Beauty and Fashion
The primary reason for investing in antique jewelry, as opposed to other works of art, is the simple fact that it can still be put to its original purpose, that being to complement beauty and fashion. Some collectors enjoy antique jewelry for its historic or academic value, but most also appreciate jewels from a bygone era that still serves to flatter modern styles and at the same time add that inimitable touch of antique charm.
Though casual buyers of estate and antique jewelry still tend to associate most old pieces of jewelry with the Victorian era, there are definite characteristics that serve to identify those that are, in fact, verifiably Victorian, or dating from the 64 year reign of Queen Victoria of England (1837-1901).
Victoria Alexandrina assumed the British throne at the very crest of the wave known as Romantic Revivalism, a movement marked by the most complex and fastest changing jewelry fashions the world has ever seen. Still a teenager when she was crowned, Victoria was the very paradigm of marital bliss upon her marriage to Prince Albert. Their love for each other was celebrated throughout the British empire and to such a degree that whatever Victoria adopted as fancy, her loyal legions turned into fashion.
Just as Victoria's tastes influenced the aristocracy of the day, so did that aristocracy dictate the fashions of the masses, with disastrous results for the jewelry trade in the latter years of her reign. Following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, the wearing of jewelry during the day fell rapidly out of fashion. The effect of Victoria's growing moral severity and pompous conservatism nearly bankrupted some of the finest jewelers of the time. A group of them eventually appealed to Princess Alexandra, wife of soon-to-be King Edward, to help reverse the trend by consenting to be seen in public wearing lavish pieces of the day.
However, those jewelers were also likely responding to technological advances of the time, including the invention of the steam engine in he 1850's. By the last 1800's, steam was being widely used in the mass production of jewelry. The resulting drop in quality, while stimulating sales and afford ability, worked against those jewelers for whom craftsmanship was paramount.
Victorian Jewelry Features
Though not all-inclusive, the following characteristics should help the collector of antique jewelry identify authentic Victorian pieces.
The early gold Victorian pieces were all 18 to 22 karat, though following the Stamp Act of 1854, gold content was standardized at 9, 12, or 15 karats, and required to be hallmarked and stamped as such. Non-gold metals used in costume jewelry were either pinchbeck (83 parts copper and 17 parts zinc), mercury gilt, or electric gilt. Other popular metals of the time included silver, silver backed by gold and rolled gold plate. Whenever diamonds were to be set, they were invariably set in white metal so as to enhance their intrinsic beauty.
Predominant design themes employed in Victorian jewelry borrowed from natural origins, i.e., flowers, trees, and birds. Early Victorian jewelry incorporated lights, delicate designs with elaborate engraving. These eventually evolved into the heavier, more conservative designs the Victorian period is more noted for. Two popular design types that originated in the Victorian period were Cannatille and Repousse. Cannatille jewelry utilized twisted strands of gold wire wound into elaborate designs. Repousse, on the other hand, was identifiable for its solid forms with raised and fluted edges that gave the piece its characteristic massive quality.
Jet, coral, human hair, and seed pearls were all popular organic materials used in Victorian pieces. Mourning jewelry, sometimes called memorial jewelry had been popular for many decades prior to Victoria's ascension to the throne. However, upon the death of Prince Albert, the entire British empire was thrown into 40 years of enforced gloom. The public would have none of it and mourning jewelry fell quickly out of favor.
The late Victorian era was greatly influenced by the archeological expeditions in Egypt, Italy and Greece, which brought to light for the first time in the West, the vast array of ancient jewelry. Designers were quick to capitalize on the public's imagination by launching a wave of reproductions. The works of such designers such as Castellani and Giulano were especially noteworthy, and they continue to be much sought after today.
With the death of Queen Victoria, the stage was set for an explosion of new jewelry designs and manufacturing techniques. Pent-up emotions from decades of extreme conservatism were to act as a catalyst for a sudden and profound break from tradition. The seeds of rebellion were sprouting, eventually to grown and bear fruit as the Art Nouveau period to the early 20th Century.
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