The years between 1714 and 1830 are known as the Georgian period, and mark the reigns of the Hanover kings of England; George I, George II, George III and George IV. The period is often extended to cover the relatively short reign of William IV, which ended with his death in 1837.
This was a time of great change in Britain, marking the beginning of the industrial revolution and improvements in infrastructure which greatly altered the way in which the British people lived and worked. These societal changes were felt across all walks of life and every profession. Craftsmen began to modify the way in which they produced their goods, and the jewellers craft began the first steps towards the modernisation which would accelerate in the subsequent Victorian Era.
With access to innovations in metallurgy and mechanisation the jewellers of the period were able to more efficiently ply their craft, giving a greater number of craftsmen the ability to create more pieces in a shorter time. This, coupled with the robustness of Georgian design, meant that more pieces survived into the present day.
Georgian jewellery was characterised by incredibly ornate metalwork, which at this stage was hand-carved with painstaking care by individuals who spent their entire lives perfecting their craft. Any single piece represented an investment of time and energy over many days. As even the smallest item was crafted with such care and attention jewellery was still very much only accessible to the wealthier tiers of society, and this was further exacerbated by the value of the materials used.
Georgian goldsmiths worked with high carat gold with a purity of no less than 18 carat. These materials were stronger than pure, 24 carat gold, and marginally less expensive, but they were still extremely valuable and not as durable as the lower carat gold alloys which were used in later eras. The properties of the gold used influenced the style of the jewellery produced.
Although it was expected that those who wore these pieces would not be engaged in activities which would put undue stress on their jewellery there was still an attempt to make them as durable as possible. This was most starkly visible in the way Georgian rings were created. Care was taken to use large, thick pieces of gold with as few joins as possible to increase the strength of the final piece. Where gold was formed into wires it was anchored firmly to support it, meaning that Georgian jewellery does not exhibit the more minimal designs which rose to prominence after the widespread introduction of stronger, less valuable gold alloys.
It is easiest to identify a piece of Georgian jewellery by the way in which the creator treated gemstones, particularly diamonds. Due to their hardness it is incredibly hard to cut diamonds, with the only substance hard enough to do so effectively being powdered diamond itself. Without the aid of modern machinery, Georgian lapidaries (those who specialise in the cutting of gems) could not match the precision and intricacy of modern cutting practises. The brilliant cut, now the standard cut for diamonds, contains many facets of varying sizes to increase the scintillation of a stone, and this would have been extremely difficult for a Georgian lapidary to achieve. Instead there was a focus on more regular patterns such as the rose cut.
When the stones were secured in the metalwork the relative softness of the gold meant that claws settings, where small prongs of metal are hooked around the edge to hold it secure, were not practical. In order to hold the stone in place metal was instead built up around the edges so that the stone was essentially embedded into the gold. This caused the issue that it was harder for light to flow through the stone, which jewellers compensated for by backing the stone in a highly polished, extremely thin piece of metal foil. This made the back of the stone a reflective surface, brightening it by bouncing light back out of the setting.
The innovative ways in which the Georgians dealt with the constraints of their materials and tools are an integral part of the charm of this era’s surviving jewellery. Sadly, though much time and effort was made to create pieces which stood the test of time, later eras jewellers often cannibalised the materials to create more modern designs. Stones were re-cut, gold melted down and reformed, and many pieces were lost forever. This makes Georgian jewellery a rarity in the modern age.
At Antique Jewellery Online we have spent decades searching for the most beautiful and remarkable pieces of Georgian jewellery and we are proud to be able to present our extensive collection to our customers.
You can view our collection of antique Georgian jewellery here.