"En Bon Desir", Valentines Jewellery Gifts of the Past
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Whether you woke up to a freshly brewed cup of tea and breakfast in bed, or you have a date night planned with your beau, Valentine’s day offers the perfect excuse to shower yourself in rose petals and spend the day appreciating and loving one another.
Valentine’s Day has also evolved to become a day of giving your loved one an array of novelty and sentimental gifts. From glittering antique jewellery to plush teddy bears, wine, chocolate roses, lingerie, candles and a big blushing bouquet of flowers.
Jewellery has, for centuries, been integral to the world of gift-giving and romantic sentimental exchanges between loved ones. An item that can be so incredibly precious, of high-value and held within the palm of your hand.
Yet, although all these are affectionate and tender, they can also be a tad bizarre - but nonetheless intriguing.
Lover’s Eye Jewellery
Shakespeare once said that the eyes are the windows to our souls, and nothing epitomises this more than lover’s eye jewellery. Originating in 1785, lover’s eye jewellery was a characteristic of 18th-century society. With a world where being seen was paramount to social status, whether at a regency ball or in fashionable Bath during the summer, this idea soon translated to jewellery.
Crescent Shaped Lover's Eye, early 19th century, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Expressing devotion and love between loved ones, lover’s eye jewellery is the 18th-century and early 19th century version of a selfie. Yet, rather than a pouting expression or calculated well-posed mirror shot, it is an intense up-close and personal painted eye (in the likeness of their own eyes), framed by seed pearls, enamel, paste gems or other decorative fancies!
Garnet, Seed Pearl and Rose Gold Lover's Eye, Early 19th Century, Source - The Victorian and Albert Museum
Miniature portraits on rings, brooches and pendants have existed since the 15th and 16th centuries, often used as marriage portraits or commemorative pieces. Yet, up-close and personal, there is something about lover’s eye jewellery that makes it appear illicit, intimate and intriguing.
Like hair jewellery, as we explore further below, lover’s eye jewellery was a need for the giver and recipient to exchange a part of themselves, evoking the desperation of little contact, love letters and the intensity of love altogether. Appearing as if your beloved is looking at you at that moment!
Pink Paste Lover's Eye Jewellery, ca.1800, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
By 1830, the fierce and passionate lover’s eye jewellery had gradually become no more. At this point in history, photography was just coming out of its infancy, meaning that miniature portraiture was no longer desired.
Antique Hair Jewellery
Although predominantly used in mourning jewellery, antique hair jewellery was also viewed as incredibly romantic in both the Georgian, Victorian and early Edwardian periods. Owned by the aristocracy, hair of a loved one would be braided and elaborated curlicued into lockets, rings, brooches, pendants and more. Primarily seen as a way for people to respectfully remember the deceased, antique hair jewellery flourished within these periods, a far cry from the disgust that it would receive today.
Georgian 12ct Gold Pearl Mourning Brooch, Source - Lillicoco
In fact, hair jewellery was a whole industry in itself. As pompous regency wigs went out of fashion, skilled wig-makers needed to turn their craft into another money-maker. Though largely hair jewellery was commissioned with the locks of the hair of a loved one, many jewellery was made with hair that was bought from working-class women. Regardless of the hair’s origins, antique hair jewellery was viewed as sentimental and emotional, as you were wearing the part of another person.
Lockets today are still a popular gift to give a loved one, especially on Valentine’s day. The very act of holding a photo of a beloved close to you throughout the day is richly sentimental. We dive deeper into the unique history of these gifts.
Enamelled Gold Locket Ring, 1830-60, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Although primarily lockets have been used to hold a picture of a loved one close to your heart, they have also been used to express more than just romantic devotion; religious and patriotic sentiments were also stated through wearing a locket, especially during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Lockets weren’t always worn around the neck too, surviving jewellery from the Tudor period suggests that lockets were also worn as rings, watch fobs and brooches. For example, Elizabeth I had a locket ring commissioned for herself in 1575, and the ring contained two portraits, one of herself and one of her late mother Anne Boleyn.
During the 18th century, heart lockets boomed, with many pieces transparent so locks of hair could be contained inside. Plus, during this time, lockets were only commissioned by the aristocracy, which meant that they were incredibly elaborate, encrusted with glittering gems and had intricate miniature portraits painted of them or their loved ones inside.
Antique Gold Pearl Locket with Painted Features, Source - Lillicoco
It was only until the 19th century when both photography and mass industrialisation became the norm, that lockets were available to everyone. Despite being produced en masse, this didn’t mean that the qualities of lockets suffered. In fact, as seen in our own collection, lockets were the chance to create something incredibly intricate, with pieces showing clear inspiration from the aesthetic, arts and crafts, and art nouveau movements respectfully.
Victorian Aesthetic Silver Locket with Gold Birds, Source - Lillicoco
During the first World War, lockets became symbolic of intertwined themes of love, remembrance and mourning. Young soldiers and their lovers pining after one another meant that the demand for lockets sky-rocketed, yet this also meant that lockets were created and sold far cheaper than their previous counterparts.
It will come as no surprise that the classic heart shape has been synonymous with love for centuries. Bejewelled and golden hearts in brooches and rings first started to appear in ancient jewellery, yet it is believed that the associations with love began the 13th century, these were inscribed with beautiful love poems, aptly fitting in with medieval codes of courtly love, of knights in shining armour and damsels in distress.
