From 1839 to 1901 the British Empire was ruled over by Queen Victoria, the second longest serving monarch until Queen Elizabeth II. Her reign marked a period of intense innovation and production during a time at which Britain was a global superpower with access to great reserves of precious stones and metals.
The jewellers of the age had access to a greater number of gems which allowed them to test and perfect the use of new technology to shape stones more accurately and at greater speed. Lapidaries, those who specialise in the faceting of gemstones, were now able to create high quality cuts without the massive investment of time that this would have required in earlier periods. This, coupled with the greater number of raw stones, meant that they were free to innovate and create elaborate cuts that would be embraced for centuries to come.
In contrast to the jewellery of the preceding Georgian era, Victorian pieces began to employ lower carat gold alloys, which were stronger and able to take on a variety of forms which were previously not possible. The most obvious example of this shift can be seen in many Victorian rings. Georgian jewellers had to surround their gemstones in gold or silver to hold them firmly in place, and they were often foil-backed, where a thin layer of highly polished metal was affixed to the back of the stone to bounce light back and brighten the stone.
Victorian jewellers had the option of creating much more minimal mounts for their gems. These claw or prong settings could grip a stone tightly enough to make it suitable for everyday wear whilst allowing the back and side of the stone to be exposed. This not only allowed the facets to be more clearly seen, it also permitted light to flow through the stone from multiple angles. Diamonds particularly benefited from this as the scintillation effect within them was magnified and responded to the movements of the wearer, creating the sparkling effect we can see in modern versions.
Victorian jewellery was also heavily influenced by the life of Queen Victoria herself. Royalty were the celebrities of the day. Developments in printing technology along with increases in overall literacy allowed news to reach farther than ever. So it was that even early in her reign Victoria was better known to the common folk than most of the kings and queens who had come before.
More people had access to jewellery thanks to the prosperity of the age, and the styles of these items were heavily influenced by the behaviour of the ruling classes. When Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s royal consort, gifted her with an emerald snake ring during their courtship both snake motifs and emerald set rings became more prevalent – in this way the lives of the royals family became inextricably linked to the styles of the people.
With Prince Albert’s untimely death in 1861 the young queen was heartbroken, and entered a period of mourning which would persist until her death in 1901. As Victoria’s style became more sombre this filtered out into the wider world. Darker, more subtle gemstones such as garnet and pearl rose to prominence, and the themes reflected in mid-Victorian jewellery became darker still.
Whilst the concept of “memento mori” had already been present in jewellery this fatalistic message, translating as “remember you will die” became embedded into many of the more remarkable pieces of the time. Wreaths, skeletal figures and other morbid imagery became more common as fashion came to embody a nation united in their Queen’s mourning.
This is not to say that Victorian jewellery is inherently gloomy. Memento mori was not an expression of dread but an incitement to live whilst alive; to take advantage of the time and to appreciate the beauty of the world. Far from languishing in despair the craftsmen of the age produced truly wonderful pieces of incredible artistic merit. The quality and quantity of these items means that many have survived into the present day, and Victorian pieces are now incredibly popular with collectors and lovers of history.
At Antique Jewellery Online we have spent decades searching for the most beautiful and remarkable pieces of Victorian jewellery in antiques markets across the length and breadth of the British Isles, and we are proud to be able to present our extensive collection to our customers.
You can view our collection of antique Victorian jewellery here.