A traditional symbol of love and devotion, there is nothing more romantic than a locket gift. With Christmas and then Valentines around the corner, it is only natural that we lean into the language of love at this time of year. But, no matter the occasion, a solid Gold locket necklace will always charm and delight.
Lockets have been part and parcel of jewellery for hundreds of years. In fact, these traditional jewels themselves are steeped in antique symbolism and history. If you are looking to treat yourself or a loved one to an antique Victorian locket or heart locket necklace, then why not find out more about this incredible piece of history.
Not just pretty faces, lockets have accrued both utilitarian and aesthetic value over the centuries. Whether carrying a droplet of perfume, locks of hair or even poison, you will be surprised to know that for much of locket’s history, they weren’t always jewels of amorous devotion.
However, romantic locket symbolism really came into fruition in the Victorian era. Queen Victoria was known to always wear a locket of Prince Albert around her neck, especially after he passed away. And, the Queen was gifted a locket charm bracelet, with eight lockets all with individual portraits of her children. Like most jewels of the time, antique Victorian lockets followed the fashions of the royal family, firmly cementing the locket as a must-have item in the 19th century and beyond.
Today, lockets can symbolise:
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History of the Antique Locket
Allegedly, Queen Cleopatra gave royal courtiers and diplomats lockets with her face, and whilst we cannot determine whether it is fact or fiction, it alludes to the fascinating and varied history of lockets. Nevertheless, the locket that we recognise today is a far cry from the lockets of our ancient ancestors. Much like pendants, lockets likely evolved from talismans and amulets, vessels to carry lucky charms or witches potions for protection.
To some extent, lockets have always been symbols of adoration, but it wasn’t always romantic or familial in nature. The dawn of medieval Christian Europe saw the procurement of reliquary locket pendants as tokens of protection for priests, clergy and doting religious subjects, but they were also crafted to pay respect to the church and God. These were antique oval lockets that had secret compartments with images of Christ and could open up to store relics inside if you were so lucky to own one.
Early Byzantine Octagonal Reliquary Locket Pendant, c.6th Century, Source - © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Nevertheless, the enduring beauty of and survival of antique lockets is that they have always been pieces of jewellery that you can treasure in private and also wear in public. For instance, nothing was more scandalous or romantic in the Tudor court than having a finely painted miniature portrait of your loved one or secret mistress. Nicholas Hilliard, a renowned portrait miniature painter had finely tuned his skills of painting tiny bejewelled portraits to be set into lockets, brooches, rings and pins. The Heneage Jewel, now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Gresley Jewel is a prime example of this. Sumptuary legislation meant that only royalty and the very wealthy could own jewels of this nature. Due to this many of these portrait lockets were either devotional in marriage or devotion to the crown.
One of the most famous antique locket rings comes from Queen Elizabeth I herself. The ring in question is a Mother of Pearl and Ruby cluster ring. The ring head actually unveils two tiny painted pictures side by side, one of the Queen and one of her infamous late mother, Anne Boleyn.
The Heneage Jewel, Nicholas Hilliard, c.1600, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
The execution of Charles I brought mourning jewellery and lockets to new heights. You may have already heard of Stuart Crystal rings, but lockets were also vessels in which people could show secret allegiance to the crown. Goldsmithing and lapidary had advanced to the extent that slices of smooth or faceted Rock Crystal were used to magnify the centre of the locket - whether that would be a painted miniature portrait or a secret political cypher and lock of hair. Mourning lockets continued into the Georgian and Victorian period. This could be in the form of locket rings or locket pendants, but they were decorated with Black Enamel, Pearls, Diamonds, Garnets, and Jet, and of course, the most extravagant hair-work you will have ever seen.
As previously mentioned, the Victorian era saw the lockets in jewellery boxes up and down the country. Many of these lockets reflected the new technologies of the time. Heavily engraved lockets and repoussé lockets were far easier to achieve through machinery rather than hand, and the advent of Gold heart lockets were another testament to their inherently amorous nature. A time of strict social codes, jewellery was one of the finest and most secretive ways to profess your love and adoration for another.
