Many people find it hard to believe that the inception of jewelry occurred 100,000 years ago as evidenced by mollusk jewelry found in South Africa. Mollusks are small snails and clams, and their shells were used to fashion this jewelry, although it was no doubt for more functional purposes (such as holding a garment together) than it was for adorning people. In the earliest days, natural material was used, such as animal teeth, shells, bone, wood and stone.
The first period during which jewelry was used extensively to adorn people was the Georgian era beginning in the 1760’s. Larger size jewelry from the past was replaced by delicate smaller forms. It is very difficult to locate jewelry from this period, but jewelry from the Victorian period beginning in the mid 1800’s under the reign of Queen Victoria is a different story. The Victorian era ended in 1901 upon the death of the Queen.
The young Queen, who was crowned at eighteen, not only loved jewelry, but also designed it. In favor were cameos carved of conch shells by Italians. Women were known to travel to Italy to purchase necklaces, earrings, and brooches of cameo designs, and lava jewelry made from colored lava of Mt. Vesuvius. Soon the industrial revolution saw the manufacture of jewelry, and resulted in the end of the hand carving.
The Queen also got credit for the charm bracelet, and had a number of charms designed. She often gave jewelry as gifts to family and friends. Jewelry had been a status symbol of the wealthy, or to accompany fashionable outfits, but the emergence of the middle class created a demand for a larger quantities being produced. Queen Victoria continued to set the trend for other women, and her romantic nature as well as nature itself were reflected in jewelry designed with birds, hearts, butterflies, dragonflies, gemstone embellished flowers, ribbons, and bows. Jewelry containing the hair of both the living and dead was especially popular. Some of these pieces were very intricate in their design. Lockets were also used to hold the hair or pictures of the deceased.
Victoria also preferred serpent designs, a symbol of eternal love, and her engagement ring from Prince Albert in 1840 was a serpent designed with an emerald in its head. Terms of endearment such as “dearest” or “regard” often appeared on engagement rings. A brooch of sapphires and diamonds, a gift from her husband-to-be, adorned her wedding dress. The Queen also favored opals, but other affordable semi-precious stones appealed to the mass market such as amethyst, coral, pearls, turquoise and garnet. Ivory, seed pearls, bog oak, smoky quartz, jasper, agate, enamel, ,petrified wood, marble, as well as gold and silver found in Scottish jewelry were also popular with the public, as tartan plaids became fashionable after the Queen’s children started wearing them.
New finds of gold resulted in creating different methods of gold processing, and gold jewelry became more affordable. Diamonds, because of South Africa diamond mines opening, were also becoming within the reach of the middle class. In 1861, Victoria’s husband Prince Albert died, and so-called mourning jewelry made of black stones such as onyx, jet and black enamel were in vogue. They were commonly worn by relatives of the deceased. Jet was carved into necklaces, earrings, and pins. The suffragette movement was beginning and the black jewelry continued to be fashionable. Sets of jewelry were introduced during this period.
Today Victorian jewelry can be found in antique shops and at estate sales. Some reproductions of the jewelry are also sold as Victorian jewelry still has an allure for the public.