Pair of Gold Earrings with Egyptian Atef Crown Set with Stones and Glass, 3rd - 2nd Century BC, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The heart shape in itself is believed to have originated from ancient and medieval philosophers and scientists who were on a quest to solve the riddle of the human anatomy. For instance, writings from Galen and Aristotle described the human heart as an organ with three chambers and a dent in the middle. There was also a presumption that the human heart was the centre of emotion and pleasure.
From this, hearts quickly became a familiar motif associated with romance and everlasting love. However, the heart shape did slightly change in antique jewellery motifs. In the 17th century, a heart shape emerged with a slightly curved bottom, known as witches hearts. These were used to repel evil spirits and protect newborn babies. However, as the general heart shape became more and more popular, the witches heart transformed to be a gift that would symbolise that one person is ‘bewitched’ in love by another.
In Victorian jewellery, the heart symbol flourished and bloomed even further, with Queen Victoria owning many heart-shaped items. Popular designs included intertwined hearts, akin to the infinity symbol, the Irish claddagh ring, padlock hearts, hearts with a crown poised atop, and delicate hands holding hearts as symbol of the fragility of love.
Combined with flowers, shaped into lockets, and encrusted with rubies, diamonds, garnets and opals, hearts quickly became the symbol to represent all romantic associations.
Like hearts, the passionate and fleshy tones of pinks and reds also became associated with love. Today, on Valentine’s day, the streets will be awash with pink and red signs, lettering and presents to advertise Valentine’s day. In antique jewellery, gemstones like rubies, garnets, tourmaline, pink sapphire and rose quartz were used in abundance. Interestingly, the latter has been used in spiritual romantic gifts for centuries, and today has come to be associated with feelings of self-love, an emotion and concept that has catapulted during the wellness-driven era of the past decade.
This is due to the belief in both pagan and other religions that Rose Quartz connects to the heart chakra, helping love to blossom within yourself and with others, as well as healing emotional heartbreak.
In comparison to some Valentine’s gifts today, love tokens may seem paltry, as they were traditionally monetary coins that were engraved with the initials of a loved one so they can carry a piece of them with them at all times. These first were spotted during the 16th century, however, they were extremely popular during the 18th century, and were a relatively affordable way to show your love and devotion for another.
Not only were initials engraved, but some surviving love tokens show other popular love symbols like flaming hearts, doves, dates, and words. These were mainly carried with them at all times in pockets of jackets, and could be touched or held for good luck and assurance. Yet, women also chose to turn a few of these into pendants.
What’s more, to make sure that you didn’t accidentally spend the coin within your pocket, many would have them bent so they could be easily distinguished from actual coins. Yet, this act of bending also had symbolic value attached as bending coins was a popular religious tradition in making a vow to a saint. In this sense, bending the love token was also seen as a making a vow to your lover.
Symbolising strength, fidelity, and friendship, a lover’s knot is essentially a tightly drawn knot that cannot be broken, often used by fishermen. Lover’s knots themselves have peppered throughout various folklore, and have been commissioned by sailors for wedding rings when separated from their beloved.
The knot itself is an emblem of true love and commitment, as like infinity symbols, the lover’s knot has no discernible beginning or end.
As mentioned in previous blog posts, crescent moons were apt romantic gifts for new relationships. Rich in feminine symbols, as well as an emblem for new beginnings, brides were gifted either by their husbands or family members, crescent moon brooches that were called ‘honeymoon brooches’. These brooches would also cradle a sweet flower within the crescent, symbolising the magic of the moon and the sweet nectar of the flower, helping to enhance their fertility and womanly nature.
One of the more unusual antique love gifts, buckles as a design motif were commissioned in abundance during the Georgian and Victorian era, symbolising strength and fidelity.
From buckle belt rings to lockets emblazoned with buckles, this will likely be an unusual sign of commitment to the modern reader, yet for a Victorian audience it would have been all too familiar manifestations of love and commitment.
The buckle motif is intertwined with the Victorian Order of the Garter, one of Britains oldest orders of chivalry. Queen Victoria wore a buckle ring to represent her participation in the order, aligning with codes and symbols of commitment.
Victorian 15ct Gold Buckle Locket, c.1885, Source - Lillicoco
We have mentioned a few times throughout this blog the chivalric courtly love that permeated the 13th and 14th century, nothing represents this more than French poésy rings. “Poésie” in the middle ages was the french word for poem, and poésy rings were Gold bands that had amorous affections inscribed along them.
As religion was so imbued with everyday life, many of these rings had also overt religious messages. Amourous affections would be accompanied by reliquaries of saints or bible excerpts. The words were written in Latin, Old French, or Old English with rounded capital letters known as Lombardic or in Gothic script.
Some of the inscriptions that have survived from the 15th and 17th century are ‘a loving wife during life’, ‘en mi marie’, ‘en bon desir’, ‘God above increase our love’, ‘hearts united live contented’, ‘in thee I find content of mind’.
Poésy Ring, "autre ne vueil" (desire no other) ca. 1400-1500, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
We hope you have a lovely Valentines day and weekend, and that you receive your heart's desire!
Love, Lillicoco xo