The History of Victorian Jewelry

The Victorian era derives its name from the period of time in which Queen Victoria (Alexandrina Victoria) was monarch of Great Britain and Ireland. Her reign is the second longest (behind Queen Elizabeth II) lasting over 63 years from June 1837 to 22 January 1901.

The Victorian era was one of, if not the most, important era(s) in Great British history because of its long period of peace, its prosperity and industrial development. In the modern day it is hard to imagine Britain at the fore front of industrialisation with very little industrial work actually taking place in the UK now, but at the time it was world leader.

Before the industrial revolution the British population was not quite as we know it today. There was a massive gulf between the rich aristocracy and the commoner. The mass of population resided in rural labour based jobs or in the cities which were much smaller at this point. The majority of commoners worked the land, which was largely owned by the aristocracy, so wealth was mostly kept in the hands of the already wealthy.

Everything changed at the start of the 19th century which and coincided with Victorias ascent to the throne. The new wealth which the industrial revolution brought meant that there was new wealth to be earned and it was going into the hands of people from much less privileged backgrounds than the aristocracy, which essentially was the birth of the British middle class.

With the rise of this new middle class also came the birth of choice, where materialism became something for the masses. One of the most popular objects became jewellery. The Jewellery market exploded at this point because the sheer wealth of potential new buyers.

Coinciding with this period is the artistic literary and intellectual movement called the romantic Era. It was during this time Victoria married Prince Albert, and inadvertently set a jewellery trend which the time has become synonymous with. Albert ring he gave to Victoria was a snake which had its tail in its mouth, intended to symbolise eternal love.

Because of the ring, serpents and snakes became the trend of the day, with many bracelets, necklaces, rings and earrings made often with yellow gold snakes. Their eyes or tail was popularly finished with a diamond or garnets.

Flower designs also have become synonymous with the romantic era jewellery. Often flower leaves were crafted in gold with the flower created from studded jewels of various sorts. This design was most notably used in creating earrings and broaches.

Gold was a particularly popular material at the time. This was partly down to the North American gold rush in California and the Witwatersrand gold rush in South Africa which made the metal more readily available to goldsmiths. It was also down to new crafting techniques developed in the industrial revolution which allowed for more economical production.

After the death if Prince Albert in 1861 things very much changed. Queen Victoria descended into a long period of mourning and dressed very much to reflect this. The Queen was once again a trend setter here and post 1861 jewellery certainly took a darker turn.

Something which became very popular was Jet, a fossilised and polished coal stone found on the on the coast near Whitby in North Yorkshire. Other black materials were used for cheaper jewellery as a substitute to jet such as a black glass named French Jet and vulcanite which is essentially a hardened polished rubber. Depending on the piece of jewellery and design black enamel and black onyx also became popular because of their obvious similarities to the mourning Queens darkened and more low key appearance.

By the end of Queen Victorias reign and Victorian jewellery had made somewhat of a U turn when compared to the start of the period. Generally, most items had become smaller in scale and much simpler in design. Yellow gold was used less and silver slowly grew more popular, whilst Japanese design began to influence the market.