Symbols in Victorian Jewelry

Symbols in Victorian Jewelry

The Victorians wore jewelry that conveyed nuanced meaning, expressed sentiment, and brought fortune. They celebrated life events, friendship, love, and courtship with these designs.

Below is a list of motifs and an outline of what they symbolized for the Victorians. Many of these meanings remain today although others have been lost along the way.

BIRDS

  • Birds had a wide variety of meanings for the Victorians. For example, swallows symbolized love and mating for life.
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Victorian turquoise and silver bird bangle. Elder & Bloom.

CRESCENT MOON AND STARS

  • The crescent moon represented a new relationship and the hope it would “wax” into matrimony.
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The simple crescent moon was a popular motif in the late Victorian era
England, c. 1890
Gold set with diamonds
V&A Museum

CROSSED OARS

  • Crossed Oars symbolized ‘contentment’.
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Photo source: Spielman Antiques

DOGS

  • A dog symbolized loyalty and friendship.
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Victorian Dog Motif Brooch. Lang’s Antiques.

FIGURE EIGHTS

  • Figure eights symbolized eternity or ‘infinity’.
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Victorian ‘Figure Eight’ Brooch. Photo Source: Lang Antiques.

FLOWERS

  • Flowers and plants had diverse hidden meanings for the Victorians. An entire ‘language of flowers’ was developed, known as ‘Floriography‘.
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Forget-me-not rose and acorn motif. The acorn symbolized strength and longevity.
Paris, c. 1820-1840
Brooch with gold, diamonds, and turquoises.
V&A Museum

GARTER MOTIF

  • The garter symbolized chastity and virtue. The ‘order of the garter’ was an order of chivalry founded by the British monarchy.
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Garter Motif brooch. Source, Lang Antiques.

GREEK KEYS

  • The Greek Key motif symbolized infinity or the ‘eternal flow of things’.

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GRIFFINS

  • The mythical griffin represented courage.
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Victorian Griffin Pendant. Elder and Bloom.

HANDS

  • Hands had a variety of different meanings, depending on the form, including affection, strength, family, and love.

HEARTS

  • These symbolized love, friendship, affection, and devotion. Combined hearts and flowers signified fidelity and remembrance.
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Victorian Heart Earrings. Elder and Bloom.

HORSESHOE

  • Horseshoes symbolized good luck and fortune.
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Victorian Horseshoe Motif Brooch. Source: Ebay.

KEYS

  • Keys symbolized knowledge and success and were also given as a ‘coming of age’ gift on the 21st birthday. They also meant ‘you have the key to my heart’.
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Victorian Key Pendant. Source: Butter Lane Antiques.

LIZARDS

  • A lizard symbolized ‘wedded bliss’ and was given as wedding or anniversary gifts.
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A Victorian opal, diamond and ruby salamander brooch, late 19th century.
Bonhams.

LOVER’S KNOT

  • Lovers’ knots symbolized ‘eternal love,’ ‘fidelity’ and ‘commitment’.

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Victorian Lover’s Knot Ring. Lang’s Antiques.

SCARAB

  • Scarabs symbolized ‘endurance of the soul.’ They rose to prominence with the ‘Egyptian Revival’ Movements.
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Victorian Scarab Necklace. Lang’s Antiques.

SHAMROCKS AND FOUR-LEAVED CLOVERS

  • Shamrocks and four-leaved clovers symbolized good health, good luck, and happiness. They were very much associated with Ireland and many were produced there. They could often be made with real shamrocks or four-leaved clovers set under clear enamel, rock crystal, or glass.
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Victorian Four-Leaved Clover Brooch. Source: Ebay

SNAKES  

  • Snakes symbolized eternal life, sexuality, and mystery.
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Victorian gold serpent ring. Elder and Bloom. 

STONES

  • Acrostic jewelry was a way to convey a sentimental message by way with the first letter of each stone, the first letter of which spelled out a word.
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England, c. 1830
Pendant, gold with lapis lazuli, glass in imitation of opal, garnet, emerald, and gold.
Here, the pendant has the stones of Lapis Lazuli, glass in imitation of Opal, Vermeil ( the old name for garnet ), and Emerald which spell LOVE.
V&A Museum

 

Black Materials Used in Antique and Vintage Jewelry

Black Materials Used in Antique and Vintage Jewelry

Here is an overview of the different black materials used in vintage and antique jewelry.

JET

Jet is fossilized wood.

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Simple jet bead circa 1910. Elder and Bloom.

ONYX

Onyx is a variety of chalcedony.

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Victorian Onyx pendant locket. Elder and Bloom.

BERLIN IRON

Berlin iron is made from cast iron and delicate wire pieces.

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Germany, Cast iron earrings. c. 1820-1830 V&A Museum

ENAMEL

Enamel is fired ground glass. In theory, almost all methods of enameling can produce black items but generally, it is en grisaille, niello, and taille d’epargne which are known for being worked in black. (Technically, niello work is not true enamel but is usually classified as such)

 

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Niello work.

GUTTA PERCHA

Gutta Percha is a type of rubber derived from the gum of Asian trees. It is usually molded rather than carved and mold lines can be visible when examined carefully. When rubbed vigorously, it gives off an acrid, rubber smell.

