The Victorian era, so named after Queen Victoria the longest reigning British monarch who ruled from 1837 to 1901, marked an era of prosperity and the rise of industrialization and the middle class. The Victorian era in England has three distinct periods, Romantic, Grand, and Late Victorian, while jewelry of the time throughout Europe took on a variety of Revival forms. The end of the Victorian era coincided with the rise of Belle Époque in France and the beginnings of Art Nouveau. Transitions in style during the period were not abrupt and some pieces exhibit multiple influences. Jewelry during this period not only reflected wealth, but social standing and status. Rules were set to deem appropriate jewelry. Young, unmarried women could only wear the simplest of jewelry, wear as diamonds and gems could only be worn by women “of a certain age.” American women were lax in following these European standards, and as a result were criticized for being inappropriate in their jewelry displays.
The beginning of the Victorian era is also known as the Romantic Period reflecting the marital bliss and confidant tranquility of the young stylish Queen and the nation. The styles of the Georgian period were still dominate during her early years, as the popularity of ferronieres, headpieces of chain or ribbon with a center jewel worn on the forehead, spanned the bridge between both periods. Jewelry was worn in abundance, often piled on in multiples. The Queen was known to have worn multiple rings at once. Naturalistic floral motifs were popular as well as hearts, bows, and birds, produced in intricately engraved gold, with delicate enamel work, accented with seed pearls, turquoise beads, and pink coral. Serpent designs were also popular during this time, symbolizing eternity. Gold was scarce during this era, as the gold rush in California and South Africa were yet to come. Jewelers worked thin gold sheets and fine wire into light, puffy jewels to create the look of abundance with the least amount of metal. Human hair was also incorporated into pieces as a way to keep loved ones close.
The death of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, marked the beginning of the Grand Period. The Queen mourned for the following two decades, wearing strict black clothing, the jewelry of the period changed to reflect the somber tone. The lighthearted glitter of the previous era was replaced by dark jewels made of whitby jet, dark onyx, and deep red garnets set in gold with black enamel tracery. During this time a series of Revival styles, Etruscan, Egyptian, Renaissance, looked to the past and were influenced by the many excavations and rediscoveries of ancient sites. Memorial jewelry in remembrance of loved ones became very popular during this period, reflecting the Queen’s example and the grime rise in mortality that accompanied the rise of industrialization and the move to cities.
After 27 years of mourning, the Queen and her subjects were ready to return to a happier mindset. Late Victorian jewelry reflects this return to whimsy and prosperity. Common motifs included jeweled insects, animals, stars, crescents, dragons, and flowers. Symbols of good fortune and sentimentality, as well as motifs borrowed from foreign cultures, particularly Japanese, were also popular
To meet the demand for quality jewelry pieces requested by the growing middle class, gemstones were used as affordable alternatives to more precious stones. Amethysts, coral, garnets, turquoise, seed pearls, and opals, a favorite of the Queen, were popular on the mass market. In 1867 vast diamond mines were discovered in South Africa, leading to an increased popularity and affordability of the stone. In the 1870’s vast deposits of silver began to be discovered and exploited, leading to a flood of available silver jewelry on the mass market. New innovations in jewelry also came about including en tremblant, a French term used to describe jewelry with a movable part mounted on a spring that “trembled” or slightly moved when worn. As was the practice in the Georgian era, pieces were made to be worn in multiple ways, such as a necklace with a stiff rod that could be used as a tiara, or it could come apart to form rings, bracelets, or a brooch.