period, with the scarab beetle as its most recognisable motif.
Another sentimental practice in antique Victorian jewellery was the use of real hair. Locks from a beloved or deceased one’s head were often plaited and placed behind a glass compartment.
In the mid-to-late 19th century, hair was used to make complete pieces of jewellery, such as necklaces and bracelets. The hair was boiled, glued, and reinforced with horse hair before being braided into the desired design.
As women became more socially active in the mid-19th century, jewellery was designed to depict their new lifestyle, including the sports and leisure activities they took up.
Stylised brooches with fox heads, horses, bicycles, and tennis rackets were worn by the huntresses, equestriennes, and sports enthusiasts to express their passion for their hobby. Many Victorian rings also featured horseshoe and buckle motifs.
The trend of wearing morbid jewellery to honour the dead dates back to the Georgian Era. However, during the Grand Period, it took more of a romantic tone of remembrance rather than the previously more sombre one. This was a period of great loss for Queen Victoria due to her mother’s passing and the sudden death of her husband at just 42 years of age. She would wear black for the rest of her life and took to wearing dark-coloured jewels, which explains why Victorians had a stringent code when it came to mourning styles.
Many earlier themes continued, such as the safekeeping of the deceased’s hair in secret compartments, mourning Cameos, and Memento Mori inscriptions. New additions included the prevalent use of black materials to further signify grief. Black jet, onyx, and enamel were popular, as was the deep red garnet representing the bleeding of a broken heart.
Notable alternative materials used in Victorian mourning jewellery include vulcanised rubber, hand-carved bog oak (Irish wood recovered from immersion in bogs), and gutta-percha, a sap from Malaysian trees that could be moulded into durable pieces for jewellery.
Antique Victorian Jewellery Staples
Victorian brooches served as the ultimate finishing touch and were just as sparkling, symbolic, and grandiose as the rest of the era’s jewellery. They were worn on the lapel or breast of the period’s heavy clothing, such as coats, capes, suits, and dresses.
Girandole earrings were also popular since the long-drop, cluster style allowed more gemstones to be featured within the dangling design. The signature attribute of this chandelier-type earring is the inclusion of three stones suspending from a central element. Apart from Queen Victoria, the late Queen Elizabeth II was also a fan and has been spotted wearing an antique pair of diamond girandole earrings on multiple occasions.
Cameos saw great demand thanks to the resurgence of Renaissance and Ancient Roman jewellery, with the trend being further pushed by Queen Victoria. They were originally brought back as souvenirs from Italy by wealthy people who travelled around Europe on what was called ‘the grand tour’. Usually carved from coral, shell or lava stone, they featured mythological scenes or commissioned portraits of a loved one. Cameos started being mass-produced after the invention of celluloid in 1868 and were often worn on velvet chokers.
Charm bracelets, similar to the modern Pandora version, also rose in popularity. This was likely due to Queen Victoria’s own bracelet consisting of charms she had specifically commissioned to give as gifts to loved ones.
Collar necklaces and pearl chokers were the ultimate Victorian necklace. They were popularised by Queen Victoria’s daughter-in-law Princess Alexandra, who wore a pearl, multi-strand collier de chien (French for dog collar) to hide a scar on her throat.
Chatelaines (meaning “lady of the castle” in French) were decorative and practical belts that date back to Mediaeval times, though they enjoyed widespread use until the 1900s. They were used before purses and pockets to carry keys, notebooks, watches, and other items from dangling pins or hooks attached to the belt. In Victorian times, however, they evolved into a form of jewellery from which hung handy items such as eyeglasses, scissors, and timepieces.
Slide or guard chains were decorative gold or occasionally silver chains that could reach considerable lengths. Originally used by Victorian women as a way to carry their pocket watches, these long chains were worn in myriad ways. For example, full length with the end piece tucked into a pocket or clipped on the belt, doubled up and clipped in the centre for a festoon-style look, or as a layered pendant necklace or choker.
Victorian antique engagement rings were as ornate as ever, and none was complete without a beautiful diamond at its centre. Old cut and solitaire diamonds set in six prongs were popular styles, as was the crossover ring design that resembled the famous infinity symbol for expressing the timelessness of marriage and everlasting love.
Victorian wedding bangles emerged in the late Aesthetic period and often replaced Victorian wedding rings. The design of these gold bracelets resembled handcuffs, which were often equipped with a lock and key. A gentleman would lock one around his chosen lady’s wrist upon betrothal and the second on her other wrist upon marriage. Despite being generally associated with matrimony, handcuff bracelets were not restricted to the wrists of engaged ladies. They were favoured by many fashionistas of the time and were even used to ‘captivate’ an unsuspecting man they fancied.
Original Then, Timeless Now
Victorian jewellers were masters of their craft, and the era’s prosperity allowed them to create exquisite pieces with an unprecedented level of skill that has seen many survive to this day. The entire period turned jewellery into something more than simply a decoration. It taught us to treasure jewels as tangible memories, designs that triggered the senses, and charms that captured time itself. Queen Victoria certainly helped to make jewellery appreciated not only for its beauty but also for its storytelling and legacy.
Real Victorian jewellery was made to last and increase its value over time. Although this makes it less rare today, the great variety in styles, expert craftsmanship, and artistic value makes it highly desirable amongst collectors worldwide. It certainly has a special place in my heart, for all the sentimental connotations it carries and for its emphasis on the meaning rather than the materials used to make it.
Below are a couple of cherished pieces from my personal collection that combine so well with my modern jewels:
I hope you enjoyed this take on antique Victorian jewellery and have been inspired to start your own collection of time-honoured jewels. Many resources are available if you want to expand your knowledge and one book I would personally recommend is “Victorian Jewelry: Unexplored Treasures” by Corinne Davidov and Ginny Redington Dawes.
Don’t forget to visit YazJewels and immerse yourself in a world of jewellery from eras past.
Til the next jewellery period, happy gem-hunting!