A Guide to Early Victorian Romantic Period Jewelry
What was the Romantic Period?
The Victorian Era began and ended with Queen Victoria’s reign. She ascended to the throne of the United Kingdom in 1837 and died in 1901. Those sixty-four years witnessed enormous changes in industry, society, fashion, and, of course, jewelry. For example, it started with horse-drawn carriages and candlelight and ended with automobiles and electricity. The term “Victorian” refers broadly to the British art and culture produced during this time.
Historians often divide the reign of Britain’s longest reigning monarch into three parts: the Early Victorian or Romantic, the Middle Victorian or Grand, and the Late Victorian or Aesthetic periods. In terms of jewelry, each sub-period had different motifs, gems, metals, and fabrication techniques that rose and fell in popularity. However, some elements endured and saw transformations, some of which can help date a piece. For example, hair jewelry was worn in the Romantic Period, but its popularity reached its zenith during the Grand Period. Thus, the repoussé metal work of a dainty locket containing a lock of hair would pinpoint the piece as Romantic Period jewelry. On the other hand, a large, imposing brooch showcasing a dark gemstone, framed with braided hair, would most likely fall into the Grand Period.
The Romantic Period (1837-1860) reflected the love of a nation for its young queen and her love for her husband, Prince Albert. His death in 1861 marked the end of the Early Victorian Period and the beginning of the Grand Period.
Notable Characteristics of Romantic Period Jewelry
During the Early Victorian period, the Industrial Revolution surged ahead. Factories opened at an unprecedented rate, and trades and industries flourished. Mass production meant jewelry was no longer made strictly by hand.
Romantic Period jewelry was very sentimental. It often reflected the new love of a young couple.
Jewelers frequently used 18k gold for their creations. However, before the California Gold Rush (1848-1855) alleviated a gold shortage in Britain, lower karats and gold plating were common.
Brooches fabricated during the Romantic Period had their pins extended past the body of the brooch. The fasteners had simple “C” design clasps.
Gemstones were often set in claw-like prongs or collet settings, metal that encircled the outer rim of the gemstone.
Romantic Period Jewelry Metal Work
Repoussé was a common metal working technique of the Early Victorian period. It involved hammering malleable metal into intricate designs and patterns.
Metals commonly used during this period include:
- 18k to 22k gold in all colors except white.
- Rolled gold (gold sheets soldered to base metal sheets).
- Gold electroplate (thinner sheets of gold fused to a base metal).
- Pinchbeck (83% copper and 17% zinc).
- Cut steel.
Motifs in Romantic Period Jewelry
Popular motifs included: eyes, hands, hearts, anchors, crosses, arrows, clovers, love knots, garters, buckles, vines, and leaves. Seed pearls were frequently arranged in grape clusters. Enameling also enjoyed popularity.
The Romantic Period saw a renewed interest in Gothic and Medieval themes. Archeological excavations of Ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian sites also fascinated people. The jewelry of the period often reflected designs inspired by these eras.
France’s presence in Algeria ushered Moorish motifs, such as knots and tassels, into Romantic Period jewelry. After Queen Victoria and Prince Albert purchased their Balmoral estate in Scotland, Scottish designs also became prevalent in jewelry.
Prince Albert’s engagement ring to Queen Victoria featured a serpent with an emerald set in its head. As symbols of eternal love, snakes became very popular motifs in Early Victorian jewelry.
Popular Gemstones and Cutting Styles in Romantic Period Jewelry
Jewelers used a wide variety of gem materials during this period. Among the most popular: agate, amber, amethyst, chalcedony, chrysoberyl, diamond, emerald, garnet, malachite, seed pearls, quartz, topaz, and turquoise. Other materials frequently found in Romantic Period jewelry include ivory, lava stone, and tortoiseshell. Coral was also prized as a jewelry material. (The redder, the more expensive).
Gutta-percha, a sap from Malaysian trees, could be molded into durable pieces for jewelry use. Since this material had a brownish to black color, jewelers used it for mourning jewelry in particular. Vulcanized rubber was also used for similar jewelry purposes.
Bog oak, Irish wood recovered from immersion in bogs, was hand carved and used in jewelry until the 1850s.
Notable gem cutting styles included:
- 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.
What Were the Hot Items in Romantic Period Jewelry?
Large brooches as well as large, matching bracelets were all the rage.
Joining cameos and small paintings as a way to capture the likenesses of loved ones, daguerreotypes (early photographs) were sometimes added to brooches and watch fobs.
Jewelry aficionados arranged gemstones in settings so the first letter of each gem spelled out an endearing word.
For example, the acrostic ring below contains a ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby, and diamond. They spell “REGARD.” Pieces like this exemplify the sentimentality of Romantic Period jewelry.
This ancient jewelry technique had a resurgence of popularity during Early Victorian times. Initially, tourists who visited archeological ruins in Italy brought them home as souvenirs. Jewelers made these from coral, shell, and lava stone.
This jewelry suite of a necklace, brooch, and bracelet consists of coral cameos. It features orangey pink coral carved into high relief cameos with scalloped mountings. Coral also serves as links in the necklace with the 14k yellow gold (and gives the piece an interesting twist). The well-done carvings show fine details. The consistency of the coral color is excellent.
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).
These decorative chains to drape over bodices could reach considerable lengths.
For example, this 63” slide chain features an enameled shield-shaped slide with pearls. This enables the finely textured 14k yellow gold-filled chain to be doubled. The finely detailed slide and the length of the intricately detailed chain make this piece rare and valuable.
These drop, cluster style earrings featured three dangling gemstones.
The opulent girandole earrings below feature ten cabochon-cut opals accented by twelve emeralds and eight old mine-cut diamonds. The 18k yellow gold earrings have cannetille wire work. The combination of the gems’ sheer weight and the cannetille makes these earrings extremely rare.
Another example of Early Victorian sentimentality, lockets, watch fobs, and brooches that contained a loved one’s locks were quite popular.
This charming, dainty 14k yellow gold locket features an old mine diamond in the center. Cabochon-cut turquoise stones in repoussé metal work surround it. The clear back of the locket reveals hair arranged in a heart shape.