A Guide to Antique Georgian Jewelry
What was the Georgian Period?
The Georgian period covered the reigns of five English kings, four named George and one William. The reigns of George I, II, III, IV, and William IV lasted from 1714 to 1837. Georgian refers to the English art and culture produced during this era. In terms of jewelry design, although the name of the period obviously references England, this nation wasn’t the sole influence. Historical events in France, Germany, and Italy also influenced Georgian jewelry motifs and designs.
Notable Characteristics of Georgian Jewelry
Jewelers handcrafted all the jewelry of this period with incredibly labor-intensive processes. The artisans had to hand hammer gold ingots and other metals into thin sheets before even starting to fabricate pieces.
Locating jewelry from this period can be very difficult. Georgian period jewelers often melted down what they considered out-of-date pieces in order to make newer pieces reflecting current trends.
Since gold assaying wasn’t enforced until the 1900s, you won’t find authentic Georgian jewelry with stamps. Also absent are maker’s marks. These marks indicate the firm responsible for producing the jewelry. However, no one enforced them until the 1900s.
Georgian period jewelers often set gemstones in closed back settings. These included foil backings under the gems to enhance their scintillation by candlelight. (If you acquire such a piece, be aware that contact with water will ruin the delicate the foil).
Georgian Jewelry Metal Work
The hallmark of Georgian jewelry is its incredibly ornate metal work. Only hand fabrication could achieve this level of artistry. Furthermore, hand-crafted jewelry doesn’t have porosity (surface pitting in the metal). You’ll often see this in jewelry made with modern casting molds.
Metals commonly used in jewelry during the period include: silver for gemstone settings; 18k or higher yellow gold; steel, iron, and pinchbeck (83% copper and 17% zinc).
A common metal working technique of the period, repoussé involved hammering malleable metal into intricate designs and patterns. In 1750, the invention of the rolling mill eliminated the need to hammer the metal first into thin, uniform sheets.
The beautiful memorial bracelet below exemplifies repoussé. It’s also a stunning example of hair jewelry from this period. The Baroque, 18k yellow gold center plaque serves as the clasp and houses a cabochon-cut amethyst. Actual woven hair, remarkably intact, completely comprises the bracelet part. Two things determine the value of this bracelet: the intricate 18k gold work and the irreplaceable hair.
This metal working technique, very popular in the 1820s and 30s, involved intricate wire work designs. Cannetille resembles embroidery-inspired filigree.
This bracelet has five foil-backed aquamarine gemstones amongst intricate cannetille work. The 15k yellow gold double strand bracelet has links showing detailed metal work. While the aquamarines don’t have deep color, the gold and detailed hand-crafted metal set the price.
Motifs in Georgian Jewelry
Popular motifs included flowers, crescents, ribbons, bows, leaves, feather plumes, and sprays of foliage. Enameling and glass overlays were also popular.
Until 1750, the Baroque style dominated, with its total symmetry and heavy ornateness. After 1750, the emergence of Rococo style brought open, light, and asymmetrical lines to jewelry.
Notable archeological discoveries as well as wars also affected Georgian jewelry motifs. From 1706 to 1814, the ruins of Pompeii were excavated. In the 1760s, Roman and Greek motifs, such as Greek keys and laurel and grape leaves, were all the rage. (Today, this Neo-Classical Georgian jewelry is very much in demand). The news and discoveries of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign (1798-1799) brought pyramids and papyrus leaves as motifs into Georgian jewelry. His European wars inspired Fer de Berlin jewelry.
Popular Gemstones and Cutting Styles in Georgian Jewelry
Jewelers used diamonds almost exclusively until colored gemstones made a resurgence in 1750. From that point forward, you’ll commonly find gems like diamond, ruby, sapphire, garnet, topaz, coral, shell, agate, chrysoberyl, and pearl in Georgian jewelry. In 1780, paste or glass was introduced as a gemstone alternative.
Notable gem cutting styles included:
- Table Cut: square shape with a flat top and bottom.
- Rose Cut: round shape with a domed top and flat bottom.
- Old Mine Cut: rounded square shape with many facets. Closely resembles today’s modern round brilliant cut.
- Cabochon: rounded top and flat bottom.
- Briolette: faceted teardrop shape.
What Were the Hot Items in Georgian Jewelry?
As we’ve seen, families had memorial or hair jewelry created to commemorate departed loved ones. This was a popular and very personal jewelry item during the Georgian period. Other fashionable pieces included girandoles (ribbons or bows with three dangling gemstones) and rings in navette, oval, and rectangular shapes. Wearing bracelets of any kind in pairs was very stylish.
Pear-shaped dangling earrings. This pair features 56 table and rose-cut diamonds set in silver with gold backings. The pendeloque can be removed via a hinge in the front. The diamonds and hand-fabricated mountings set the price of these pieces.
Jewelers used coral, agate, and shell to carve cameos for use in necklaces, brooches, and rings.
This 10k yellow gold mourning pin features a shell cameo depicting a woman crying at a grave. Glass covers the cameo, and the departed’s woven hair frames it. The cameo’s fine details determine the price. In addition, finding intact hair on a genuine Georgian jewelry piece is rare.
Dog collars or chokers were popular necklace styles.
Riviere necklaces featured a strand of gemstones in individual mountings linked together. This one has well-matched amethysts set in silver. Jewelers often used diamonds and other gemstones. Very fashionable during the Georgian period, riviere style necklaces remain popular. You can see them worn today.
Before purses or pockets, people carried their important tools or accessories dangling from pins or hooks attached to their belts. Decorative as well as practical, these belts, known as chatelaines, could hold scissors, watches, writing instruments, notebooks, eyeglasses, etc. (They enjoyed widespread use until the 1900s). Made of cut steel, the chatelaine below includes: a disc-shaped pin cushion, a button hook, a thimble holder with steel thimble, a folding corkscrew for perfume bottles and a decorative cut-steel attachment. Despite some rust on the steel due to age, this piece remains in very good condition. Intact chatelaines, like this, are very rare. Over the years, people dismantled many of these to use the tools as pendants.
En Tremblant Settings
An en tremblant design attached parts of the jewelry to a trembler to create movement. Hair combs and brooches made excellent en tremblant pieces. If you find a Georgian jewelry piece with such a design, intact and still trembling, you’d have quite a prize.
Fer de Berlin (Berlin Iron) Jewelry
Beginning in 1804, Germans donated their precious jewelry to help finance the war effort against Napoleon. As rewards, they received substitutes fabricated from iron. Fer de Berlin was often engraved with “Gold gab ich fur eisen.” (I gave gold for iron). These jewelry pieces were sand cast, then lacquered black. After the Napoleonic threat passed, however, this style of iron jewelry remained popular. Today, Berlin Iron jewelry is highly collectible.
These suites of matching jewelry contained convertible pieces. For example, a brooch could double as a pendant. A necklace could separate into two bracelets. The parure below exemplifies what was en vogue in the Georgian period. The large centerpiece brooch also doubles as a pendant for the necklace. The earrings can be worn as studs or as dangles. The suite features a total of 97 chrysoberyls of mixed cuts, set in 18k yellow gold, that total 38.50 cts. Since most sets were split up over the years, you’ll rarely find one intact. The sheer number and total weight of the chrysoberyls make this suite valuable. However, the workmanship and rarity of a complete suite contribute greatly.
If you’ve set your heart on Georgian jewelry, take note. While authentic pieces are hard to locate, what does exist are expertly crafted, hand-made works of art. These rare pieces are truly collector’s finds. If you have money to spare, they’re worth every penny.