It is very flexible and durable and can produce a wide variety of jewelry items. Upon close inspection, you can see that it is actually brownish-black. Popular through the mid and late Victorian era, it made its debut at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

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Gutta Percha Brooch.

VULCANITE

Vulcanite is vulcanized India rubber formed using sulfur. It was first patented in 1844 by Charles Goodyear.

Vulcanite is almost always molded, as opposed to carved. It is actually white and can be dyed to produce a variety of colors, often in imitation of coral and tortoiseshell. Most commonly, however, it was dyed black and used in mourning jewelry as a substitute for jet.

Over time, black vulcanite usually turns dark brown. It is lightweight and warm to the touch. It will develop a sheen with polishing but is never as glossy as jet. Like jet, it will leave a brown streak on porcelain or unglazed tile.

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Victorian Vulcanite cameo pendant.

FRENCH JET

French jet is black or very dark red glass. It can sometimes be backed with foil or attached to a metal setting but is most commonly found as beaded necklaces. It first made its appearance in the early part of the 19th century but came into its own in the 1860s when the techniques to produce it were perfected.

It was produced in France, Germany, Austria, England and what is now the Czech Republic. It is cold to the touch and heavier than jet and has a distinctive glitter. Sometimes it is roughly molded or carved to further simulate jet.

Upon close examination, it can often be identified by tiny chips. If you gently tap it against your teeth, you should be able to identify the chink as glass.

 

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French jet necklaces. Elder and Bloom.

BOG OAK

Like jet, bog oak is fossilized wood. It is usually mined from the bogs of Ireland and is not necessarily oak but can be fir, yew, or pine. Similar in feel to jet, it is lightweight and warm to the touch but generally has a more matte finish.

It was used from the early 1800s and grew in popularity after 1852 when techniques involving heat and pressure were invented to mold it and create detail.

It can be carved or molded. It is generally found in mourning jewelry as a substitute for jet but can also often be found with Irish motifs in the form of souvenir jewelry.

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Victorian bog oak brooch.

TORTOISESHELL

With age, tortoiseshell can darken enough to appear black.
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Tortoiseshell pique pendant. Elder and Bloom.

How to Buy Lapis Lazuli Antique Jewelry

How to Buy Lapis Lazuli Antique Jewelry

Lapis Lazuli has been loved since antiquity for its intense, vibrant cobalt blue color. It can be flecked with either white or gold (calcite or pyrite).

A metamorphic rock, mainly composed of the mineral Lazurite, it usually originates from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Russia or Chile. It is also mined, to a lesser extent, in Italy, Mongolia, the United States, and Canada.

Below you will find some of the many applications for Lapis Lazuli in antique and vintage jewelry:

Pietre Dure

Lapis Lazuli is also one of the principal stones used on Italian Pietre Dure (micro-mosaics).

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Necklace, 1808, Pietra dure, lapis lazuli, chalcedony, gold. The Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Acrostic

The Georgians and the Victorians, with their passion for acrostic jewelry (‘The Language of Stones’) used Lapis Lazuli to represent the letter ‘L’ for ‘Love’.

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Acrostic Pendant. 1830. V&A Museum.

Cameo and Intaglio

Many beautiful examples can be found of Lapis Lazuli used in cameo and intaglio.

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Lapis Lazuli Cameo. 1580-1600. Italy. V&A Museum.

Arts & Crafts

The Arts & Crafts movement designers favored Lapis Lazuli as the stone fitted in with their ‘beauty before perceived value’ philosophy.

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Arts and Crafts Pendant 1903. May Morris. Set with a variety of stones, including lapis lazuli. V&A Museum.

Art Deco

Art Deco Jewellery designers prized Lapis Lazuli as it suited their vibrant, bold styles.

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Art Deco Lapis Lazuli Diamond Gold Earrings. Elder and Bloom.

Cartier stands out as a design company who loved to use Lapis Lazuli during the Art Deco era.

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Lapis Lazuli Brooch. Cartier 1920-1930. V&A Museum.

Imitations

There are four other stones that can be mistaken for Lapis Lazuli and should be watched out.

These are:

  1. Dyed Jasper or Howlite. It will have a cobalt blue color but will not show the white or golden patches. (Known as ‘Swiss Lapis’).
  2. Sodalite, which is one of the components of Lapis Lazuli, looks similar but the color is much paler.
  3. There is a synthetic spinel which also imitates Lapis Lazuli. (Known as ‘Gilson Lapis’). This looks very similar but does not have the same random patterns shown in natural Lapis Lazuli.
  4. Azurite is not as hard and has a darker tint.

Tip: To see if a stone has been dyed, try removing the color with acetone.

Final note:

Lapis Lazuli has, of course, been used as a paint pigment since the late Middle Ages and has been a favorite of many of the great artists. This beautiful painting by Vermeer showcases not only Lapis Lazuli as a paint pigment but also a style of pearl earring from the era.

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‘The Girl With a Pearl Earring’. Vermeer.

It is highly recommended that only you purchase antique and vintage jewelry from a recognized dealer.

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