If you are a devoted reader of our blog, it has probably come to your attention that we include a fair amount of images and jewellery from the Victoria and Albert Museums collection. Located in central London, the V&A is not only one of the top museums in the United Kingdom, but it is also a leading design museum in the world, holding a prestigious collection of fashion and jewellery that rivals the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
So, we decided to collate together our favourite awe-inspiring pieces that the Victoria and Albert Museum currently have. Not to mention, many museums have updated their online collections amidst Covid-19 so you can see their gorgeous array of pieces from your sofa.
History of the V&A
The V&A is the world’s largest museum of applied and decorative arts, design and sculpture with 2.27 million objects within their diverse and varied collection. From Italian Renaissance classical sculpture to Charles Frederick Worth ball gowns, this jewel within London’s crown has everything an art, design and history lover could want.
And of course, their jewellery collection isn’t anything to be sniffed at!
If you are a Victorian era aficionado, it is likely you have heard of the Great Exhibition in 1851. Henry Cole, the museum’s first director was instrumental in the planning of the Great Exhibition and he clearly saw a gap within the London art and design scene, people wanted to see the treasures of the world.
The John Madejski Garden at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Source - Wikimedia Commons
The V&A was actually first known as the Museum of Manufactures, a nod to the traction of industry sweeping through England at the time. Opened in 1852, the museum was first located at Marlborough House, but by September of the same year, it had moved to Somerset house. The earliest collection of the V&A were pieces from the Great Exhibition itself.
In 1854, the museum was renamed to the South Kensington Museum and was moved to its current site. Interestingly, the V&A became a place of leisure as it was the first museum in the world to have refreshment rooms added. In fact, one of the refreshment rooms were designed by William Morris and today is a delightful celebration of his artwork and distinct style.
The official opening by Queen Victoria was in 1857. In the museums early years, its collections was heavily contrasted to the “high art” collections of the National Gallery and British Museum, yet it still attracted a vast crowd.
During the Second World War, much of the museum’s collections were moved to a quarry within Wiltshire, Montacute House in Somerset and a tunnel near Aldwych Tube station. A year after the war, the V&A hosted its most popular exhibition to date the “Britain Can Make It” exhibition attracting nearly 1.5 million visitors and instilling national pride and confidence amongst the British populace.
A bricolage of different architectural styles, the V&A has a dominating austere presence within South Kensington. Much of the galleries are neoclassical in style with paintings and statues of artists and mosaics. The legends of art and sculpture are celebrated throughout the museum. For instance, large bronze doors with Titian, Isaac Newton, and Michelangelo are poised on the North facade. The museum has clear Romanesque, Classical, Medieval and Late Gothic influences in style, as per much of Edwardian and Victorian buildings.
Notable collections within the V&A are the fashion and jewellery, furniture, theatre, architecture and Asian art collection.
The costume collection itself is the most prestigious within Britain, with pieces largely dating from 1600 to present day. Some of the most notable pieces within this collection include the wedding suit of James II, gowns worn by Audrey Hepburn, and evening gowns from the world’s most famous designers.
The jewellery collection has over 6000 pieces (didn’t make our job easy thats for sure!) and has pieces dating from as early as Ancient Egypt to the present day, as well as many historical jewellery illustrations. From Lalique to Cartier and Fabergé, they have a range of pieces made from the hands of these star-studded goldsmiths. Alongside antique and ancient jewellery, the museum also continues to collect modern jewellery from contemporary artisans.
We first came across this beautiful and unique pendant when researching our Lillicoco University June Birthstone guide. We couldn’t quite believe that this was handcrafted in the 16th century! The fact that the salamander body itself is moulded to the irregular shape of the baroque Pearl is gorgeous and the pristine cornflower blue Enamel on the body has taken our breathe away!
16th Century Enamel Gold Pearl Emerald Salamander Pendant, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum.
Baroque Pearls were incredibly fashionable in the 16th century, and large ones like this, with its various contours and curves were a favourite amongst jewellers as it allowed them to fully relish in and explore their talents.
Of course, Renaissance jewellery, like all antique jewellery, was rich in symbolism. It was believed that the Salamander itself was immortal to fire and could extinguish fires itself, according to both Aristotle and Pliny the Elder. As the centuries progressed, these fiery and passionate connotations meant that the Salamander represented the ardent lover. So, we can just imagine this piece being commissioned for a passionate courtship.
Can tiaras please come back in fashion!? This early 19th century Italian tiara is one of the most unique piece of regalia we have ever seen! Created in 1808, the Victoria and Albert museum surmise that this piece was either made in Florence or Naples, two centres of goldsmithery within Italy due to surviving archives about the parure in these two cities.
Pietre Dure Lapis Lazuli Chalcedony Gold Tiara, c.1808, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
This tiara consists of four lapis lapuzli plaques that are inlaid with pearls and shells in the pietre dure mosaic technique. In fact, it is also believed that this tiara once belonged to the Queen of Naples Caroline Murat (1782-1839).
We love the intricacy of the imagery within the plaques, and the clear sea motifs are unusual within both early 19th century jewellery and especially tiaras.
