As promised, this is part two of my trip to the Governor Henry Lippitt House in Rhode Island earlier this month.
When it comes to Victorian jewelry, I can certainly tell an authentic piece from a modern knock-off, and I know that Victorians used adornment as a means of communication. What I haven’t had much exposure to is the meanings behind their symbolic language. So the presentation “Mottos, Messages & Gem Lore in Victorian Jewelry” seemed like a great opportunity to learn more.
Laura E. Johnson, associate curator with Historic New England, gave us the run-down on the Victorian mindset regarding personal adornment, specifically accessories.
Generally speaking the Victorian age was a time of classical revival, a harkening back to ancient civilizations including Biblical references, as well as the gothic period in England and France, just a few hundred years prior.
They valued courtship and symbolism, expressing their love outwardly through the meaning behind the elements of a gift of jewelry or even flowers. (Flower lore factors in here, but that could be an article of its own!)
And it wasn’t always romantic love that was being expressed. Jewelry would be given to family members at milestones such as weddings or births, and mourning jewelry served the dual purpose of expressing loss and remembering the lost.
Jewelry could also be given as a reminder of a moral or virtue, or for protection.
The messages were conveyed by layering meaning through symbols, gems and words.
Some popular symbols are obvious such as the heart (love), horseshoe (luck) and the Forget-Me-Not flower (which really speaks for itself) but others are less obvious, such as the anchor (fidelity, trust, hope), arrow (it glitters but wounds) and the serpent, which conveyed affection, but when biting its tail, it meant eternity.
The meanings behind popular gems seem more arbitrary, but remember they were pulling the lore from ancient beliefs:
Turquoise—Love, loyalty and health-preserving. But do not buy it for yourself! It will lose its color if you do!
Pearls—Beauty and innocence, but also tears when combined with other elements. Again, beware! Never give pearls as a wedding gift, or you shall doom the marriage!
Coral—Protection. No offense could be communicated with coral; it was often used in children’s jewelry.
Amethyst—Deep love, or when combined with pearls, loss. Also a cure for drunkenness.
Agate & Jasper—Protection, specifically against venom and bites. Like from a snake.
Jet—Mourning. Queen Victoria popularized this mode upon the death of her Albert. (In case you are wondering what jet is, it is fossilized conifer, or polished coal. Hard coal, mainly found in Whitby, England.)
Now that we have a glossary to work with, let’s look at how these elements work together in three jewelry styles that fairly scream “Victorian!”
These are pieces with actual words or phrases inscribed. This “Forget Me Not” pin is actually enamel, but is turquoise in color so it speaks to love and loyalty, telling the viewer exactly what is not to be forgotten!
The poesy ring is another example of motto style. It is a band with inscribed verse that was revived the Gothic period but is an ancient form: a message on the outside for public notice and one on the inside of the band, personal to the wearer. Just the sort of thing the Victorians would again revive!
That’s right. Jewelry made out of hair. Your hair, the hair of a loved one (living or deceased).
This fascinates me on so many levels. Putting aside the “ick” factor, what a difficult material to work with! It is very fine, you need a lot of it to make something, and therefore a lot of skill.
Why hair you ask? According to the Official Victorian Hairwork Society (yes, there are people still making it today) an explanation was given in the go-to women’s periodical of the times, Godey’s Lady’s Book c. 1850:
“Hair is at once the most delicate and last of our materials and survives us like
love. It is so light, so gentle, so escaping from the idea of death, that, with a
lock of hair belonging to a child or friend we may almost look up to heaven
and compare notes with angelic nature, may almost say, I have a piece of thee
here, not unworthy of thy being now.”
The hairwork could be quite prominent, comprising the bulk of the piece, such as in this bracelet and brooch:
But it could also be more subtle, as in this mourning brooch. Outwardly the jet signifies loss, the pearls tears and the flower is a forget-me-not. But there is a compartment on the back that contains woven hair.
If you wanted a piece of hairwork created you would have gone to your jeweler, or you could place your order through Godey’s Lady’s Book—just pick a style and send in your hair! Being such an intimate item there was always the concern that you might not get the right hair back, but it was a chance taken.
Those darned Victorians! Why come out and say something when you can be cryptic? Let’s “spell” out a word of endearment such as love, dearest, adore…in gems. Not gems set into the shape of letters, but the first letter of each gem representing a letter in the word. Here is an acrostic brooch expressing REGARD as you “read” the gems counterclockwise around the brooch starting at 4 o’clock:
Of course the acrostic message could also be enhanced by adding emblems like a serpent or heart.
Acrostic jewelry may remind you of a twentieth century creation, the Mother’s Ring or Brooch, which is made up of the birthstones of a woman’s children or grandchildren. In fact the birthstone itself is a creation of the last century. According to Ms. Johnson, after World War I American jewelers convening at their national meeting contrived birthstones as a means to improve sales of the lesser stones…a marketing ploy!
As esoteric and unusual as these Victorian ways seem to us, I think we can all relate to having a dear piece of jewelry; its meaning bestowed by the giver, the circumstances or even ourselves.
Share your special adornment story or tell us what you know about gem lore in the comments below! Check out Facebook for more Victoriana…
Johnson, Laura E. 2014. Mottos, Messages & Gem Lore in Victorian Jewelry. Lecture presented at Historic New England lecture series, Providence, Rhode Island.
Special thanks to Terri & Tom Arliskas of Victorian Sentiments–take a look at their Etsy store!