The Victorian era spanned the period of Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837 to 1901. It was a time of great cultural change across literature, architecture, art and fashion.
The Georgian era (1714-1837) preceding Victoria’s reign marked the beginning of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, as well as the promotion of innovation and imperialism which changed the world forever. Jewelry design provides a fascinating insight into how these broader social changes influenced arts and crafts throughout the period, which can be split into three distinct sub-periods, each with their own characteristics.
THE ROMANTIC PERIOD (1837 - 1860)
Queen Victoria began her reign in an age of great change, but fashion at the time was nostalgic, looking back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance for inspiration. As the industrial revolution rolled on and more women moved from newly mechanized farms to cities in search of work and rubbed shoulders with the upper classes, simple Georgian era ‘empire line’ dresses gave way to fussier and more cumbersome clothing designed to instill distinction of rank. Impractical clothes with enormous sleeves, tight corseting and full skirts indicated that these upper-class ladies did not work.
Jewelry trends followed this fashion, with design becoming increasingly ornate. New gold discoveries in California and Australia meant that there was more gold jewelry made than ever before and the wealthy were dripping with it. One of the most common themes of Romantic Period jewelry was nature. Leaves, grapes, berries, flowers and animals were found throughout jewelry design. Snakes were very popular, as Queen Victoria’s engagement ring was a serpent eating its own tail (representing eternity) studded with Emeralds.
The French conquer of Algeria in 1830 brought North African influences such as tassels, knot-work, festoons and twisted ropes to jewelry design. Likewise, when the young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert first visited Scotland in 1842 (subsequently purchasing Balmoral Estate), a craze for all things Scottish swept the nation. Thistles, berries, swords, leaves, baronial ribbons and scrolls all became fashionable. Scotland’s native gemstones such as Agates and Quartz became more popular as well.
Where formerly only the very wealthiest young people could embark on a ‘grand tour’ of Europe, often lasting several years, now with the advent of the railways, this became much more affordable and more people started traveling across Europe. The classical ruins of Greece and Rome inspired jewelry styles of the period – ‘souvenir’ jewelry featuring cameos, micro-mosaics or enameled plaques of classical scenes were brought home for loved ones.
THE GRAND PERIOD (1860 - 1885)
This period of Victorian Britain was dominated by two events. First, the death of Queen Victoria’s mother in March 1861, quickly followed by her beloved Prince Albert in December of the same year, plunged the monarch into deep mourning. In 1870, the passing of the first Married Women’s Property Act meant that for the first time, some married women were allowed to legally own their own earnings. Now some women were able to buy their own jewelry for the first time and the jewelry industry grew to accommodate this new market.
Many fashions continued on from the Romantic Period. 18th century courtly fashions were increasingly popular – skirts became even larger, puffed out by enormous crinolines and waistlines were tightened with even more restrictive corseting. Necklines plunged, giving more room for more elaborate necklaces. Hair was swept away from the face and curled down the back of the neck, giving freedom to experiment with a range of earring lengths and styles. For the first time, jewelry began to be made by machine, making it more affordable to the masses.
Again, world events influenced design. Queen Victoria’s mourning fueled the fashion for dark clothing and jewelry. Mourning jewelry increased the popularity of deep, richly colored gemstones such as Onyx, Amethyst, Garnet, Jet, Emerald and Ruby. The construction of the Suez Canal from 1859-1869 uncovered many Ancient Egyptian artifacts. This led to a craze for Egyptian-themed jewelry featuring scarabs, falcons and felines. Similarly in 1854, the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty opened Japan up to trade. Japanese influence came to be one of the most important inspirations for later Victorian crafts. At the end of the Second Opium War in China in 1860, China was opened up to traders, popularizing Jade in Britain. During the short Second Mexican Empire (1863-1867), the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian briefly presided over Mexico. This created a thirst for Aztec-inspired jewelry in Europe, featuring hummingbirds, cacti, eagles, and rattlesnakes.
THE AESTHETIC PERIOD (1885 - 1901)
During the Aesthetic Period, dresses became all about the silhouette – crinolines gave way to small bustles to create more fullness at the back of the skirts, emphasizing the hips. A variety of artistic movements were emerging and overlapping during this hotbed of creativity.
The Arts and Crafts Movement (1880-1910) was a direct response to the mechanization of crafts manufacture, which had led to a perceived decline in aesthetic and quality standards. A group led by the textile designer William Morris aimed to promote craftsmanship and drew a link between the arts and social reform, seeking to bring back art as part of life for working people. This movement drew inspiration from an array of genres – from Gothic to Celtic to Renaissance, as well as the burgeoning Japanese influences. Some of the ideals of the Movement have become a lasting legacy, but other ideas weren’t successful. One of the abandoned ideas was that every piece should be created by one artisan from start to finish to actualize the artistic vision of the craftsman. This meant that often pieces were poor quality or expensive, meaning that the movement did not produce crafts that were affordable to the masses, as they had intended.
A little later, the Art Nouveau Movement (1890-1914) was heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement, as well as Japanese influences. Pieces were colorful and bold, taking their inspiration from nature and the female form. Flowing curves were used to suggest movement and were found throughout design – later Art Deco period (1910-1939) style would come to replace curves with bold, straight lines.
The Art Nouveau movement sought to find cheaper methods of production with no compromise on quality. To do this, they used a range of relatively inexpensive colorful gemstones to create large areas of color. Turquoise, Garnet, Amethyst, Baroque Pearls, Moonstone and newly-discovered Australian Opals were all very popular. Alongside these gems, a variety of enameling techniques were used to bring even more color to their fantasy and nature-inspired sensually curving designs.
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