The Victorian era gave us some of the most beautiful and intricately crafted pieces of jewellery that the world has ever seen. Despite the ever changing nature of fashion these beautiful antiques hold a special and abiding interest to those looking to invest in mesmerising historic jewellery. Perhaps none of them hold more allure than the captivating engagement rings created during this time.
So what specifically sets Victorian engagements rings apart from those crafted in other eras?
Historical Context – The Fashion of the Age
The reign of Queen Victoria was the longest of any monarch in British history until Queen Elizabeth II, who held the throne for 6 more years than her predecessor. During Victoria’s 64 years as queen there were many changes within her nation and in the wider world which affected the jewellers’ craft. This means that when examining rings from this time period there are many differences depending on the exact time that the piece was created.
To differentiate the phases of the Victorian era historians tends to break down the period into three distinct periods; The Romantic Period, the Grand Period and the Aesthetic Period. Engagement rings from each may share some characteristics, but there are many helpful trends and stylistic qualities from each that can help to identify a Victorian antique.
The Romantic Period
The early Victorian period, between 1839 and 1860, were a time of great celebration in the British Empire as the young queen was courted by and subsequently married Prince Albert of Saxe Coburg and Gotha. Their union in 1840 coincided with the start of a time of great prosperity in Great Britain, and this led to a sense of joy and celebration of love which permeates the design of early Victorian engagement rings.
Heavy romantic symbolism, particularly the use of heart motifs, was common during this time. Floral designs incorporating flowers typically associated with love such as the rose or the forget-me-not, as well as designs evoking the beauty and fertility of the natural world, were also painstakingly worked into gold and silver. Traditional depictions of unity abounded. The lovers knot, intricately entwined loops of metalwork enmeshed into a singular whole, as well as religious-linked symbols of an eternal bond such as the shamrock, can often be seen.
Interestingly there were a great many rings crafted in this time which bore snake motifs. This was due to Albert presenting Victoria an emerald-eyed serpent ring upon their engagement. In this way the somewhat historically misunderstood creature became an emblem of pure love, and can be found coiled within a great many rings from this time.
The Grand Period
Although the 1860s through to the 1880s were a time of ever greater prosperity for the people of Great Britain they were also a time of great sadness. Prince Albert died of typhoid fever in 1861 leaving his queen inconsolable in her loss. The nation mourned with her, and the jewellery of the time underwent significant changes to mark this nationwide mourning period.
This time also marked a resurgence in interest for dead civilisations, whose ruins were being more comprehensively located and examined. The Etruscans were an ancient civilisation which was one of the first to be utterly subsumed by the Roman empire between 700BC and 300BC. When Victorian archaeologists discovered and began to excavate many tombs along the western coast of Italy the jewellery of this ancient doomed nation joined with the sombre mood of the nation and affected the jewellery which was created.
Grand Period engagement rings leaned more heavily into darker gemstones such as the deep red garnet and eponymous black jet, whilst the influence of the ancients could be seen in the resurgence of classically valued gemstones such as lapis lazuli. Pearls rose to greater prominence, and were often included to represent tears. Jewellers, no less enraptured with the royals than they had been during the romantic period, took inspiration from the regal nature of the pieces found in Etruscan tombs. This union of sombre colours with the regalia of buried nobility led to the creation of engagement rings which simultaneously revelled in the beauty of life whilst acknowledging the inevitability of death (see: Mourning Jewellery).
The Aesthetic Period
During the course of Victoria’s reign there were great advances in technology, exploration and industry. This meant that jewellers were rapidly acquiring access to materials and techniques which had not been available before. Advances in alloys meant stronger gold that could be shaped into more delicate forms which were no less durable. New machinery allowed lapidaries to cut gemstones more precisely and with greater ease, and greater resources meant that there was an incentive to create new, refined cuts.
The Aesthetic period lasted from 1870 until Victoria’s death in 1901. During this time many ancient Egyptian tombs were discovered, sparking a design renaissance reminiscent of the earlier Etruscan revival. The art of culturing pearls made them far more readily available, and jewellers began to incorporate the new precious metal platinum into their designs.
Aesthetic or Late Victorian engagement rings were often more feminine, slimmer and delicate than those which preceded them, yet they were adorned with magnificent gemstones, often arranged in clusters or built around a single particularly large and beautiful stone. They represented a bridge between the solid, mournful pieces of the Grand Period and the decadent arrangements which followed in the short Edwardian period which followed.
Hallmarks and Markings
During the Victorian period jewellers began to make more use of hallmarks to denote a specific craftsman, time period or purity of gold. Although it was many years until these were standardised, and many more until they became legally mandated, some rings from this time bear stamps on their inner band that can tell you more about them.
Hallmarks are complex, and come in such a wider variety of forms that they can be difficult for a layman to identify, but they provide valuable clues to experts.
The markings that help to identify a ring are not always intentional. Antique pieces may have been strong enough to survive until the modern day, but they are likely to have picked up some wear and tear along the way. A true antique will often have a slightly burnished look, with a richer, deeper gold or a thin patina which gives a gradient to its colour. Silver pieces which have not been worn may have begun to tarnish and the deeper parts of the engravings may be darker or even black. Most antiques will have small scratches or imperfections which are a sign of having been worn by many previous owners, but these are a testament to the fact that they have survived from Victoria's reign to the present day.
If you have any questions about the pieces which we sell feel free to get in touch on England: 0333 700 4500 or send us an email via email@example.com. Our team is always happy to help!