The Hidden Symbolism in Victorian Jewellery
The Victorian Era was a high point for jewellery, not just for the quality of the pieces but also for the way the Victorians used them as meaningful symbols. In this article, we will be exploring the hidden symbolism of popular motifs and forms in Victorian jewellery.
Queen Victoria’s influence on jewellery designs spanned her entire reign. Her engagement to Prince Albert in 1840 set off the popularity of snakes as a motif, as he had given her an engagement ring designed like a snake. It wrapped around her finger twice, and its eyes were made of emeralds, her birthstone.
Queen Victoria was known to stack multiple jewellery, including her engagement ring.
An antique gold snake ring with a diamond head, fashioned after Queen Victoria’s engagement ring
Serpents were symbols of eternity and wisdom. As jewellery gifted to loved ones, it meant a binding, everlasting love.
Birds were also popular during the period as an animal motif in jewellery. Swallows and doves in particular adorned all kinds of pieces.
Swallows mate for life and always go back to their nest, so it made sense for them to be on jewellery that lovers would give to each other.
Doves were associated with peace, hope, and faith much like they are still today. In Victorian jewellery, they were often presented with an olive branch in their beaks and the word “pax”, which is Latin for peace, written next to them.
The tumultuous times of the Victorian Era were best symbolised in jewellery by butterfly and dragonfly motifs. Victorians embraced the dragonfly especially for its agility and rapidly changing life cycle. By wearing jewellery that featured either of these graceful, winged beauties, Victorians showed they were ready for whatever the future had in store for them.
The griffin is a mythological creature with the lower body of a lion and the upper body and head of an eagle. They were known to guard all manner of riches as the “king of all beasts”. It graced emblems in Victorian jewellery as a symbol of bravery and vigilance.
The obsession with botany even in popular culture during the Victorian period translated into jewellery by way of floral motifs. All sorts of flowers were used designing brooches, lockets, rings, and earrings to convey different sentiments.
Forget-me-nots, ivy and pansies were constant reminders to people in relationships about each other. The intense colours of roses, chrysanthemums, tulips, and orange blossoms were variations of symbols of love. The white lily showed purity and innocence. Violets symbolised faith, and ferns were a means of showing sincerity.
Our blog on the Victorian language of flowers, also known as Floriography, is a great place to learn more about this symbolic and romantic language.
Clovers and Horseshoes
Good fortune was something the Brits of the era sought through their jewellery motifs, and this desire was shared with their Irish brethren via the popularity of the shamrock in designing pieces. Whether it was a three or four-leaf clover, the plant design was thought to bring good karma and prosperity on the wearer.
Horseshoes also enjoyed fame in jewellery as bearers of luck. If they faced upward, that meant the possessor would receive the good fortune. If they faced downward, that meant the luck was to radiate outward to others.
Crescent Moon and Star
Femininity and female empowerment were celebrated by women through their crescent moon-styled jewellery. The crescent moon symbol itself has its origins in ancient times, hearkening to the spiritual power of a moon goddess. It also showed the desire for a new relationship that would develop into marriage, like a crescent moon eventually turning full.
Stars would commonly complement crescent moons in jewellery. Much like how sailors of old looked to them at night to guide their navigation through the seas, stars as designs symbolised the direction wearers would need in their life.
As one of the most everlasting, cross-cultural symbols, the heart was also rather popular in Victorian-era jewellery. We know them to be symbols of love and compassion today, and so did the people of that period.
Prominent designs during the time include the witch’s heart, signifying the wearer has been “bewitched” by love; the Luckenbooth brooch in Scotland, which usually featured a crown and two entwined hearts that symbolised fidelity in marriage; and the Claddagh ring in Ireland, portraying a heart between two hands.
Hands supplemented many other motifs in Victorian jewellery, adding more meaning to the messages communicated by the primary symbols.
As mentioned previously, hands held hearts in Claddagh rings. Jewellery with hands holding flowers were given as gifts, with the intent differing depending on the flower the hands held. It could mean friendship, remembrance, or romance. Hands clasped together on their own were also fairly common designs representing loyalty and strength.
The creativity of the Victorians in how they expressed emotions extended to the arrangement of gemstones in the jewellery they would give to each other. They would exchange pieces that had gemstones set in a specific order, spelling out a word based on the first letter of each stone.
A message of “love” would be sent by arranging lapis lazuli, opal, vermeil, and emerald in that order on a charm. One was “dearest” to a lover when they received jewellery with a diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire, and topaz arranged in such a manner.
Lockets were the most favoured form of jewellery by the Victorians. Such pieces allowed flexibility in assigning sentimentality, which was very important during the time.
Lockets were used to keep a loved one close to the heart and remember those who had passed on. A lock of hair, a picture, or a written message could be kept in a locket’s secret compartment. Engravings of names and important dates were common.
Having started this article with Queen Victoria’s engagement to Prince Albert and its influence on the era’s jewellery, it’s only fitting we end with the general trend in jewellery that followed in the wake of Prince Albert’s death and Queen Victoria’s mourning. By wearing dark dresses and jewellery after the tragedy, she moved her people to mourn the same way.
Angels, wreaths, and flowers were the choice motifs. Black enamel filled engravings, with white enamel used for the death of children. Pearls symbolised the tears shed by those left behind. Black onyx, amethyst, and deep-red garnet reflected one’s sorrows with subdued beauty. The departed’s hair was also woven into braids and placed in jewellery to remember them by.