If you love the Etruscan revival period like we do, then this 19th century micro-mosaic pendant will certainly take your fancy.
Castellani Gold Enamel Micro Mosaic Pendant, c.1855, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Antique micro mosaic jewellery are very collectable, and you can see why - they are just stunning! The term micro-mosaic is used to describe mosaic reliefs that are made from the tiniest fragments of coloured glass. In the most technically advanced pieces, micro mosaic pieces can have as much as 5000 individual pieces within a square inch! This technique developed within the 18th century and especially within the Vatican mosaic workshop.
This gorgeous pendant was made in Rome, and features a naturalistic artistic relief of Christ inspired by a 12th century mosaic in San Clemente in Rome. Castellani was a famous Italian jeweller that was instrumental in the initiation and spread of the archaeological revival movement. His stunning pieces are widely collected today, famous for their intricate detail and luxurious excellence.
Featured in the BBC’s Secrets of the Museum documentary series, we just had to include the ring worn and donated by Beyonce herself!
Tsavorites Diamond Papillon Ring, Glenn Spiro, 2014, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Glenn Spiro is one of the most talented and famous jewellers of our generation, and you can see why he is so favoured with this masterpiece. Encrusted with glittering Tsavorites and Diamonds (the Knowles-Carter family deserves no less!), this ring extends just above the knuckle with hinges that when you lightly flex your finger, the wings flutter.
We have added a video of Glenn Spiro himself talking about the ring and showing its stunning dynamic movement.
An endearing and meticulously crafted piece of jewellery, the cockerel and the hen brooch has so much detail that we just had to include this piece once we laid our eyes on it.
The Cockerel and the Hen Brooch, c.1900, Lucas Von Cranach, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Despite the rustic and light-hearted charm of this piece, it is crafted from Diamonds, Pearls, Rubies, and Demantoid Garnets elevating its luxurious appeal.
This particular brooch was made by Lucas Von Cranach (1861-1918), a jewellery designer based in Berlin that was known for his individual style and flair. The V&A believe that this brooch is an interpretation of the popular proverb “the cock croweth but the hen delivereth the egg”.
The elliptical heart shape of the enamelled vines is no accident, in fact it is meant to intentionally frame and set this piece as a love token. Perhaps this was commissioned and given by an ardent lover once again, in pursuit of his partner.
If you love British history, and especially the history of the British royal family then you will love the Heneage Jewel!
The Heneage Jewel, c.1595, Nicholas Hilliard (painter), Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
The Heneage jewel is created by Nicholas Hilliard in 1595. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I is poised at the front, and a boat mid-sail is on the reverse. The boat is sailing calmly amongst stormy seas, representing the Church of England’s stability and strength.
It is believed that this piece was commissioned by Sir Thomas Heneage, a privy councillor and Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household. Inside the locket is a superbly rendered miniature painting of Queen Elizabeth I and enamelled red Tudor rose.
The inscription inside reads “Alas that so much virtue suffused with beauty should not last for ever inviolate”. Inscriptions praising the Queen’s beauty and virtue were commonplace amongst the Tudor court as it showed their support of the Queen, and also it was hoped that they would advance in their position.
Created on the cusp of the 18th century, this Spanish bodice ornament was a traditional piece of Spanish jewellery designed to be worn upon the corset bodice of a gown. This piece in particular has over 300 Diamonds all within Gold settings giving it a heavy and weighty feel.
Spanish Bodice Ornament, c.1700, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Of course, like most antique jewellery, the predominant cuts of these Diamonds are rose cuts, emitting a romantic and silvery glow. The entirety of the piece is a meticulously detailed trellis Gold openwork with acanthus leaves, rosettes, sinuous curves and foliage. We can just imagine this piece making a gorgeous impression upon a fine Silk bodice!
The ornament itself was acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum from the Treasury of the Cathedral of the Virgin of the Pillar Zaragoza. It was believed to have been worn and presented by Dona Ana Maria de Flores Marquesa of Puebla, described to have been a great beauty at the Spanish Court.
Another incredible ornament, this Victorian Diamond Spray piece is exceptional! This was also a bodice ornament that moved and “trembled” with the wearers steps due to some of the flowers being attached to springs.
Diamond Spray Ornament, c.1850, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
It is believed that this piece was shown at the Great Exhibition in 1851 due to its mastery. Encrusted with Diamonds throughout, we can just imagine this ornament glittering without interruption in the light.
Like Glenn Spiro Papillon Ring, this ornament was featured in Secrets of the Museum documentary too.
What we love about this ornament was that it could be easily taken apart and worn as separate ornaments themselves, showing the Victorians love for day to night jewellery.
We always find religious jewellery amazing, as it commands a certain level of respect and appreciation. This carved hessonite Garnet with enamelled Gold details represents the Virgin Mary. From bright white enamel to royal blue, this stunning pendant would have been worn as a devotional piece, an emblem of Catholic Europe.
Carved gemstones always hold a place in our heart, and this reliquary pendant is no different.
We hope you have enjoyed reading! What is your favourite piece? Let us know in the comments below.
Love, Lillicoco xo