Jewellery has always been imbued with layers of meaning. Everything from its form to the materials it is crafted from is intended to convey something beyond its aesthetic appeal. Every gemstone and precious metal has acquired its own special importance, conveying something about its wearer’s beliefs or status to the world.
The most widely known symbolism can be found in the tradition of gifting rings for engagements and weddings. The circular shape has no beginning or end, symbolising an eternal and undying love, whilst the fact that it surrounds the third finger is significant in that it is a bond between both members of a partnership. This finger was also considered by the Roman people to contain a vein which ran directly to the heart; the origin of the love which made the union possible.
Over the centuries jewellers have also imbued particular pieces with characteristics which convey other, more subtle meanings which allow people to express more of their personality through the items they wear. At Antique Jewellery Online we’ve put together this brief guide to some of the more common motifs in antique jewellery, and explanations of the reasoning behind them.
Signs of the Sky
Many pieces of jewellery contain celestial forms. Arguably the most common are stars, which are age old symbols of eternity. Their permanent presence in the night sky has imbued them with layers of deeper meaning from the astrological symbols of the zodiac to a plethora of deities stretching back to ancient empires.
The twinkling of diamonds and other scintillating stones pairs well with star designs. Multiple diamonds layered next to one another create a sparkling array that comes as close as possible to mimicking actual starlight.
It is strange that arguably the most famous star, our sun, is less often represented in jewellery. Although it does occur in a few pieces as a potent symbol of life and light it is less common to find solar antique jewellery with an actual sun motif. An exception to this is Egyptian revival jewellery, which often represents the sun using the eye of Ra the sun god or the scarab beetle which rolled the sun across the sky in the most ancient of their myths.
The Moon, on the other hand, is an extremely popular motif. “Man in the moon” faces, often fittingly carved out of moonstone can be found in pendants and rings stretching all the way from the Victorian era to present day. Similarly crescent moons are consistently popular, particularly in brooches, where their shape makes them ideal to showcase gemstones of graduating size. In whatever form it takes the moon tends to represent an element of the beauty and mystery of the night, albeit with a hopeful overtone. There are dozens of lunar deities in the history of almost every culture in the world. Often these are goddesses of fertility who aid mortals in the creation of new life, be it the sowing and reaping of crops or the creation of children.
Love and Faith
Jewellery is a tried and tested gift for a loved one, meaning that the most popular designs often include representations of the various forms of love. Hearts are the clearest symbols of affection and can be found in every form of jewellery from rings to lockets to pendants. One of the most prevalent ring designs is the claddagh, which is an ancient Irish design showing two hands gripping a crowned heart. This symbolises both the loving bond between two people and the sovereignty of the love itself.
Romantic love is not the only kind to be represented in jewellery. The love of God is implied in the sign of the cross; a symbol of the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ and a manifestation of his love for all of mankind. For Christians it is a powerful symbol of their faith, and the love which Jesus preached between all people.
Words and Letters
In some antique jewellery the meaning is very much on the surface. Suffragette jewellery, for example, was created during the Edwardian era to show support for the women’s rights movement. The meaning was conveyed in the colour of the stones used; green for “give”, white for “women” and violet for “votes”.
This type of jewellery, sometimes known as “acrostic” jewellery after the poetic form was also used during earlier periods to convey a message with a degree of subtlety. Victorian society often frowned on overt expressions of love, so jewellers crafted rings with an array of stones which formed affectional words. “Dearest”, “Adore” and “Regard” rings were popular, each message spelt out with combinations of diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, sapphire, topaz, opal and garnet.
Sometimes the message was hidden not through letters but location. Where a longer, more explicit message was required it would often be engraved on the inner portion of a ring’s shank so that it was only visible when the wearer removed it. These rings, known as posy or poesy rings, were named from the French word “poésie” meaning poem.
The Natural World
Much of the symbolism in jewellery is derived from nature, and jewellers since ancient times have drawn inspiration from a huge variety of environmental sources. A huge amount of jewellery has been crafted around various floral motifs, and the meaning behind these items vary from flower to flower. Roses, for example, are often used to represent love but are also the symbols of ancient English royal houses of York and Lancaster (white and red roses respectively). Lilies are often associated with grief, and are commonly included in mourning and memento mori pieces. Forget-me-nots are also commonly used as mementos of a relationship when the partners are separated or to commemorate the memory of a person who has been lost.
On a more general level all flowers are potent symbols of the beauty of life, they represent fertility, rebirth and vitality. Plant motifs are also not limited to flowers; many pieces, particularly in the Victorian era, show ivy motifs. Here the it is the behaviour of the ivy plant which conveys meaning, as in the popular Victorian rhyme “Close clings the ivy to the tree, so in my heart I cling to thee”.
The animal kingdom is also a potent area for symbolic meaning in jewellery, with some associations being truly ancient. Snakes, for example, were incredibly popular in the Victorian era. Far from representing dangerous venomous creatures they were lauded as symbols of longevity and persistence, particularly indicative of an eternal love. The snake devouring its own tail, known as an ouroboros, was a potent metaphor for eternity, and it was this association that led a young Prince Albert to make such a gift to Queen Victoria during his early courtship.
Butterfly motifs are also common, which is not surprising given their obvious natural beauty, but they were also associated with the concept of rebirth and change. The maturation of a creature of such beauty from the comparably unattractive caterpillar or pupa is a potent symbol of beauty emerging from hard work or hard times.
Although the butterfly is one of the more common insects in jewellery it is not the only one. Dragonflies hold similar meaning, emerging from rather unattractive water larva into great metallic insects which have been on the Earth since before mankind evolved. Bees are often used as a symbol of unity, exemplifying the teamwork of the hive and the incredible structures which can be built through cooperation, and beetles, as already mentioned, call back to the ancient Egyptian solar scarab as symbols of the eternal sun.
Birds of all kinds are often used to represent freedom, but the different species often hold more specific meaning. Doves are an almost universal symbol of peace. Peacocks are often depicted for aesthetic reasons, as symbols of the very beauty that they exhibit, and by extension impart upon those who wear them. The stork is often linked with new life, and is a popular motif in jewellery designed to celebrate a birth. The fact that many birds mate for life makes them a potent metaphor for a committed relationship. Swallows, swans and sea birds are famed for forming such powerful bonds, and so are often used in jewellery to express such love.
More domestic animals are often used to exemplify the qualities of the wearer. Dogs evoke the image of the faithful hound, a companion for life and “man’s best friend”. As such they are perfect to demonstrate the ideals of loyalty and dependability. Conversely cats are more often associated with independence of spirit and self reliance.
Of course, sometime the shape of a piece of jewellery is no more than individual preference. One can wear a butterfly brooch simply because it appeals to your individual sense of style, but it does help to be aware of the meaning behind what you are wearing before making the decision to buy a piece of antique jewellery.
At Antique Jewellery Online we are committed to finding the most varied pieces of premium antique jewellery for our customers. Whatever designs speak to you we’re sure you’ll find something to suit you in our extensive collection.