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The Hidden Language of Jewellery

Throughout the ages jewellery has always been a meaningful personal adornment. Symbolism in jewellery reached its peak during the Victorian era.  In this article, we explore the wonderful world of symbolism in antique jewellery.

Archduchess Marie Christine, Duchess of Teschen, c.1765 Martin Van Meytens, Source - Wikimedia Commons

 

BIRDS

Swallows and doves were particular popular jewellery motifs. Swallows mate for life and always go back to their nest, so it made sense for them to be on jewellery that lovers would give to each other.

Doves were associated with peace, hope, and faith much like they are still today and they are often depicted with an olive branch in their beaks, if you see the word “pax” written next to them, that is Latin for peace.

 

CLOVER & HORSESHOES

Good fortune was something the English of the era sought through their jewellery motifs, and this desire was shared with the Irish judging by the popularity of the shamrock in jewellery design. Whether it was a three or four-leaf clover, the plant design was thought to bring good luck and prosperity on the wearer.

Horseshoes also enjoyed fame in jewellery as bearers of luck. If they faced upward, that meant the possessor would receive the good fortune. If they faced downward, that meant the luck was to radiate outward to others.

  

 

CRESCENT MOON & STARS

Femininity and female empowerment were celebrated by women through their crescent moon-styled jewellery. The crescent moon symbol itself has its origins in ancient times, hearkening to the spiritual power of a moon goddess. It also showed the desire for a new relationship that would develop into marriage, like a crescent moon eventually turning full.

Stars would commonly complement crescent moons in jewellery. Much like how sailors of old looked to them at night to guide their navigation through the seas, stars as designs symbolised the direction wearers would need in their life.

 

     

 

FLOWERS

The obsession with botany translated into jewellery by way of floral motifs. All sorts of flowers were used designing brooches, lockets, rings, and earrings to convey different sentiments.

Forget-me-nots, ivy and pansies were constant reminders to people in relationships about each other. The intense colours of roses, chrysanthemums, tulips, and orange blossoms were variations of symbols of love. The white lily showed purity and innocence. Violets symbolised faith, and ferns were a means of showing sincerity.

 

      

 

 HEARTS 

As one of the most everlasting, cross-cultural symbols, the heart was also rather popular in antique jewellery. We know them to be symbols of love and compassion today, and so did our forefathers.

Prominent designs during the time include the witches heart signifying the wearer has been “bewitched” by love; the Luckenbooth brooch in Scotland, which usually featured a crown and two entwined hearts that symbolised fidelity in marriage; and the Claddagh ring in Ireland, portraying a heart between two hands.

 

      

 

 

HANDS

Hands supplemented many other motifs in Victorian jewellery. Jewellery with hands holding flowers were given as gifts, with the intent differing depending on the flower or object the hand held. It could mean friendship, remembrance, or romance.

 

 

This Victorian mourning brooch shows a hand holding a fan, an open fan literally means "wait for me" .

 

 

 

 

The medieval fede ring combines the ancient fede (faith) motif of two hands clasped together, with another motif depicting two hands holding a heart. Fede rings were love tokens representing everlasting love and fidelity, they were often given as a betrothal ring.  

 

 

 

 

INSECTS

The Victorians in particular had a fondness for the natural world. The industrial revolution brought a sentimental longing to them for a return to a simpler more natural life in the countryside and nowhere was this more apparent than in the jewelry designs of the day. The butterfly, dragonfly and bee were popular motifs. The dragonfly was admired for its agility, the butterfly for its rapidly changing life cycle and the bee for its dogged industriousness . By wearing jewellery that featured these graceful, winged beauties, Victorians embraced the past and showed the world they were ready for whatever the future had in store for them.

 

 

 

LOCKETS

Lockets were the most favoured form of jewellery by the Victorians. Such pieces allowed flexibility in assigning sentimentality, which was very important during the time. 

 

 

Lockets were used to keep a loved one close to the heart and remember those who had passed on. A lock of hair, a picture, or a written message could be kept in a locket’s secret compartment. Engravings of names and important dates were common.

 

                     

 

SNAKES

Snakes and serpents are symbols of commitment and wisdom. As jewellery gifted to loved ones, they mean a binding, eternal love. Prince Albert gave Queen Victoria an engagement ring shaped like a serpent.

