The jewelry trends of the Victorian era were set by – you guessed it – Queen Victoria herself. With a reign that spanned over 60 years, Queen Victoria was hugely influential in the history of jewelry design. The rise of Britain’s Middle Class after the Industrial Revolution meant that, for the first time, common people could afford to purchase jewelry.
Since her reign was so uncharacteristically prolific, the Victorian era is divided into three subcategories: the Romantic Period, the Grand Period and the Aesthetic Period.
The Romantic Period (1837 – 1861)
This period was one of joy, new beginnings and positive growth for Victoria. She became queen, married her beloved Albert, gave birth to nine children, and helped marshal in a new era of scientific and artistic progress.
The jewelry of this period was, well, romantic. The floral motifs, brightly colored gemstones, and glistening gold filigree mirrored the love and good fortune shared between Victoria and Albert, as well as the economic growth of the British Empire. Victoria’s engagement ring – the first Victorian ring – was an emerald-eyed snake eating its own tail, which symbolized eternal love. Soon after, snake motifs began popping up in necklaces, pins and other jewelry.
The Romantic Period also favored broaches, cameos, lockets and large bracelets. Sometimes, pieces of jewelry were inscribed with the Hebrew word “mizpah,” meaning “watchtower.” Lovers exchanged these pieces when, due to constraints of circumstance or distance, they could not be together.
The Grand Period (1861 – 1880)
The Grand Period brought the frivolous sentimentality and romance of the previous era to an abrupt end. For two years, Prince Albert wavered in and out of health, only to fall victim to typhoid fever in 1861. This launched Victoria into a period of mourning from which she never fully recovered.
Mourning would become an art for the Victorians, who designed black clothes and jewelry to be worn in the months following a relative’s death. Much of the jewelry of this era was made out of jet, a fossilized coal, as well as black onyx. These materials were sometimes adorned with seed pearls, which mimicked tears.
At the same time, travel and exploration to ancient sites inspired a period of “Revivalism,” whereby jewelry imitated Renaissance, Egyptian and Etruscan designs. The expanse of British power and wealth also meant that British jewelry was adorned with an unforeseen breath of gemstones and precious metals – blue sapphires from Montana, diamonds from South Africa, and opals from Australia. Gold was also discovered en masse, especially in California. Moreover, advancements made in the Industrial Revolution meant that jewelers could use gold more economically and thereby reduce its price. This made jewelry more affordable for the common people.
The Aesthetic Period (1880 – 1901)
The final stage of the Victorian era was one of transition, in which the aging queen was somewhat eclipsed by the fashions of her children and their spouses. Victoria’s son, Edward, promoted equestrian jewelry while his wife, Alexandra, popularized the iconic Victorian choker necklace. However, after Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee – the 60th anniversary of her reign – diamond and silver jewelry commemorating the event came into fashion.
Social changes also influenced the jewelry of this age. The huge boom in wealth meant that even workers had leisure time, and fashion for entertainments became important trademarks of Victorian style. Women, once confined to the home by social etiquette and obligation, now enjoyed unprecedented levels of independence. All of this running around meant that large Victorian jewelry was replaced by smaller Edwardian pieces to accommodate the changing times.
While seemingly traditional, the jewelry of the Victorian era embraces change and progress on a wide scale. Shaped by royalty, economic growth, globalization, and the common man, these fashions paved the way for the dramatic upheavals of style and design in the 20th century.