The Victorian era was almost as long as the Georgian era but was dominated by one person, Queen Victoria. Much of the fashion in jewellery was influenced by her life, with a major portion devoted to mourning. So much happened during the 64 years of her reign – the expansion of the British Empire, the continued industrialisation and mechanisation of production, the excavation of sites in Italy, Ireland and Egypt which led to jewellery in the style of the Etruscans, Egyptians and the Celts.
Also the Grand Tour travels continued, with tourists purchasing pietra dura, micromosaic, lava, and coral jewellery. Then the Victorians themselves loved sentimental jewellery, and jewellery depicting nature in some way, featuring insects, birds, animals and flowers. With all this happening, it has been difficult to choose three items that epitomized the Victorian era, that, on the own, could be identified as being from that era.
The first piece that so clearly indicates a piece of Victorian jewellery is a gold snake necklet. I have actually posted two photos of snake necklaces, one at the top of the post and one above. Snake jewellery was popular throughout Victoria’s reign, but was particularly so in two decades or so after 1837. Paintings around this time show women wearing snake bracelets and rings. Victoria’s betrothal ring was a snake shape. The more elaborate pieces of snake jewellery had diamond studded heads and bodies but less expensive items had turquoise or garnet set heads. The necklaces were worn close around the neck and either had a clasp entering the mouth of the snake or had a clasp that entered the side of the snake head with the snake usually carrying a locket in their mouths. Similar styles existed for bracelets or they had coils that wrapped around the writs. Snake rings could be single or double headed and were gem set either in the head, the eyes or both.
The second piece of jewellery is a necklace made of Whitby jet and French jet. Queen Victoria went into mourning for her husband when he died in 1861 and continued to wear black until her death. If the Queen was in mourning, the court was also expected to be in mourning. Jet from the town of Whitby was carved into necklaces, brooches, earrings, lockets and pendants to provide black mourning jewellery. Some jet jewellery had inset panels, either porcelain ones from Austria or Italy or pietra dura ones from Florence. As the need for mourning jewellery continued and demand increased, substitutes for jet were found, such as French jet, vulcanite, bog oak and gutta percha. By the 1880s, though, the market for jet mourning jewellery was in decline.
Collars began to appear around the late 1870s and became an important item of jewellery for the next 20 years. Usually made of silver, the collars ranged from simple to very ornate designs.
The lockets and collars were sold separately as well as in sets. 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. The chain in the photo above can be separated into two but seem a bit long for bracelets. The locket has ornate decoration on one side and initials on the other side.
Whilst silver jewellery was made throughout the Victorian period, it was the discovery of silver in Nevada which was to lead to a growth in silver, together with the ever growing middle classes who had money to spare. The opening up of Japan after 1854 led to an interest in Japanese culture and to the Aesthetic Movement in the 1870s. Silver collars in particular with oval or square shaped lockets became popular for everyday wear. The links on the collars were usually flattened to allow them to sit flat around the neck. The pollution in England at the end of the 19th century was one reason why silver jewellery began to fall out of favour. The sulfur dioxide in the air tarnished the silver and cleaning became a constant chore.