The ring included small rubies, diamonds, and an emerald, which was Queen Victoria’s birthstone. It was common during this era for engagement rings to feature birthstones rather than diamonds.

 

A beautifully carved Victorian Whitby jet segmented snake bracelet. Snake bracelets translated especially well when made in Whitby jet. Worn over gloves, they were elasticated and designed to coil up the wrist. Some were faceted and some were intricately carved. The level of workmanship all depended on how much the customer was willing to spend, the same applied to the length of the bracelet.

 

MOURNING JEWELLERY

The tradition of mourning jewelry began in the Middle Ages at a time when people were consumed with death, literally. Disease was rampant and life expectancy was short, and jewelry was a physical embodiment of the concept of memento mori (remember you will die) and was decorated with wickedly macabre icons of death, like skeletons and cross bones.

 

Enamel Gold Ruby Skull Ring, c.1550-75. Source: The Victoria and Albert Museum

Another popular expression of remembrance in the 17th and early 18th centuries were gold and enamel memorial rings, often purchased by the person in advance of their death and bequeathed to family members and friends posthumously to remember them. The memorial rings were inscribed with the person’s name and date of their death.

 

  

 

 

 

Mourning jewellery reached the zenith of its popularity with the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Queen Victoria was plunged into a period of deep mourning that she never really recovered from. She wore black jewellery for the rest of her life and where the monarch led others quickly followed.   

   

 

Queen Victoria was the biggest jewelry influencer of all time, she made mourning jewelry fashionable and imbued the pieces with romantic tragedy it soon became de rigueur  and remained so for the rest of the century.   

Popular types of mourning jewelry included lockets with human hair and miniature portraits. Hair was popular in lockets because it was a way to keep people close to you, even in death. The fascination with hair was especially pertinent during the Victorian era because people believed that it had a sacred and immortal quality. Beyond incorporating hair into lockets they also braided hair into earrings, bracelets and chains and it proved surprisingly resilient!

 

Angels, wreaths, and flowers were the choice motifs for mourning. Black enamel filled engravings, with white enamel used for the death of children. Pearls symbolised the tears shed for the deceased. Black onyx, amethyst, and deep-red garnet reflected sorrow and subdued beauty.
  
     

We hope you have enjoyed our little journey into the language of jewellery and we have devised a quick "to go to" list of the most popular jewellery motifs and what they represent:

  • Acorn – luck, prosperity, growth
  • AEI – amity, eternity, infinity
  • Anchor – steadfastness, hope a maritime career
  • Bellflower – constancy, gratitude
  • Belt – safety, security, protection
  • Buckles - protection, authority, victory
  • Butterfly – I am settled
  • Calla Lily – majesty, beauty, marriage
  • Clover - success, luck, many blessings, good fortune
  • Daisy – innocence, the days eye, graves of children
  • Double Heart/Crown - fidelity reigning over a marriage
  • Faith, Hope and Charity – cross, anchor, heart
  • Fern – frankness, humility, sincerity, Victorian pastime fern hunting
  • Forget-me-nots – remembrance
  • Hearts – love, passion, charity, bewitched
  • Hearts (2) side by side, two hearts together as one
  • Horseshoes - success, luck, many blessings, good fortune
  • IHS – the name of Jesus
  • IMO – in memory of
  • Intertwined hearts - continuous everlasting love
  • Ivy – cling to me, fidelity, eternity, affectionate attachment
  • Laurel Wreath – victory, immortality, eternity
  • Luckenbooth – Scottish heart
  • Lily of the Valley – innocence, purity, first spring flower
  • Lyre – a harp, heaven, angelic music, poets’ graves
  • Madonna Lily – purity
  • Oak – strength, endurance, faith, virtue
  • Orange blossom - everlasting love
  • Ouroboros – ancient symbol of snake its swallowing tail, wholeness and infinity
  • Pansy – think of me
  • Rose – universal symbol of love, queen of the flowers
  • Serpents, snakes – eternity
  • Single Heart/Crown - ruler of my heart
  • Star – guiding star
  • Swallow – eternity, loyalty, fidelity, home and heart, mates for life
  • Violets - faith
  • Vines – fertility, prosperity
  • Wheat/Wheat sheaves – long life, productive, abundant, reaping of years

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