However there were also more unusual kinds of antique lockets too. Wealthy families would commission antique four picture lockets, also known as family lockets, which would neatly open up to reveal multiple frames. These lockets could take the form of books or orbs, with the more expensive kinds bedecked in engravings. Plus, during the Georgian and Victorian period, you could easily find brooches with locket-backs or locket centres. These forms of lockets would often contain braided hair, but they were also another way to keep a picture of your beloved pinned to your shirt or lapel at all times.
Another type of locket that was popular was pomanders or perfume lockets. These could be both cavernous and large lockets, or lockets that are small and dainty. These pomanders could easily contain perfume-drenched fabric, solid perfume or essential oils. Whilst these fragrant delights may seem initially romantic to us, it actually originally had more sordid undertones. Many of these Victorian and Georgian lockets were actually crafted with the intention to mask a bad smell. The hygiene standards of the time will make you want to squirm in your seat, although perhaps it is a small comfort that they were at least partially aware of their unsavoury smells.
The 19th century industrial revolution had a tremendous impact on everyone’s day to day life, so naturally even the smallest pieces like lockets would also change. Not only were lockets now easier to engrave, but it also meant that lockets could now be found in all shapes and sizes, and more importantly at different price points. An emerging middle class family were far more likely to be able to afford a small Gold heart locket rather than a glittering Diamond ring. These cheaper lockets were crafted with more available base jewellery metals and could either be gilded or have only solid Gold front and back.
Furthermore, it wasn't until the late 19th century that time-consuming and expensive illustrated portraits were abandoned from lockets altogether. The advent of photography in the latter half of the 19th century was another reason as to why lockets were everywhere - it was a far cheaper way to hold a loved one close to your heart.
Much like other jewels, the style of lockets changed depending on the era. The Edwardian period saw lots of round shaker lockets and see-through portrait lockets and the WW1 and WW2 saw both a simplification in design and abundance of lockets too. Cheap Gold-tone lockets were sold at post offices, so pining lovers could easily purchase and send a locket to their stationed soldier on the home front.
Today, lockets still remain as one of the most popular types of jewellery to buy. Whilst they have accrued a more “traditional” label in comparison to some of their jewellery cousins, they nevertheless are no more symbolic, sentimental and sweet. In our opinion, if you are looking for a locket gift, an antique Gold locket is truly the best option. Not only are they an eco-friendly choice, but there is nothing more charming than an antique Gold locket!
But how do you know what you are looking for?
How to spot an antique Gold locket:
When shopping for antique lockets, we will give you a little secret. There are plenty of discerning features to help spot and identify an antique Gold locket.
9ct Gold Back & Front
If you are shopping for an antique locket, but you are also on a budget - you will likely find lots of “9ct Gold Back & Front” lockets. This is a specific type of antique jewellery technique with solid 9ct Gold “front and back” with Metal hinges and frames for added durability and strength. You can spot an antique Gold back and front locket through metal testing and through hallmarks like “9CT BK & FRNT”.
Become Acquainted with Era Styles
As mentioned, one of the best ways to identify an antique Gold locket is whether it has the style and look of the era in which it was crafted. You can find more in-depth detail about each era through our Lillicoco University guides. For antique Edwardian lockets, look for quintessentially feminine details like “birds in flights”, bows and ornate details. Art Nouveau lockets will be resplendent in guilloché enamel, pretty painted rose details and bouquets of flowers. Victorian Aesthetic lockets are often large, bulky and heavily embellished in engravings and details. Not to mention, lockets with three-dimensional features, like gemstone set stars or belt buckles will almost always be Victorian in nature.
To affiliate yourself with the look and feel of an antique locket, our extensive antique locket for women collection is the best way to do this.
Look For Specific Styles of Engraved Lockets
Much like the style of era, there are some specific engravings that were super fashionable in the 19th century, and even more so in antique lockets. Foliate details like acanthus leaves, forget-me-nots, ivy leaves and ferns were all traditional symbols of remembrance, commitment and love. It is no secret that the Victorians adored symbolism, which is why lockets, one of the most personal jewels of all time, were abundant in these symbolic engravings.