If they have always fascinated and helped shape history, it is especially in the Victorian era that the jewels of the United Kingdom have known their greatest popularity. This Empress of India, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, exerted a  major influence on lifestyles, notably through her pronounced taste in jewelry.

The Young Queen Victoria c.1842.

Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire for 64 years, from 1837 to 1901. What was the longest reign in English imperial history is commonly divided into three periods of about twenty years each:

The first (1840)-1860), called the Romantic period, is characterized by the reproduction of jewelry reminiscent of the Gothic and Renaissance style.  It should be noted that from 1850, the English big bourgeoisie began to bring back jewels from India and Japan, which largely nourished the inspiration ofBritish jewelers.

The second (1869-1880) or Great Period, is famous for the ostentatious pieces set with pearls and diamonds from South Africa.

The third and last (1880 until 1900) or aesthetic period, is characterized by smaller pieces. We then see the appearance of mass-made silver jewelry and even fancy jewelry that became so common thereafter.

Turquoise is the queen’s favorite stone. At her marriage in 1840 to Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, she gave each of her ladies-in-waiting a ring with her hand-painted portrait, surrounded by turquoises carved in cabochon.  She will also help to restore the popularity of opal imported from Australia (British colony), in particular by offering her family jewels decorated with this stone. The latter had indeed fallen into disenchantment following the publication of a short story by Sir Walter Scott in which the main character was doomed to an unlucky fate because of this stone.

When Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria, a 42-year-old widow, popularized mourning jewelry, which showcase black and white in various forms. The black jet, onyx and marcassite contrasted with the white of diamonds and pearls, symbolizing tears.  A popular mourning jewelry piece in England at the time then emerged.  Women who lost a dear one would wear as a souvenir a brooch, presenting a forget-me-not surrounded with roses on the front (Queen Victoria’s favorite flower), and, at the back, an artistic interweaving of hair from the loved one and the survivor. In France, hair jewelry was such a trend that women would sell part of their hair to hae it braided and worked in such a way as to make jewelry.

The most common patterns in the composition of Victorian jewelry were varied:

  • Animals : snakes, swans
  • Sentimental motifs : hearts, hands, angels, four-leaf clover
  • Astral shapes: stars, crescents
  • Ecclesiastic and royal symbols : monograms, crown, cross, effigy of a sovereign.

As for the metals used, in the mid-1800s, “daytime” jewelry was made of silver and “evening” jewelry was made of white or yellow gold, from 9 to 22 carats.

The jewels of Great Britain gained their fame thanks to the Victorian era, representing the apogee of the political, cultural and economic power of the Empire.

Soon, the industrialization takes up speed: electric lighting replaces oil lamps;  the Universal Exhibition of Paris is announced for 1900. Artists all over Europe, precursors and visionaries, start embracing the Art Nouveau style, which takes different names depending on the country.

Shortly, in 1901, Edward VII succeeds Victoria and a wind of change sweeps the entire Western world.