Antique Victorian Jewelry

The Industrial Revolution coincided with Queen Victoria's long reign through most of the 19th century. Along with its many technological advancements, it produced a large and growing middle class, eager to purchase goods formerly reserved for the nobility.

Queen Victoria loved jewelry and wore it profusely, and her tastes strongly influenced her subjects- indeed, she set the fashion throughout her extraordinarily long reign. Jewelry created in that era can be loosely related to Queen Victoria's life- first, the Romantic movement, with highly symbolic pieces, when she first courted and later was happily married to Albert. An example of a Romantic era piece would be a Regards brooch- basically, it is a brooch with a ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby, diamond, and sapphire.... if you take the first letter of the stone's name, it spells REGARDS, which would be a typically Victorian sentimental, symbolic message.

When Albert died suddenly and tragically, Queen Victoria plunged into lifelong mourning. That event made mourning jewelry even more popular, and widespread. Black mourning jewelry was made of jet (the fossilized wood), French jet (black glass), gutta-percha, and onyx. Victoria never stopped wearing mourning jewelry after Albert's death, and her intense mourning lead to an intense popularity in mourning jewelry.

The Late 19th Century manufacturing processes allowed for the stamping of gold settings, making it possible for new middle class housewives to achieve the opulent look of the ruling class at a fraction of the cost; England soon replaced France as the world's jewelry making center.

Paste replaced diamonds in many middle class replicas, and lesser gemstones such as peridot, garnet, opals and tourmaline adorned rings, pins and bracelets. Coral jewelry was another special love of the Victorians; believed to ward off evil and danger, it was a favorite christening present. Amethyst, a stone believed to bring good luck to the wearer, became fashionable in this period; its deep purple color also made it popular during the latter stages of a mourning period.

Cameos carved from shells in Italy were popular, as well as those made of layered hardstone. Mosaics, pictures made of tiny pieces of stone, were banded in gold or brass, and incorporated into necklaces, bracelets and brooches. Italians still produce mosaic jewelry, but the current pieces are easy to distinguish from the delicate micromosaic pieces produced by 19th Century artisans.

Victorians were highly sentimental, and their jewelry reflected this. Most lockets had a compartment to hold a lock of hair; and in the early years of the 19th Century, actual hair was made into jewelry. Watch fobs for fathers, studs and sleeve buttons for husbands, as well as bracelets, rings, brooches and earrings were woven from hair and fitted with gold. Hairwork became a passtime similar to crocheting for Victorian ladies and jewelers alike.

Cut steel rings, pins, and brooches as well as cloak clasps and shoe clasps were considered appropriate for daytime wear. Gutta percha, a by-product of the rubber making industry in the British colonies, became a popular material for jewelry. Durable and moldable into any shape, this black/brown material was used for much mourning jewelry, plus lockets, cane handles, and other items.

Prices for Victorian jewelry today depend partly on the intrinsic value of the materials used (for example, solid gold jewelry will always be worth more than most plated), but the workmanship and rarity also play an enormous part in the value of a particular item. Gold filled lockets, for example, are fairly common, but a rare cut steel bracelet may command a higher price. Damaged items- a micromosaic missing a stone, or a ravelled piece of hair jewelry- may not be repairable. Such items are useful only as examples unless they are rarities. Missing stones may be replaced and a broken clasp repaired, but the price should reflect this.

Victorian "costume" jewelry is still quite plentiful and prices are reasonable, though rising. Many of these Victorian styles have been duplicated in the 20th Century, so be sure the piece you buy is old. Check the clasps of pins, for example- a typical Victorian clasp is a simple C clasp, rather than the safety clasp of later manufacture. As always, acquiring reference books on the subject is an excellent idea of any collector. Then, armed with your new knowledge, you will have a wonderful time finding decorative, wearable, and often unique Victorian jewelry.

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