“We look into the glittering windows of the jeweler’s shops and I show Sophy which of the diamond-eyed serpents, coiled up on white satin rising-grounds, I would give her if I could afford it.” – from ‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens.
Each culture has attached great significance and meaning to the snake. There has probably never been a time and place when snakes have not been a motif in jewelry to a greater or lesser degree.
The Romans and the Greeks and the Egyptians all wore serpent jewelry, as did many other cultures, going as far back as the Sumerians.
Snakes were considered to be good fortune in Georgian times and there is an abundance of surviving Georgian serpent jewelry. In the Georgian era, serpent jewelry was not only worn for ornamentation but also as mourning jewelry.
The Peak of Snake Jewelry – 1840s
When Albert gave Victoria an engagement ring in 1840, it was a snake with an emerald head. This not only started a rage for serpent jewelry but it also began the trend for giving engagement rings.
The wearing of snakes reached a whole new level of popularity. The Victorians were extremely influenced by the styles favored by royalty.
Few people have been as influential when it comes to styles in jewelry as Queen Victoria.
Serpents were now considered a symbol of eternal love and the height of good taste.
Before long, all over London ladies were wearing serpent rings, serpent bracelets, and serpent brooches, created from gold, silver, and alloys.
Often emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and sapphires were used as serpent eyes and to encrust the serpent bodies.
Garnet, amethyst, emeralds, diamonds, ruby, pearls and paste were also used.
It became popular to create rings with two entwined serpents, each set with a different stone.
Soon less affluent women began to make their own snake bracelets from hair, cord, silk, and steel beads.
It wasn’t long before the serpent fashion had spread across to the other side of the Atlantic and across Europe.
Young Queen Victoria
Gold Snake Ring. Elder and Bloom.
Exotic Snake Jewelry – 1850s
The fashion for serpent jewelry in all its dazzling array continued into the 1850s. Fashion now became very influenced by the ancient world because of an abundance of archeological discoveries and the tours of Egyptian tombs now offered by Thomas Cook.
Serpent jewelry now often took on a more exotic and ancient flavor.
Snake Jewelry after Albert’s Death – 1861
After the death of Albert in 1861, the whole of England was thrown into mourning along with Victoria and this, in turn, influenced fashions world-wide.
Serpent jewelry was now created in dark materials such as:
Mid to late Victorian Serpent Mourning Bangle, wood or horn, inlaid with silver. Elder and Bloom.
Snakes and The Naturalistic Movement
‘The naturalistic movement’ had already begun to emerge as early as the 1850s. It was seemingly an independent and non-mainstream artistic movement.
This movement favored natural motifs, including snakes. The naturalistic movement can really be thought of as the beginning of the Art Nouveau movement
Snakes and Art Nouveau
The Art Nouveau movement is officially considered to have begun in 1890 and last until 1910.
Rene Jules Lalique (1860-1945) was one of the foremost Art Nouveau designers. He loved to use exotic and natural motifs and he rediscovered the snake motif in his own unique way.
The workmanship in Art Nouveau design was more important than the value of the materials used, and now jewelry was created using an even broader range of materials, such as:
Colorful enamel work
Marie-Odile Briot, writing in the catalog for a Lalique show at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, said, ‘‘The serpent takes pride of place in Lalique’s heraldry of the feminine.” She continued: ”The serpent is an archaic underworld god, chased out of the Christian Paradise. Just like a gemstone, its plastic perfection makes it a striking sign of the sacred in nature. The snake is the living abstraction of the line which Art Nouveau would see as the underlying ‘biomorphic’ structure of form.”
In the late Victorian era (1890 to 1901) mass production of jewelry was now fully underway. The Art Nouveau movement, Darwin’s controversial theory, and numerous botanical discoveries led to a strong interest in the natural world.
Serpent jewelry designs were now:
Set with amethyst, aquamarine, chrysoprase, sapphires, chrysoberyl, opals, moonstones, turquoise, peridot, or rubies.
Influenced by Egyptian and Etruscan design.
‘The Temptation’ Engraving, circa 1860
The seduction of snakes
It seems that serpents have always had a certain air of wickedness and daring, perhaps ever since Eve’s pivotal encounter in the garden. It’s probably serpent jewelry would often have been worn by a more seductive type of woman in the Victorian era.
In October 1891, The Ladies Home Journal, reported, “A wiggling gold serpent having overlapping scales of various hues, forms on of the latest queen chains. The tail terminates the swivel for the watch, while the hold holds suspended in its wicked-looking jaws a struggling bird of pearls and rubies.” The writer appears to be taking delight in the wickedness.
I believe it is this long cultural association with sensuality, passion, and danger that gives serpent jewelry its cache and why it is still so very popular to this day.
Louis Édouard Rioult – Portrait Of A Lady Wearing Coral Jewellery
Antique, untreated coral is one of the most loved of materials in antique jewelry.
It is considered to be one of the ‘organic gemstones’ (the other two being amber and jet and pearls).
Women who first own a piece of old coral jewelry soon become addicted to it and tend to become collectors.
One of the wonderful things about coral is that it tends to adapt over time to the woman who is wearing it and will subtly change color in a very organic way.
Many women have reported a feeling of ‘rightness’ about their particular piece of coral jewelry, as though the piece is actually part of them.
There is something truly sumptuous and almost edible about antique, untreated coral. It has long been worn as a talisman and later for its pure beauty.
It was considered by the Victorians to promote good health and vitality, and you can really believe that it does once you experience wearing it.
Coral ranges from white, to ‘Angel Skin’, to ‘Salmon’, to ‘Oxblood’ and every nuance in between.
Since ancient Rome, coral has been considered to be protective of children. In the Georgian and Victorian era, children were often given carved coral rattles. Children were also given coral earrings, bracelets, and necklaces to wear.
There are many works of art from Regency, Victorian, and the early 20th century that show coral being worn by both women and children. Looking at old works of art can be a truly wonderful way of understanding antique jewelry.
Nicolaas Rubens Wearing a Coral Necklace, Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1619
Jane Elizabeth, Countess of Oxford, by John Hoppner 1797
Lady Maria Hamilton, Thomas Lawrence, 1802
A little boy with dog and coral necklace (it is unclear if dogs were sometimes given coral collars or if the child is giving the dog his own necklace) – Martin Drolling.