Victorian jewelry is as complex in its symbolism, sentiment and design as the fashion, architecture and decor of the time. Worn as an ornament, a love token or a remembrance, jewelry not only completed the well-dressed ladys costume but also denoted her position in society, and often her marital status and her sense of self. And is there a more classic piece of jewelry than a locket? Associated with the remembrance of someone special, it is a gift of love in the form of jewelry.
Gifts Of Love: Victorian Lockets, Bangles, And Brooches
The Victorians were sentimental, and wearing the image of a friend or loved one was a special thing in their lives. They were also family oriented, and what better item to pass down to their daughters and granddaughters than a locket. Future generations treasured them so much that many are still to be found today.
Lockets are found in almost every jewelry catalogue no matter what the era. The size, styles and material from which they are made changed slightly with the fashions of the era, but their popularity continued from generation to generation. In the late Victorian era, wonderful sterling lockets were made in England, many in Birmingham, judging from the wide selection that we have had. There was a variety of motifs and designs, with some favorites being the sterling with gold overlay, the Japonesque designs and the buckle or garter motifs.
The Comstock Lode in Nevada, USA, made sterling silver more plentiful, and the choice of sterling jewelry worn by Queen Victoria made it popular. The trade agreement between Japan and the United States caused a flurry of Japonesque design to be popular in art, furniture and jewelry. The lockets and collars were sold separately as well as in sets, which may be one reason it is harder to find a matched set today. Even more unusual is the locket, collar and bangle set in its own box. Like the lockets, bangles also came in a variety of styles. The widest I have seen so far was 7-1/4 inches wide, a wonderful gauntlet. Some are gilt sterling, but most are sterling or sterling with gold overlay.
Ladies were smaller back then, so there are often hinged bangles in very small wrist sizes as well as standard sizes. Like the lockets, collars and bangles, brooches were often decorated with gold overlaid over sterling and hand etched designs. Some have glazed locket backs that can be used to house a photo or a lock of hair. Charming compliments to the lockets and hinged bangles, these are little treasures and often tell a story in their designs.
The collars came in a wide variety of lengths, with the average being about 17 inches. The longest I have seen so far is 32 inches. They were joined by a pull-back circular catch called a spring ring, and if the collar had the Y-shaped drop, all three pieces would join on that ring. Often there are hand-scratched Roman numerals inside the locket, but they do not seem to relate to size so it is uncertain what they do mean. I have heard one story that they were pawnbrokers marks of some kind, but cannot document that. Some have the English sterling hallmarks and occasionally a makers mark as well, but certainly not all pieces are hallmarked.
One of my favorite web sites for checking hallmarks is at http://www.925-1000.com. There you will find the hallmarks of England and many other countries.
The hinged bangles had several different types of closures. Many of these bangles have a variation on the v-spring and box (also called tongue and groove) style closure. Most pins or brooches have a tube hinge and c-catch typical of the era.
While some designs are just decorative, others had a symbolism typical of the Victorian era. Flowers and plants had meanings such as ivy for everlasting life, forget-me-nots for remembrance, oak leaves for strength, ferns for fascination, and the rose for innocence or romance. In some cases, the bird or swallow is the soul winging its way to heaven, and the snake is for eternal love. Symbols like these can be seen on the lockets and bangles, but most often on the silver brooches, where imagination sometimes ran wild. In addition to name pins (a study in popular girls names of the times) there were tiny landscapes, scenes, butterflies (symbolic of resurrection) and insects, as well as the flowers and leaves. Other materials could be used along with silver, such as tiny seashells or agates. Novelty and natural themes were typical of the Victorian era, so while the flowers, ferns and leaves may be the most common motifs, others were also used.
In the 1890s, women began to actively participate in sports, and tennis, golf, horseback riding and bicycling was represented in jewelry during this time. A lovely bangle design is the cuff and button motif. And one of the most naughty motifs in this type of jewelry was the corset bangle depicting this ladys undergarment.
While the oval locket and the round brooch are the most common shapes, both brooches and lockets come in different shapes. When buying this lovely jewelry, do, as always, buy from a reputable dealer who stands behind what they sell. Look for pieces as clean, undamaged and complete as possible.
While many lockets have lost their photograph fittings, if you can find a locket with them it makes it much easier to insert photos of your own. A locket would have originally come with both the frames and the oval bands that hold a tiny photograph. And on pieces with gold overlay, check to see that the tiny overlaid pieces are still present. In addition to all the things to check on the lockets, do remember to check the bangles for tight easily operated closures. And, on all pieces, look for badly repaired fittings. These lockets are, by their nature, a bit difficult to take on and off the collar, but once you get the hang of how its done you will love them.
Birmingham, England, was the center for so much Victorian era sterling work and jewelry making, so it is no wonder that many of these pieces are hallmarked for there. As I understand it, the charming fitted leather- and paper-covered jewelry boxes were also made there, and in the past few years they have become a collectible on their own. A full parure and the original box is an exciting find for sure!
The Victorians were the first to have access to relatively inexpensive popular jewelry that could be afforded by the middle classes, the forerunner of what Coco Chanel would later call costume jewelry. Sterling was reasonably priced and therefore making whimsical unusual pieces didnt require a large outlay or expense. Just like the costume jewelry of the 1940s, imaginative designs were encouraged by the use of non-precious materials.
Some of my favorite references for information and/or lovely photographs of Victorian jewelry are: Warmans Jewelry by Christie Romero, Ed 3; Victorian Jewelry by Davidov & Dawes; and Victorian Jewellery by Margaret Flowers.
Editors Note: Jane Clark is proprietor of Morning Glory Jewelry. Visit her online at www.morninggloryjewelry.com, and check out her amazing, beautiful inventory of all types of jewelry!