While motifs relating to the grief-stricken often dominate conversations about Victorian jewelry, there was way more to adornment than mourning in the 1800s. From styles that revived older looks to those popular moving into the 20th century, Victorian-era jewelry took many interesting, and beautiful, forms.
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Contrary to popular belief, jewelry made of black material was not always worn to symbolize the loss of a loved one during the latter half of the 19th century. Sometimes wearing black jewelry was simply a fashion statement, and it was worn apart from traditional mourning dress.
So how do you tell the difference? If a piece of jewelry doesn't have some type of mourning symbolism, then you can't assume it was worn as part of mourning dress. For example, the black glass—also referenced as French jet—and enamel Victorian sash pin shown here was probably not created as a mourning piece, and it should not be categorized in that way. It does not have mourning symbols within the design, nor does it have any type of "in memory of" inscription. Perhaps it was worn by a woman in mourning, but it wasn't specifically made for that purpose like so many other pieces of black jewelry.
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At the end of the 19th century, some of the most à la mode jewelry was white, white stones with a white metal setting, and designed in the garland style. Delicacy was the hallmark of this style. Motifs of ribbons and bows, cobwebs and lace, leaves and flowers predominated—anything that lent itself to a curvy shape, and always with plenty of openwork. The stones would often be in a millegrain setting, to add to the air of intricate frothiness. The graceful designs were highly symmetrical, inspired by 18th-century rococo patterns.
But if the inspiration lay in a historic style, the execution reflected state-of-the-art technology. Diamonds were the stone of choice, thanks to the immense output of South African diamond mines in the late 1800s that greatly increased the availability (and affordability) of the sparklers, according to Clare Phillips in Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present. Advances in the craft of creating cultured pearls helped make pearls omnipresent, too.
Finally, developments in metallurgy encouraged platinum to become the must-have setting. The strength of this white metal meant that even a large necklace could be made with a relatively small amount of metal. Pieces were ornate, yet lightweight.
The garland style predominated in all sorts of jewelry: tiaras, bracelets, necklaces, and that quintessential Edwardian/Belle Époque piece, the dog collar. Its white-on-white color scheme and flowing silhouettes flourished throughout the early 1900s, up until World War I. The jeweler Cartier was a premier practitioner of the garland style. Towards the end of the first decade, however, more linear shapes emerged as a harbinger of the Art Deco look to come.
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Renaissance Revival Jewelry
Renaissance Revival as expressed in jewelry is an elaborate, colorful style popular in the second half of the 19th century that set out to imitate 15th to 17th-century jewelry motifs and styles. This reflected the renewal of interest in Renaissance artists and craftsmen such as Hans Holbein and Benvenuto Cellini.
Characteristics of this jewelry include extensive use of enameling, jeweled and scrolled frames of bright gold, openwork designs of quatrefoils or trefoils, dangling chains, baroque pearls or cameos, especially in the center of the piece, and detailed figures—like small-scale sculptures—depicting mythological creatures, cupids, or animals. These figures were often carved on both sides of a piece of jewelry, creating a three-dimensional scene. Some of the respected designers associated with Renaissance Revival jewelry are Castellani, Guiliano, Fouquet, Louis, and Jules Wiese.
Some scholars believe Renaissance Revival jewels were originally made as deliberate counterfeits of 15th-, 16th- and 17th-century pieces to fool the growing number of Victorian aristocrats interested in collecting gems dating to this earlier period.