The Maidstone Museum Collections

In the early 1800s, ‘Classical’ fashions influenced jewellery. Cameos adorned tiaras, bracelets and belts, and the Greek key fret was much used.  Head ornaments were important; jewelled combs were worn right on the top of the head, usually filigree with coral and amber. Pearls were worn with white dresses, coral with coloured ones. Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign started a craze for scarabs and sphinxes.  During the 1820s and 1830s, Renaissance and Gothic images, parallel with similar decoration on dress, were used in jewellery.

The Victorian style of jewellery was a constant quest for novelty whilst responding to change in women’s dress.  During 1830 to 1860 many styles were ‘stolen’ from different periods and cultures, but were not always historically correct.  Costume jewellery of precious metals (gold, silver and platinum) and semi-precious metals (rolled gold, base metals and plating) were combined with natural organics such as amber, jet, coral, tortoiseshell and pearl.  Jewellery was expensive and could not be replaced as fashion changed, except by the very rich.  Some styles had short-lived fashions such as cast iron ‘Gothic’ jewellery (originally from Berlin in 1813 and resembling black lace) was popular at the time of the 1851 Great Exhibition. Very expensive, exclusive ‘Renaissance’ jewellery enjoyed a limited market, but it was the ‘Rococo’ (18th Century, literally ‘rock-work’) revival which was the most popular style from about 1825 to 1900 and looked its best in floral designs.  Scrolls were its main feature, and these survived into the 20th Century.

Floral jewellery developed from the 18th Century craze for diamond sprays and peaked in the 1840s when ultra-realism began.  Green enamel was used in leaves, and realistic butterflies and insects were popular.  The most popular mid-Victorian jewelled flower spray was wild roses, followed by ivy and convolvulus.  Fruit, nuts and grape vines were popular, produced in materials to suit all pockets. Enamelling was fashionable around the 1840s and lockets (especially ‘memorial’ types) were universal, putting the mourning ring out of business.  Jewellery of woven human (or horse) hair was worn at this time.  Cameos remained popular throughout the 19th Century in shell (the cheapskate version) or in onyx, agate or coral for the social climbers.  Other fashions were short-lived novelties such as ‘Assyrian’ jewels following the 1848 Nineveh excavation.  French battles in Algeria in the 1840s led to tassels and knots from North Africa.  Celtic (ancient Irish) jewellery and Queen Victoria’s love of traditional Scottish jewellery (such as cairngorms) saw that ‘romantic’ British cultures were valued as well.

Most of the best Victorian jewellery has not survived, as it was broken up for re-setting.  Mostly, the inexpensive, popular examples have remained giving us a biased view of the output.  Later Victorian novelty jewellery responded to fashion crazes even more closely, such as realistic animals and insects in the 1870s (including the housefly!).  Silver jewellery was very popular in the 1880s, particularly heavy chains and fetters, reflecting the very rigid dress styles that ‘imprisoned’ women’s torsos of the period.  The 1890s saw women becoming more active and sporty.  Brooches in the form of golf clubs, riding whips and tennis racquets abounded.  Frivolous wishbones, mistletoe, clover and even new-hatched chicks featured, and newly-discovered green garnets from Siberia made reptilian brooches popular.

Art Nouveau, developed in Paris, had been originally inspired by the 1880s English Arts and Crafts movement and William Morris (1834 – 1896) textiles.  Its sinuous, natural forms (with a hint of the sinister) combined images of water creatures and women with waving tendrils of hair and writhing drapery.  The movement inspired extraordinary jewellery from about 1890 to 1900, with extravagant stylistic details.  By 1903, this oddly fertile style was dead, but was to enjoy a ‘pop art’ revival in the late 1960s.