Undoubtedly, one of the greatest appeals of Georgian jewellery is the rich history which lies behind each and every one of these antique treasures. We don’t know about you, but we could spend hours crafting stories about the lives of jewels’ previous owners! Just who exactly were they, what were their interests, passions and vices?
The Secret Language Of The Georgians
In this blog, we uncover the secret languages and codes used by the Georgians to communicate their desires. Whether evident in their fashion, beauty or jewellery, novel ways to transmit their secrets seeped their way into the Georgians’ everyday lives. Join us as we piece these together by investigating the Georgians’ best kept secrets!
The Language of the Fan
Fluttery and fabulous, fans are a desirable accessory today for women all around the world. What accessory is more flirtatious and playful than a fan?! Fans were highly popular during the Georgian era too. Depending on a person’s wealth, they were crafted from a myriad of materials. Wealthier Georgians would have possessed fans crafted from the most luxurious materials of the day, such as ivory, tortoise shell, mother of Pearl and Gold. But whatever their provenance, fans of all shapes and sizes quickly became an integral part of a woman’s expression.
Not only were they beloved for their decorative appeal, fans even possessed their own secret language, and became an important way for women to communicate. Strict gender roles predominated during this era, with women remaining the submissive sex, largely confined to the domestic realm. So, in a time when women’s freedom of speech was severely limited, the lovely ladies of the Georgian era had to get creative!
Painted and varnished brisé fan with ivory and mother-of-pearl, 1730-1740, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Each movement of the wrist and angle of the fan was fraught with symbolism. To name but a few, if a woman fanned slowly, this indicated that she was married. If the fan was twirled in her right hand, this meant that she loved another, whilst opening the fan wide meant “wait for me”. Touching the fan to the right and left cheek meant yes and no, respectively. Such sequences were commonly utilised by women at all kinds of social gatherings, from balls to dinner parties. Chiefly used by Georgian women to facilitate a flirt, the gracious use of a fan was widely regarded to make a woman more attractive to the opposite sex.
From the bizarre to the brilliant, beauty trends during the Georgian era were all the rage. Unsurprisingly, this was yet another facet of everyday life in which women were able to convey their hidden desires. Most certainly, the beauty ideal for the Georgian woman was a porcelain white complexion, free from blemishes of any kind. To achieve this look, white pigmented materials such as crushed Pearl, corn starch, and rice powder were employed by women. Taking the “beauty is pain” phrase to a whole new level, lead was also commonly used to whiten women’s complexions, in spite of its well-known dangers.
Quintessentially Georgian, beauty patches were another way in which women communicated in a secret language. The perfect enhancement to a lady’s look, beauty patches were accents of jet black, and were created from all sorts of materials including cloth, velvet, and silk. Patches were the ideal solution for covering up blemishes or other undesirable marks on the face left over from disease. These beauty patches were soaked in gum arabic, which possessed adhesive properties that enabled the wearer to stick the patch to the face.
Le Matin ou La Dame à sa toilette, Source - Wikimedia Commons
But not only were they the ultimate beauty fix; much like the secret language of the fan, the precise location of a beauty patch told its own story. For those in the know, a beauty patch in the shape of a heart, placed on the right cheek, indicated that a woman was married. Conversely, if the heart was placed on the left cheek, this indicated that a woman was single and ready to mingle!
What’s more, the placing of a patch was thought to represent a person’s politics. If you wore a patch on your left cheek, you supported the Tories, if on the right, the Whigs. Moreover, if a patch was worn close to the eye, this revealed that you were a highly passionate individual, and possibly even a mistress! Whether indicative of political allegiance or more, patches appeared in all shapes and sizes, including crescent moons and stars - each possessing its own clandestine meaning. If displayed incorrectly, a patch was deemed to have dire consequences, and was enough to ruin a person’s character and reputation! From fans to beauty patches, the Georgians were certainly fluent in the art of communication, and we can’t help but admire their innovation.
Bursting with historical intrigue, Georgian jewellery is likewise beloved for its hidden meanings. Seal fobs, most commonly used as a decorative accessory to accompany a pocket watch, often featured secret intaglio messages. Whilst today, antique fobs are transformed into pendants and the like, Georgian era fobs were used to stamp and seal documents with wax. Ordinarily complete with intaglio phrases carved into a gemstone, the message was only revealed through the stamping process. Perhaps the engraving was a person’s signature, their family crest, portrait, or simply just a sentimental message. Often illegible to the naked eye, the secret language of the seal fob was unveiled in stylish fashion! A myriad of gemstones were used for these fobs, including Carnelian, Paste, Amethyst, Chalcedony and Bloodstone. Seal fobs are a firm favourite of ours here at Lillicoco, we just adore seeing how their secretive nature lives on today.
Georgian ingenuity certainly did not end with seal fobs! Acrostic jewellery, whereby each gemstone represented a different letter, was yet another means through which the Georgians communicated. Jean-Baptiste Mellerio, jewellery designer to the French Court and a personal favourite of Marie Antoinette, is believed to have invented the trend. First gaining popularity during the Georgian era, in the 1820s and 1830s, acrostic jewels were brimming with symbolism. For example, a Ruby, Emerald, Garnet, Amethyst, Ruby, Diamond combination would spell out “regard”. Other popular (and romantic!) phrases to spell out included “adore” and “dearest”, but the possibilities were truly endless. If you had the means, we can’t think of a greater way to send a secret message than through the medium of gemstones! Napoleon Bonaparte himself was said to be a particular fan of acrostic jewellery, commissioning various pieces for family members and loved ones throughout his lifetime.
Where language failed, symbolism always prevailed as a way to communicate. Rife across myriad Georgian jewels, symbolism in jewellery possessed particular importance for women. Lacking freedom across most aspects of their daily lives, women were able to express themselves through common motifs including birds, insects and flowers. Not to mention, Georgian mourning jewellery also possessed many secrets. Often encased within secret glass compartments, hair from a deceased loved one was commonly kept inside jewellery. Although this may seem a strange custom in the 21st Century, mourning jewellery epitomises Georgian sentimentality, and leads to some of the most personalised, unique antique finds today.
One of the first images that springs to mind when we think of Georgian women is of course their large, elaborate hairstyles. Luckily for the Georgians, big hair could hide every manner of secrets! Common diseases such as Syphilis could cause hair loss and open sores, which, understandably, was not a desirable look. Backcombing, hairpieces and thickening agents were used to create their characteristically colossal hairstyles. But once these expensive, elaborate styles were set in place, washing your hair was out of the question. To combat headlice - another commonplace problem that women had to contend with - elongated forks were developed to enable the women to itch their scalps without disturbing their hairstyles. Amongst other products, animal fat was often used to set these styles. We certainly wouldn’t recommend trying any of these methods at home, but they sure do make for fascinating reading!
Portrait of Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), Source - Wikimedia Commons
Whilst we can safely say that we won’t be borrowing from the Georgians’ hair styling regimes, the next time you’re wanting to forgo language in lieu of a more novel form of communication, perhaps a flutter of a fan or an acrostic jewel wouldn’t go amiss. Some of the Georgians’ secrets are without a doubt best left in the past, we could certainly learn a thing or two from the Georgians about romance!